Berry Accius directed the crowd within Sacramento City Hall to stretch out their arms and point their cell phones at the mayor and city council at the head of the chamber.
“Does this look like a gun to you?” Accius, a local activist, asked the lawmakers Tuesday night at a special meeting called days after resident Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black father of two, was shot dead by police in his grandmother’s backyard holding not a weapon, but a phone.
Accius’ question is one of many the community and nation are asking in the wake of yet another killing of an unarmed black person by law enforcement, echoing memories of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others as debates over the police’s treatment of black people have continued to rage in recent years. At a Monday news conference, Clark’s grandmother Sequita Thompson, fighting through tears, asked, “Why didn’t you shoot him in the arm? Shoot him in the legs? Send in dogs? Send in a taser? Why? Why?”
The circumstances surrounding Clark’s death will be scrutinized heavily by the Clark family’s legal team, headed by civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who previously represented the families of other high-profile police victims like Martin, Brown, and Tamir Rice Jr. “It is one of those strategies where we’re making sure we dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ about the things we can control,” Crump says.
Outrage over Clark’s death continues to grow on a national scale nearly two weeks after the shooting transpired on March 18. The Reverend Al Sharpton will speak at Clark’s funeral Thursday, which former Sacramento Kings NBA players Matt Barnes and DeMarcus Cousins offered to finance. Celebrities from Amy Schumer to Common have shared photos on social media of Clark with his partner and two children. Still, some feel the attention pales in comparison to last weekend’s March for Our Lives protesting gun violence that was led by student activists who survived the Parkland, Fla. school shooting in February.
“We’re not on the same team. We’ve never been on the same team,” says Accius. “Black people have never got the respect or credit due. So of course when a bunch of white kids get together and they’re making a mass movement about gun violence, it’s going to be looked at and praised.”
“They’ll give us a little shoutout. Okay?” he added, referencing calls from Parkland students like David Hogg and Jaclyn Corrin to promote inclusivity while checking white privilege. “But we’re never going to get the initial support because what black people have historically been supposed to do is shut up, deal with it, and be happy with where you’re at.”
“We’re demanding that our lives matter too in American society,” says Crump. He says the Louisiana Attorney General’s decision on Tuesday to not bring charges against the Baton Route police officers who fatally shot Alton Sterling in 2016 was another, discouraging damper on what has already been an emotional week for the Clark family.
“Their heart was broken for the Sterling family. In fact, they said, ‘It took two years and this is the decision? What were they doing for two years if they were not going to do anything?'” Crump said. “That was his grandmother’s question to me. I think many people of color felt the same way… that it’s a miscarriage of justice.”
Crump says his team is looking to prove that police could have used a non-lethal manner of force. The officers were guided to the scene with the aid of a helicopter unit for a standard vandalism call, according to the Associated Press. Body camera footage shows that they do not appear to identify themselves as police before engaging Clark. Police said the officers fired 20 shots. And moments after, the officers were heard on the body camera footage muting the audio on their cameras. Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn told local station KCRA that officers muting their body cameras “builds suspicion.”
“It suggests they were starting to conspire to try to cover up something,” Crump says. “I think that is very, very troubling when there is such great mistrust between the law enforcement community and the minority communities here.”
He says police initially told the Clark family that he was wielding a crowbar at the time of the shooting, before walking back the claim.
“That’s very problematic when you really think about it in the full context,” Crump says. “They knew from moment one after they executed him in his own backyard that he didn’t have a gun there, but yet they chose to go with that narrative. And I think the family believes that had people not started standing up and protesting, that narrative would’ve continued today and his death would’ve been in vain.” Authorities have not yet commented on whether they told the Clark family they believed Clark had a crowbar.
Those protests, while likely convincing Mayor Darrell Steinberg to call Tuesday’s special council meeting, are starting to push Sacramento to a boiling point, Accius says.
“This is like nothing Sacramento has ever seen,” he says. “There’s fear, frustration, anger, disappointment, uneasiness. But we’ve always been at this moment. I sat there in 2014 during the Mike Brown situation in Ferguson, and I remember saying to the City Council, ‘Sacramento is one national moment away from being Ferguson.’ And here we are in 2018.”
President Trump’s administration would beg to differ. Asked about Clark’s killing in conjunction with the Sterling news, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said, “This is something that is a local matter.”
On Wednesday, the Sacramento Kings organization — which has dealt with multiple protests in front of its arena since the shooting, disrupting thousands of ticket holders’ ability to enter — announced a partnership with the local Black Lives Matter chapter and the Build. Black. Coalition “to fundamentally transform Black communities through deep investment in Black youth in Sacramento.”
And in addition to the offer to expense Clark’s funeral, former player Barnes is hosting a rally Saturday to protest Clark’s killing. Current Kings players are expected to attend, as well.
“Change is very uncomfortable,” Accius said. “And change doesn’t come easy. Change doesn’t come without a fight. So here’s the fight.”