On the day Stephon Clark’s family buried his bullet-mangled body, several dozen protesters gathered on the corner of 9th and G Streets in downtown Sacramento, in front of the office of the county district attorney, Anne Marie Schubert. I recognized many of the diverse faces – young and old, black and not – from the long line of locals who came to pay their respects at the funeral. They stood together on the tiny front lawn and in the flower beds near the main entrance of Schubert’s office. The women who shared the megaphone engaged in call-and-response, demanding that protesters “Say his name! Stephon Clark!” But no one was inside to hear the chants. The county prosecutor, whom we’d later learn had accepted $13,000 from police unions in the days after Clark’s death, had closed her office early that day. Not even a janitor was peeking down at the protesters through the office windows, tinted that perfectly boring government shade of brown.
Then, something peculiar happened. Right as the group prepared to march several blocks to demonstrate at the steps of the Robert T. Matsui United States Courthouse, a hush silenced the the crowd. A black man, husky and wearing a black suit, approached the DA’s front door with a giant funeral wreath. The offering stood on a wire easel. On any other day, this might seem like a stunt, or even an ominous threat – a kind of fish-in-the-bulletproof vest message sent from South Sacramento. Instead, this looked and felt like an extension of the funeral itself. He didn’t just want Schubert to prosecute the two police officers who fired 20 bullets at the unarmed Clark on March 18. With a certain solemnity, the man was also bringing the city’s sorrow and anger to her doorstep.
Accountability is nearly always a stranger to cops who kill. Protesting police violence is a necessary act of civil disobedience and civic responsibility. There is little that can replace a demonstration to both force fellow citizens to reckon with what happened and to keep the cameras pointed at a city like Sacramento. But, even the protest I covered, while poignant, felt aimless. Blocking the entrance to the Kings game that night was out of the question; police had blocked that off and Clark’s brother, Stevante, had discouraged it when addressing the crowd. Both hope and hopelessness were audible in every chant. Most of these protesters eventually went home to their families, back to their day jobs. That wreath was picked up and, if not discarded, removed from public view. There was no public memorial on the street where Clark died, like the one that stood in the middle of a Ferguson street nearly a year after Michael Brown’s death. For something as devastating and menacing as police violence, we sure do shrug it off quickly.
It is a routine that is all too familiar. There is a funeral, complete with relatives forced to grieve in public for the press. Anger and frustration manifests in marching. There were no arrests that Thursday afternoon, but two days later, a sheriff hit a demonstrator with a car. It all disseminates into chaos, all while the shooters get a paid vacation until their likely exoneration. Then it happens again somewhere else. The second verse, same as the first.
We need more permanent reminders of victims like Stephon Clark that last longer than a news cycle. One reason American attention wanes in the weeks following such a killing is that we fail to put these incidents in their proper historical context. Less than two months before Donald Trump won the 2016 election, the United Nations likened police brutality to an even more explicit form of racial intimidation. “Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching,” read the report issued by the U.N. Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. The Equal Justice Initiative – the nonprofit legal organization behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, a mass cenotaph for lynching victims opening April 26 in Montgomery, Alabama – calculated that 3,959 black people were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950, an average of just more than 54 per year. Per the Washington Post’s count, as of April 9, 294 people have been shot and killed by police in 2018 alone.
In Clark’s case, the police body cameras, later muted inexplicably, and sheriff’s helicopter night vision – which seemed like a lot for a guy suspected of breaking windows – let us see the 22-year-old father of two crumple as he was shot eight times, six in the back and none in the front of his body. It was hyperbole when Clarence Thomas said it, but we should understand what happened in Sacramento as an actual high-tech lynching.
I thought about Clark as I watched 60 Minutes this past Sunday. Oprah Winfrey traveled to Alabama to talk to Equal Justice Initiative founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson about the forthcoming lynching memorial. Winfrey prefaced the segment by saying, “There is a reckoning taking place in America over how we remember our history. Much of the focus has been on whether or not to take down monuments that celebrate the Confederacy.” In Montgomery, Stevenson and EJI – which primarily concerns itself with ending mass incarceration and other forms of excessive punishment by our criminal justice system – have constructed a different kind of memorial. Rather than statues that seek to intimidate black Americans amid the rise of Jim Crow, there are stone stalactites hanging over anyone who visits, one representing the 805 counties (known to date) where lynchings took place.
A new memorial honors more than 4,000 victims of lynching. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice will honor African-American men, women and children who were lynched in 805 U.S. counties.https://t.co/VEDQzfmxfy pic.twitter.com/YyFjlY86is
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) April 8, 2018
The same ethos that led to the construction of massive likenesses of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate “heroes” was at the heart of every one of those lynchings. “It was intended to send a message that if you try to vote, if you try to advocate for your rights, if you insist on fair wages, if you do anything that complicates white supremacy and white dominance and political power, we will kill you,” Stevenson told Winfrey.
As I looked at the images of the EJI monument and museum, it was impossible not to think of how similar racial terrorism has manifested today, in a more polite age, in the form of police violence. After all, the current system of American law enforcement has roots in the patrols that were charged with hunting the runaway enslaved. Nowadays, even though we know that white supremacists have made it their business to infiltrate law enforcement, the intent of police committing these acts may or may not be to put black people “in our place.” However, the violence has a similar effect.
Police violence both makes black lives seem like they don’t matter in America and discourages full participation in the American project. Our communities become more insulated and suspicious, both of outside interlopers and each other. Black people call 911 less often, lest what happened to Saheed Vassell last week on a Brooklyn street corner –an unarmed, mentally ill man killed by the NYPD – happen upon themselves or their loved ones. We are discouraged from voting or caring, frankly, because it never seems to change. Even progressive police chiefs like Sacramento’s Daniel Hahn, a city native and relative newcomer to the job when Clark was killed, have the odds stacked against them as they try to change a police culture that lets officers to use force in such a manner.
Hahn’s job is even more difficult now that Trump is president. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred to the Stephon Clark shooting a “local matter,” divorcing it from the legions of other deaths just like it. Calling themselves “law and order” politicians, even as they collude with the police unions that fill their coffers, many conservatives promote a status quo that just so happens to continue killing black people at a disproportionate rate. And all that was true before Trump began telling cops, in essence, that Freddie Gray got off easy.
We could get mixed up in the semantics of whether or not what happened to Clark is comparable to the specific horrors of those kinds of murders, or whether cops who were “fearing for their safety” can be equated to the heathens who took postcard photos of themselves smiling beneath the African Americans they had just murdered. Or we could avoid wasting our time, and simply recognize that the U.N. had a point. Lynching is the deliberate use of violence as a political tool. But doesn’t permissiveness of such violence by our police departments, criminal justice system, and our president send a similarly intimidating message to communities of color that suffer disproportionately from it? Stevenson told Winfrey that “the legacy that I think it’s created is this indifference to how we treat people who look different than us. And I think that’s tragic. I don’t even think that white people in our country are free. I think we’re all burdened by this history of racial inequality.” Today’s America can’t continue to deny this terrible inheritance.
The lynching memorial is meant to take an impermanent memory and make it tangible. We need something similar. While legislation that arises in the wake of police violence can address institutional barriers to justice – California state lawmakers, led by San Diego Democrat Shirley Weber, have presented a bill that aims to raise the standards for the use of lethal force – these measures are too often incomplete. Whether or not this new one passes, California, that bluest of all states, has one of the most rigorous statutes protecting cops. Its “bill of rights” keeps police personnel records and discipline proceedings out of the public eye. And sometimes the laws are ignored by a public all too willing to shortchange its own freedoms for the illusion of security, or by the very people charged with that security. Especially in an America where cops seem exempt from the criminal justice they dispense, we need more assurance that they will at least remember what happened.
In the spirit of the lynching memorial, I propose a more radical remembrance of the victims of police violence. Driving through many black neighborhoods in America, we see memorials painted in graffiti on the sides of buildings, complete with likenesses of the dead and tributes. We see them tattooed on the bodies of the bereaved. How about we go further? Build monuments to men like Clark and Vassell, women like Sandra Bland and Deborah Danner, and children like Tamir Rice and Aiyana Jones. They can’t be plaques or inscriptions, things we only notice when we trip over them or happen to glance in their direction.
Some may consider that too great an honor, because they believe only heroes get their likenesses cast in bronze and steel. Many of them, including Clark, had public flaws we all learned about posthumously. But every state of in the Union has a memorial to a Confederate traitor. I support removing those monuments in summa, for they were built to terrorize – and as the Charlottesville chaos showed us, the statues have since become loci for white supremacist violence. However, I’m willing to use the argument of their defenders, one that supports the calcification of history in our everyday lives. They contend that we need to remember even the ugliest moments of our history, which is specious given their racist purpose of the statues which they seek to protect.
Structures commemorating the likes of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile would not serve to intimidate, but to shame and deter. The continued public acquiescence to – and in some cases, endorsement of – police violence requires a bolder public step that goes beyond policy. Whether statues are the way we do it is up for debate; this is just an idea. It is inarguable, though, that America needs a way to remember these women, men, and children who die at the hands of police. Our system makes it too easy to forget them.
One question, of course, is where do these statues go? I’d argue that they be life-sized so that some could go right where they died. Put Tamir back in the public park on Cleveland’s West Side, playing and being a kid again. Place Oscar Grant III inside the same BART station in Oakland. Stand Eric Garner back up on that Staten Island sidewalk. Put John Crawford III, right inside that Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio. Perhaps Vassell should forever be at the corner of Utica and Montgomery in Brooklyn.
Clark, though? I say put his statue where that mourner placed his wreath, right at the front door of the district attorney’s office. If it doesn’t pressure Schubert to prosecute two police officers for this atrocity, then it would surely remind her every day of the public whom she truly serves, at least for the next several months.