A unarmed Black man was shot by two police officers in Sacramento, California this weekend, after officers said they believed their lives were in danger because the man was holding a cell phone they thought was a gun.
Stephon Clark, 22, was in the backyard of his grandparents’ house, where he had been living, when officers approached him on Sunday. Police said they were responding to reports that a man had been breaking into cars with a “toolbar”; deputies in a Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department helicopter had informed them that the suspect was allegedly hiding in a backyard and pointed them in Clark’s direction.
When officers confronted Clark, they saw the cellphone in his hand and opened fire, discharging their weapons at least 20 times.
“The officers believed the suspect was pointing a firearm at them,” Sacramento police said in a statement afterward. “Fearing for their safety, the officers fired their duty weapons striking the suspect multiple times.”
Clark was pronounced dead at the scene. Police found a pair of headphones and a iPhone 6 Plus with a rose gold case and black card holder adhered to the back — which reportedly belonged to his girlfriend — but no gun.
“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time in his own backyard?” said Clark’s grandmother, Sequita Thompson, speaking with the Sacramento Bee. “C’mon now, they didn’t have to do that.”
Thompson added that she had been at home when the shooting took place, and said neither she nor her husband heard police issue any commands before opening fire.
“The only thing that I heard was pow, pow, pow, pow, and I got to the ground,” she explained.
After being interviewed by police for several hours, officers finally delivered the tragic news: Clark had been shot. “I opened that curtain and he was dead. I started screaming,” she said.
After first saying #StephonClark had a gun, then changing it to a crowbar, then admitting he just had a cell phone, we now learn that the Sacramento Police shot this man 20 times in his own backyard.
But Dylann Roof was apprehended peacefully & given a Value Meal. pic.twitter.com/kvIZHQjoNL
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) March 21, 2018
Police have since stated that they plan to release footage from the sheriff’s department helicopter as well as the two body cameras the officers involved in the shooting were wearing.
Although officials have placed both officers on administrative leave for the time being, Black activists are already signaling that the incident should be viewed as a pivotal moment in the community.
“This is a moment of truth. … This is definitely where transparency, accountability, and justice are really going to be put in full display with this new regime of policing,” community activist Berry Accius told the Sacramento Bee. “I think a lot of us in the community have been told there will be a whole other way of how the police in Sacramento police the community, especially black and brown people, and this will be the test.”
So far, few activists outside the Black community have picked up on Clark’s case — a frustrating yet unsurprising development.
The deaths of unarmed Black teens and adults are frequently labeled with an asterisk — their names are part of a larger list of tragedies that are upsetting but “to be expected.” Most recently, after several Black residents in Austin, Texas were killed or injured in a series of package bombings, critics downplayed any talk of racial motivation, noting that two white men had also been injured after triggering an explosive tripwire left by the same suspect. Despite the fact that the suspect, a 23-year-old white man, had intentionally targeted Black and Latinx victims, the concern was swept under the rug by most of the mainstream media.
Clark’s death also comes as the debate over anti-gun violence efforts continues to build. In the wake of a high school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead, gun control advocates, survivors, and the firearm lobby have gone back and forth over the idea of tightening restrictions and outlawing certain kinds of weapons and modifications. Across the nation, students have begun actively protesting the gun lobby, calling for change and staging mass school walkouts to bring attention to their cause. Celebrities and several high-profile individuals and companies have showed their support through donations and pledges to exhaustively pursue legislative efforts.
A separate debate over the response to these protests has also been simmering. While many young Black activists have applauded the Parkland survivors’ attempts to bring about change, a good number of them have also questioned why this kind of public reaction has taken so long to manifest.
For years, they argue, those same kinds of demonstrations and protests by members of the Black Lives Matter movement have been subjected to intense scrutiny, with critics calling their pleas for gun reform and de-militarization of police forces hysterical. The deaths of Black victims are routinely ignored or given fleeting air time, while their white and non-Black counterparts make mainstream news.
“I know a couple of people…had mixed feelings towards the [Parkland protests], because they felt if it was a black student being gunned down or black students being shot or shot at, it wouldn’t have got so much coverage,” 15-year-old student Jaelah Jackson said earlier in March, during a school walkout in Brooklyn. “They felt like minorities and African-Americans are diminished. They aren’t really represented and their cases aren’t presented as equally.”
Black Lives Matter Network co-founder Patrisse Cullors explained during a Black History Month event in February that there was a clear distinction between how the media and public react to Black protests and all other forms of activism.
“Black people, unfortunately, continue to be criminalized for our moments of courage, for our moments of mourning and grieving,” Cullors said. “Why don’t black people get to be victims?”
#StephonClark. 22. Killed by police while holding a cell phone. Human. Flesh & blood. Born with a purpose. Some will try to reason; there is no humane reason. This continues to happen because, for 100s of years, the soul & sentiment of America have denied that #BlackLivesMatter. https://t.co/D6iUOgQRsB
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) March 21, 2018
Bernice King, daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., bemoaned the lack of concern over 22-year-old Clark’s death specifically on Wednesday.
“#StephonClark. 22. Killed by police while holding a cell phone. Human. Flesh & blood. Born with a purpose,” she tweeted. “Some will try to reason; there is no humane reason. This continues to happen because, for 100s of years, the soul & sentiment of America have denied that #BlackLivesMatter.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece, as well as reporting by several other outlets, spelled the man’s name as Stephan Clark. According to his fiancée, Salena Manni, the man’s name was Stephon Clark.