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In March of 2018, Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old Black man, was shot and killed in Sacramento, California by two Sacramento Police Department officers. Though he was unarmed, officers Terrance Mercadal and Jared Robinet fired twenty rounds at Clark, hitting him seven times—three of which were in the back. The officers claimed he had a gun at the time, but found only a cell phone on his person when they approached his body. After the fact, police statements held that Clark variously had a gun, a crowbar, and a toolbar.
The murder sparked outrage, leading to a series of protests. Black Lives Matter led a march not five days after that caused a shut down on Interstate 5, and various rallies were held in protest of Clark’s death and the growing number of Black unarmed men shot by police. Even NBA players on the Sacramento Kings and Boston Celtics got involved, wearing shirts with Clark’s name and the word “Accountability” printed on them.
A year later, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert announced that she would not bring charges against the officers. This, unsurprisingly, led to more protests. One such protest resulted in the arrests of eighty people, including a Sacramento Bee reporter who had been live-streaming the demonstration.
Just days after that, Attorney General Xavier Becerra followed suit by announcing that his office would similarly refrain from criminally prosecuting the officers involved in the shooting. Becerra stated that after reviewing the video evidence of the event, he and his team had concluded that the officers “reasonably believed” that they were in danger. (“Reasonable belief” is the legal standard applied in these cases.)
Now, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the F.B.I., in conjunction with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, will launch an investigation into whether or not Clark’s federal civil rights were violated.
But what does this development say about the state of our country in regards to police misconduct?
It demonstrates the disparity in the way in which people of color are treated by the police, as opposed to their white counterparts. This has become a (nearly) non-controversial fact in recent years and has been brought sharply into focus by growing media attention to the numerous murders of unarmed Black unarmed men by the police. The proliferation of video recording-capable devices has given citizens the ability to more ably document events, and the institution of policies mandating body-cameras for police officers should, in theory, lead to increased transparency and, consequently, accountability.
This has unfortunately not been the case. Extensive footage of Stephon’s Clark murder was made available to the District Attorney and Attorney General’s office, and it seemed to clearly show that Clark was not approaching the officers in any kind of threatening manner, contrary to the police department’s account. However, the outcome was the same as it has been in the majority of recent cases.
This undoubtedly sends a message: police officers are above the law that they are employed to uphold. They are allowed to function and use force with impunity, and it is people of color who pay the price.
Justice was not done for Stephon Clark—nor was it done for so many individuals before him: Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and countless others. Injustices like this continue to repeat themselves year after year, and the American people should be baffled: what will it take to break this cycle?
It seems, then, that the only thing we can take from the shooting of Stephon Clark and the subsequent miscarriage of justice is that we have simply not taken anything from the shootings and injustices of the past.
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