Sacramento on edge as city mourns police shooting victim

Stevante Clark (L), brother of Stephon Clark, arrives for the wake of Stephon Clark at Bayside of South Sacramento in Sacramento, California

Sacramento (AFP) – Hundreds of mourners joined an outpouring of grief and rage Thursday at the funeral of an unarmed black man shot dead by police in California’s capital Sacramento.

The service, where civil rights activist Al Sharpton delivered an angry, rousing speech, has become a rallying cry for justice in the face of police violence against African Americans.

Body camera and surveillance helicopter footage released last week showed police chasing and then firing 20 rounds at 22-year-old Stephon Clark, fearing that he was carrying a weapon. He was actually holding an iPhone.

An uproar following the March 18 incident erupted into days of protest in the streets of downtown Sacramento, with marchers blocking traffic and clashing with police in riot gear.

An AFP photographer witnessed 400-500 people lining up to get into the public service — which started around an hour late at the Bayside Boss Church in southern Sacramento, not far from the neighborhood where Clark died.

A rabbi sang while a Muslim cleric led prayers at the ecumenical service.

But it was Clark’s emotional brother Sevante Clark who dominated the service, dancing and goofing around as gospel numbers including “Take Me to the King” and “Can’t Nobody Love Me Like Jesus” rang out.

Clearly overwrought, he led the crowd in a chant of “Stephon Clark! Stephon Clark,” declaring as part of a rambling ad-libbed speech that “the Clark family will never die,” before breaking down in tears and embracing Sharpton.

He launched a brief verbal assault on some of his fellow mourners, complaining that they didn’t know his brother and had turned up for “the money,” before claiming he was emigrating to escape the attention. 

“You don’t tell people in pain how to handle their pain. You don’t tell people when you kill their loved one how to grieve,” Sharpton told the congregation.

“We came because this boy should be alive today… we will never let you forget the name of Stephon Clark until we get justice,” he said.

– Police abuses –

The incident was triggered by an emergency 911 phone call late on March 18 stating that a man was smashing car windows in the neighborhood.

Clark appeared to fit the suspect’s profile and officers chased him, backed by a helicopter equipped with infrared cameras.

The helicopter and body camera footage showed Clark — who police say remains the prime suspect — running through the neighborhood before entering his backyard.

The officers burst into the yard with their weapons drawn and confronted the father-of-two before opening fire, each shot appearing as a flash on the helicopter’s infrared footage.

“He would never want to leave his kids. He always wanted to make sure his kids were good,” Salena Manni, the mother of the one and three-year-old boys told ABC 10.

The officers — one of whom is black — were put on leave. But the incident has revived a recurring debate over police abuses against African Americans, who account for an overwhelming share of suspects killed by police.

At least 16 other people — three unarmed — have died in confrontations with law enforcement from various agencies around Sacramento in the last two years, according to the Sacramento Bee newspaper.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has declined to comment in any detail on Clark’s death, describing it in Wednesday’s briefing as a “local matter.”

“No this is not a local matter. They’ve been killing people all over the country and we’re here to say we are going to stand with Stephon Clark and his family,” Sharpton told the congregation.

More protests are expected after the funeral, following almost two weeks of unrest, with protesters blocking roads and access to NBA games.

Police have called for calm and earlier this week announced a state justice department investigation which will address, among many outstanding questions, why the officers muted their cameras in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

Dozens of Black Lives Matter members gathered at Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s office on Tuesday to demand charges against the two officers who fired at Clark.

– ‘Endemic racism’ –

A city council meeting scheduled to last several hours was cut short as hundreds of protesters spilled into the chambers. Members of the public had already been able to testify of “endemic racism” they said had infected the police.

Clark’s grandmother Sequita Thompson, who shared the property where he was killed, wiped away tears as she chanted: “Justice. I want justice for my baby.”

The Los Angeles Times printed Clark’s criminal record, including cases of pimping and domestic abuse over the last four years, noting that he was on probation for a 2014 robbery when he was killed.

Community leaders insist, however, that the officers’ behavior, and not Clark’s police history, is the relevant factor in determining the circumstances of his death.

The Clark family — which lost Stephon’s 16-year-old brother in a shooting in 2006 — is considering whether to sue police over the latest incident, but even an out-of-court settlement is expected to take months to reach.