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Black Lives on Trial

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

March 18, 2018. Sacramento, California. Two police officers, Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet, respond to a 9-1-1 call about an individual breaking car windows. They track the suspect down. They see the suspect is holding a gun. Or a tool bar. They fire twenty rounds.

Seven bullets enter Stephon Clark’s body from the back. One hits his chest.

Clark, a 22 year-old black man in his grandmother’s backyard, falls to his death.

Turns out what he was holding was not a gun or a tool bar, but a cell phone.

Almost a year goes by. On March 2, 2019, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert announces that no criminal charges would be filed against Mercadal and Robinet. The officers had not broken the law.

Schubert proceeds by pointing out that Clark had recently been accused of assaulting the mother of his children. He had exchanged threatening text messages with his fiancé. He had looked online for information on penalties for domestic violence. He had searched the internet about suicide methods. He had drugs in his system the night of the shooting.

In other words, even if charges were pressed, it would be Clark on trial and not the officers.

It happened with Trayvon Martin. A 17 year-old black boy, walking back from 7-Eleven during halftime of the NBA All Star Game. A bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea in his pocket. A cell phone in hand. He was shot and killed by George Zimmerman who thought Martin looked suspicious. Zimmerman was not a policeman, but was policing nonetheless. He cited self-defense and was released from custody that same night. The verdict in the ensuing trial: Not guilty.

Zimmerman was acquitted because ultimately it was Martin who had been on trial all along. It was Martin who was being judged for his hoodie, marijuana, graffiti, and tattoos. Martin, who was portrayed as a dangerous hoodlum, rather than a teenage boy who eats Skittles and watches basketball. A teenage boy who was murdered on his way back from a 7-Eleven.

It happened with Michael Brown. Another unarmed black teenager. He was killed by police officer Darren Wilson who fired twelve bullets at him. According to some witnesses, during the confrontation Brown had his hands up in surrender. According to police records, Wilson shot him in self-defense. In his grand jury testament Wilson described Brown having “the most intense aggressive face,” “like a demon.” “I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” he appealed. Brown was 6′ 4″, weighing 292 lbs. Wilson, 6′ 4″ and 210 lbs.

Stephon Clark, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland… Trial after trial, the killers are acquitted. The deaths, somehow justified.

Mumia Abu-Jamal would say of the dead: Executed twice, the second time in the court system.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: “The police system of the South was originally designed to keep track of all Negroes.” “When the Negroes were freed,” he explained, “and the whole South was convinced of the impossibility of free Negro labor, the first and almost universal device was to use the courts as a means of re-enslaving the blacks. It was not then a question of crime, but rather one of color, that settled a man’s conviction on almost any charge.”

Not a question of crime, but rather one of color.

Whether Stephon Clark was holding a gun, tool bar, or cell phone did not matter. He was black.  His blackness was the real threat. His blackness was the crime.

And now, even after his death, his life remains on trial. Just like those who came before him. Just like those who will soon be slain.

More articles by:

Ipek S. Burnett is a depth psychologist, novelist, and academic living in San Francisco.  

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