On March 18, Stephon Clark was killed by two Sacramento police officers in his grandparents’ backyard. Clark, armed with nothing more than a cell phone, was fired at 20 times. The officers did not identify themselves to Clark before pursuing him onto the property. Clark, 22, was killed in what cannot accurately be called a standoff. He had no weapon. But when police officers fear for their lives and misunderstand an everyday object for a gun, they are entitled to end other lives. According to body cam footage, officers continued to make demands of Clark as he lay dying beneath his grandparents’ bedroom window. Hard to comply when you’re dead.
Clark had been living with his grandparents, Sequita and Tommy Thompson, along with his young siblings. The elder Thompsons are in poor health and have limited mobility; they encourage their grandkids to enter the property through the backyard and knock on the Thompsons’ bedroom window so that someone inside can open the garage door. That is precisely what Stephon was doing when he was murdered.
Sequita Thompson heard the officers’ gunshots from inside the house and rushed to protect Stephon’s 7-year-old sister, crawling for cover. Tommy Thompson, in bed, heard someone outside calling to him. The couple wouldn’t learn that the shots were absorbed by their grandson until hours later after Sacramento PD requested they not look outside at the crime scene on her own property. Mrs. Thompson looked anyway.
In addition to his grandparents and siblings, Stephon Clark leaves behind two young sons and his loving partner Salena.
On March 22nd, a day after the chilling body cam footage of Stephon Clark’s death was released, local activists descended upon Sacramento. Led by the local Black Lives Matter chapter, protesters chanted inside of City Hall. Next, they shut down Interstate 5 at rush hour.
Later, demonstrators took the memory of Stephon Clark to Golden 1 Center.
The Sacramento Kings were scheduled to play their 73rd game of the NBA season in front of a home crowd whose patience with the reliably disappointing franchise has been stretched for years. On this night though, most fans–up to 15,000–either were turned away by the police or turned themselves around and left upon seeing nonviolent protesters blocking every entrance to Golden 1 Center. Law enforcement was “unable to ensure ticketed fans could safely enter the arena.” The peaceful demonstrators persevered, reminding everyone in earshot that Stephon Clark and his family deserve justice.
With arena doors locked, roughly 2,000 fans were present for the Kings game, which was delayed about twenty minutes.
Those who did gain access to the arena were invited to the lower bowl, and addressed by Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé after the final buzzer:
Ranadivé, surrounded by Kings players at center-court, gave an informal, timely, needed speech. Instead of ignoring the demonstration outside, or condemning its nature (which directly impacts Ranadivé’s wallet), Ranadivé applauded the activists. And while he did not address Stephon Clark by name, he referred to Clark’s death as a “horrific tragedy” affecting the Sacramento community.
Ranadivé mentioned neither police officers nor the disproportionate capacity of black people to be killed by them. In fact, Ranadivé was vague enough to imply to the uninformed that maybe Stephon Clark wasn’t murdered, but was instead the victim of a terrible accident.
Ranadivé’s speech wasn’t radical. Some may feel he was doing the bare-minimum–plus, what if it were his players protesting instead of ordinary Sacramento residents? But it wasn’t imperative that Ranadivé be radical–it was imperative that he confront reality and utilize the privilege and responsibility to which he refers. This is very particular context: a wealthy owner of a professional sports team commending peaceful protest in response to police brutality is significant and deviant in this historical moment.
In September 2017, President Donald Trump vilified black athletes who have taken action to protest the issues affecting the social communities which raised them. NBA commissioner Adam Silver will not alter a rule that implores players to stand during the customary pregame national anthem. NFL team owners have discouraged their players from exercising first amendment rights.
Vivek Ranadivé did more than most of his contemporaries would dare. And he didn’t hesitate.
Kings guard Garrett Temple, sidelined with an ankle injury, made clear that Stephon Clark’s death had a sickening effect on him. Talking to the Sacramento Bee‘s Jason Jones, Temple said he didn’t know if he’d have been able to play even if active. “I told Vince [Carter, teammate] this [injury] might have happened for a reason, I’m glad I had this boot on.” Commending protesters, Temple pointed out that by delaying an NBA game, the protesters were methodical: “a lot of people wouldn’t have known about” Clark’s death otherwise.
Vince Carter urged NBA fans and the American community at large, “let’s not sweep it under the rug” and instead keep national attention focused on the types of injustices faced by black Americans like Stephon Clark. Carter revealed that the Kings worked alongside their opponents, the Atlanta Hawks, to think about how to integrate the protests outside with the game on the hardwood. This resulted in Ranadivé’s address at the end of the night.
Ranadivé was adamant about the reality of this game, insisting, “it’s not just business as usual.” It’s bigger than basketball. He made a note of the “big platform” afforded to the Kings organization, and the privilege and responsibility attached. But we have to wonder if Vivek Ranadivé will put his money where his mouth is after declaring, “we’re gonna work really hard to prevent this kind of a tragedy from happening again.” We’ll have to stay tuned to make sure Ranadivé isn’t making empty promises for the sake of good PR. Sacramento can’t afford for this bold move by an NBA owner to be too good to be true.
Since 2015, the Sacramento Police Department has murdered six unarmed men. Five were black. Stephon Clark is the newest addition to a list of names we must remember as police brutality continues and its agents go unpunished. We count on the Sacramento Kings and the NBA at large to be leaders and collaborators in the struggle.