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Stephon Clark: Surrounded by love, trouble and tragedy, and now a rallying cry for justice after police shooting

Stephon Clark has become a social media hashtag, the latest inspiration for a national movement and the subject of numerous protests that have shut down freeways and interrupted NBA games. (March 29, 2018)

Stephon Clark has become a social media hashtag, the latest inspiration for a national movement and the subject of numerous protests that have shut down freeways and interrupted NBA games.

The image of the handsome 22-year-old African American man, wearing a broad smile next to his young sons and their mother in a formal family photo, has become a rallying cry for justice.

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But in the days since 20 shots were fired at Clark in the backyard of his grandmother's house by Sacramento police searching for a burglary suspect, only fragments of Clark's life have surfaced.

Clark's family has mostly shunned the media spotlight following the death, providing scant details about Clark's life before his killing. He was the father of two boys, ages 1 and 3. Friends and family have described him as fun-loving, devoted to his family. He loved football, video games, shoes and was trying to turn his life around, they said.

Marchers protest following the killing of Stephon Clark
Marchers protest following the killing of Stephon Clark (Associated Press)

"He would never want to leave his kids. He always wanted to make sure his kids were good," their mother, Salena Manni, told ABC 10.

Family tragedy, criminal record

A Sacramento native, he lived in a rough neighborhood known not only for crime but also for tense relations with police, said residents and civil rights leaders.

Clark endured personal tragedy within his family. A sister died at birth. A 16-year-old brother was killed in a shooting in 2006. A representative with the county coroner said De'Markus McKinnie died from what was ruled an accidental shotgun wound to the abdomen.

And Clark had a criminal history, four cases in four years that included charges of robbery, pimping, and domestic abuse. Sacramento County court files show he pleaded no contest to reduced charges, spent time on a sheriff's work detail and was on probation for the 2014 robbery when he was killed.

Community leaders were adamant that Clark's criminal record was immaterial to how he died, and said the officers who killed him are the ones who ought to be scrutinized.

"What matters is he was a father of two, he had his family, he was an unarmed black man that was going to his grandparent's house, and got assassinated," said Berry Accius, a black community leader. "Nothing else matters at that point.

"The fact is that black people are criminalized when anything happens," he added. "It already gives sympathy to the police and it criminalizes the victim and it makes the victim look like they're the predator."

Derrell Roberts, who runs a youth mentoring program in South Sacramento, said he believed Clark's past crimes were not severe enough to put him in jeopardy of a prison sentence if convicted again.

"Neither officer involved in the shooting, nor the helicopter pilot didn't know this, not one of the people who might have called 911 knew his record. So his record is irrelevant to what happened," Roberts said.

Protests over the shooting death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento.
Protests over the shooting death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento. (Associated Press)
‘A father of two, who is dead’

NAACP Sacramento chapter President Betty Williams was more blunt.

"That pisses me off every time I hear it," Williams said. "He was a young man, a father of two, who is dead. The fact of his criminal background is not the point."

Williams said the context of African American culture and trauma by police is more relevant.

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"If you understood most of the culture of African Americans in the city, when police officers get near us, there's a nervousness," Williams said.

The urge to run is prevalent, she said. "I think understanding our culture and our young men being traumatized so much, their first reaction is not the first reaction of a white male."

The shooting is now under investigation by city police, with oversight by the state Department of Justice. Sacramento's mayor has called Clark's death "wrong," but said he cannot pass judgment on the officers' actions until that review is complete.

On Wednesday, a police spokesman said Clark remained the sole suspect for break-ins of vehicles and what a sheriff's deputy said was the attempted break-in of a home. It was calls about those incidents that sent police to the neighborhood the night Clark was shot.

Clark's family has denied he had anything do with any break-ins. His grandmother said she heard commotion in her backyard and asked her husband to call police. But it turned out the police were already there, having just fatally shot Clark.

"Why didn't you shoot him in the arm? Shoot him in the legs? Send in dogs? Send in a Taser? Why? Why?" Sequita Thompson said.

Videos of the encounter showed officers shouting "gun, gun, gun" before opening fire. But police said they found no weapon, just a cellphone belonging to Clark.

Clark was buried at a funeral Thursday attended by hundreds of mourners, including the Rev. Al Sharpton.

"We are here to say that we're going to stand with Stephon Clark and the leaders of this family. … This is about justice," he said. "This is about standing with people with courage."

Sequita Thompson speaks out on the fatal police shooting of her grandson Stephon Clark in her backyard.
Sequita Thompson speaks out on the fatal police shooting of her grandson Stephon Clark in her backyard. (Associated Press)
A brother grieves, rages

Clark's brother, Stevante 25, has visibly embodied the family's private grief and the community's public rage.

On Monday night outside the Blue Lamp, a local nightclub where a benefit was being held, Stevante Clark led a group of people in chanting his dead brother's name, much as he has done elsewhere in Sacramento since the fatal shooting. He has shouted into the faces of riot-clad city police officers and jumped into news conferences. He interrupted a City Council hearing on community reaction to the police shooting to taunt the mayor, face to face, then apologized a day later.

Outside the club, Stevante spoke to a TV news reporter about problems in the Sacramento County Jail, and said he wanted to build a library for his brother.

"It's bigger than him," he told the cameras. Later, he got into a relative's car to speak with a Times reporter.

As he sat in the driver's seat, he alternated between tears and screaming as music blasted on the car's speakers.

He said his brother liked sports -- including the Patriots and the Broncos. He liked playing the soccer video game "FIFA." Then Stevante Clark again grew serious.

"I have to make my life about him," he said, his eyes welling with tears.

He then talked about how a local discount store was making T-shirts with his brother's name on it for profit. The Clark family has a GoFundMe account that Wednesday had raised almost $80,000, but Stevante said others have set up fraudulent fundraising accounts for funeral expenses. He said people are setting up protests without notifying the family.

"I hate this," he said.

‘I just want to be a great dad’

A cousin chimed in on the conversation to say that he'd ask Stephon what he wanted to be each day. Recently, Stephon told him, "I just want to be a great dad."

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Manni said Clark was a devoted father. The couple loved the term "Sac," not only because it spelled out the first names of their children and was Clark's own initials, but also because it's shorthand for Sacramento, the city where they met five years ago.

"It has special meaning to us," she said.

Sacramento police have refused to name the two officers who shot Clark, but they were identified by an area civil rights attorney who saw their names on unedited video captured by the body cameras they wore. An article by the Sacramento Bee noted that one of the officers, who is African American, joined the city force in 2016 after prior work with three other agencies.

Rumors have swirled in the Meadowview neighborhood that someone turned himself in for the vandalism that took place the night Stephon Clark was killed.

"That is not accurate," said city police Sgt. Vance Chandler.

"At this time, [Clark] is the only suspect that we have."

He reiterated that deputies in a sheriff's helicopter observed Clark smashing the window of a sliding glass door of a home to the north of his grandmother's home.

An aunt, Shernita Crosby, became angry when her nephew's criminal record was mentioned.

"If anyone wants to ridicule his past ... thank you very much to society for making him grow up too fast," she said.

She said there are plenty of corrupt politicians and leaders around.

"Who is judging who?" she said.

At Thursday's service, Stevante Clark moved throughout the church, hugging and kissing friends and family. He embraced his brother's coffin.

"Stephon is going to live on for generations, generations and generations," he said.

UPDATES:

3 p.m.: Updated with funeral details.

This article was originally posted at 7:50 a.m.

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