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Badge of Impunity: the Killing of Stephon Clark

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

On Saturday, Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert announced that her office would not bring charges against the two police officers, Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet, who shot and killed an unarmed Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard last March. Clark was shot 20 times. He was holding a cellphone. The decision is appalling, but scarcely surprising. Between, 2005 and 2017, there were more than 13,000 fatal shootings by police, but only 80 cops were ever charged with manslaughter or murder. Of those 80 charged, only 28 were convicted of a crime.  I wrote about the Clark case in CounterPunch magazine last year. – JSC

What does it take to awaken a somnambulant media these days? Getting shot in the back 8 times by trigger-happy cops while standing in your grandmother’s backyard while holding a cell phone? That was the fate of young Stephon Clark on the night of March 18, 2018 in the Meadowview neighborhood of Sacramento, whose ghastly murder by police briefly diverted the attention of the national press from its Trump fixation. But after a couple of days, MSDNC and the New York Times, were, like the White House, content to let Clark’s killing recede from the headlines and become just another “local issue.”

Why did the cops fire 20 shots at Stephon Clark? The official story was that Clark had been seen breaking car windows in his neighborhood, a destitute area of Sacramento that is under police occupation. According to police, Clark had been tracked by a police helicopter for this alleged act of vandalism. The helicopter police warned the cops on the ground that Clark was holding a toolbar. When police confronted Clark, he was standing near his grandmother’s house and then ran into the backyard. The cops followed, guns drawn, body cameras rolling. One officer yells, “Show me your hands! Gun!” Three seconds pass, before the cop again yells: “Show me your hands! Gun! Gun! Gun!” Then Clark is shot multiple times in the back. He falls to the ground and is shot once more in the chest. The entire encounter, from the time the helicopter spotted Clark to the fatal shooting, lasted less than two minutes.

The police let Clark bleed out for five minutes before approaching him and placing him in handcuffs. “He had something in hands, one of the cops said. “Looked like a gun from our perspective.” But Clark was unarmed. No gun, no tool bar. His hand held only a white i-Phone that belonged to his girlfriend. When the reality of what taken place began to sink in, one of the cops says, “Hey, mute.,” and the audio from body cameras was silenced. The police story changed over the ensuing days: Clark was carrying a gun, he was carrying a toolbar, he was breaking into houses, he was using a concrete block or an aluminum gutter railing. None of this stood up to the simple facts. A 22-year-old unarmed black man had been shot seven times in the back on suspicion of breaking a few windows. The mayor of Sacramento, Darrell Steinberg, said he was “in no position to second guess” the officers. And, just days after Clark was killed, two police unions donated a total of $13,000 to the woman investigating the shooting, Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert. “It’s not an exception to the rule – it is the rule. Their relationships with each other are incestuous,” said Cat Brooks, executive director of the Oakland-based Justice Teams Network. “Prosecutors are beholden to law enforcement unions. You can’t engender trust when those relationships are so tightly wound.”

The media can’t be bothered to spend too much time on killings that have become routine, unless, of course, there’s grisly video footage. In the twenty-four-hour period that witnessed Clark’s death, at least five other men were killed by police across the country, including Michael Holliman in Lone Rock, Arkansas, Reuben Ruffin, Jr. in Daviess County, Kentucky, Manuel Borrego in El Monte, California, Jermaine Massey in Greenville, South Carolina and Osbaldo Jimenez in Escondido, California. Only the nightly protests in Sacramento kept Clark’s murder in the news, to the extent that it was covered at all. So many killings, so little airtime.

Two weeks after the Sacramento shooting, the Supreme Court handed down an appalling decision that will only encourage more police shootings. The case involved the shooting of an Arizona woman in 2010 by police who had come to her house for a “welfare inspection.” When police arrived, Amy Hughes came out of her house holding a kitchen knife at her side. Hughes made no threatening moves but failed to respond to Officer Andrew Kisela’s demands to drop the blade. He then shot her four times without a warning. Fortunately, Hughes survived the shooting and sued the Arizona cop for use of excessive force. The Court ruled that Kisela, and by extension all other police, was entitled to “qualified immunity” from lawsuits because the shooting did not “violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

Good luck holding cops accountable for even the most egregious actions after this ruling. In fact, it’s more likely that American citizens will be held responsible for people cops shoot than the cops themselves. This sounds crazy and it should, but it’s also true. Consider the case of Lakeith Smith, who was 15-years-old when he took part in a burglary in Millbrook, Alabama that went horribly wrong when police interrupted the break-in and shot and killed his accomplice, A’Donte Washington. The officer who shot Washington was swiftly cleared of any wrongdoing, but Smith was charged and convicted, under Alabama’s cruel Accomplice Liability Act, of murdering his friend, who had actually been killed by the cop. Tried as an adult, Smith was sentenced to 65 years hard time.

Cops wear a badge of impunity. More than 1,500 Americans are killed by police each year. That’s almost 10 percent of all homicides in the country. Yet few of these killings are questioned and almost none are prosecuted. Most homicide victims are killed by someone they knew: a friend, a business partner, a lover, a spouse, a parent, a child. In today’s America, when people are killed by someone they don’t know that killer is more and more likely to be a person who had sworn to protect and serve them.

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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