How many times have we seen this movie? Or better yet, how many times do we need to see it in order to reach the conclusion that it’s not normal?
Stephon Clark was the 22-year-old unarmed black man fatally shot several weeks ago by Sacramento police officers. According to an independent autopsy, Clark was struck eight times, mostly in his back.
Sacramento police initially responded to reports of broken windows. They see Clark in the driveway, and yell, “Hey! Show me your hands! Stop! Stop!” Clark flees to the back of the house. Shortly after they reach the back of the house in pursuit, one officer yelled, “Show me your hands! Gun, gun, gun!” and they start firing.
Twenty shots later, Clark lies dead on the ground. No gun was in his possession; Clark was holding an IPhone.
Stephon Clark is now the nom de jour in a continuing tragic drama. Since 2014, of the 15 high-profile cases involving the death of people of color at the hands of law enforcement, two officers were found guilty, while local authorities have paid in excess of $45 million to the victims’ families.
The status quo offers Clark should not have run from the police. I agree, but should the logical outcome of alleged vandalism result in an unarmed man shot eight times mostly in the back by law enforcement? Clark is but the latest reminder that the human condition is once again mired in absurdity.
In philosophy, absurdity refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to realize it. In the American narrative, absurdity can be seen as the distance between the perfection of the idea of liberty and equality and the imperfection associated with its execution. Within the status quo, absurdity may simply be defined as the inability to comprehend why others outside its parameters see the world differently.
The status quo was besieged by discomfort when the Sacramento city council meeting was disrupted by protestors led by Clark’s brother, Stevante Clark, who jumped on the dais, reportedly hurling an expletive at Mayor Darrell Steinberg. The NBA’s Sacramento Kings also had their game postponed by protestors. Uncomfortable as it may be, these are the tools at the disposal of the unheard.
It is therefore easier for the status quo to debate the methodology of the protestors than it is to grapple with the reason for their discontent. We don’t like it when the Bob Dylan demographic flexes its otherwise nihilistic muscles.
As I have opined in prior columns, singer Bob Dylan penned the lyrics, “when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” This reflects the feeling of a growing number of millennials that have no particular allegiance to the status quo.
To assuage discomfort, the status quo wants to assure the protestors that this matter will be handled, using the language from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, “with all deliberate speed.” In the annals of history, the aforementioned quote has proven to be a euphemism for maintaining the existing structure.
Many reflexively base their opposition to the current tactics because they are perceived as unlike those utilized by the Rev. Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement. They bemoan the Sacramento protestors blocking the freeway as if Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge was an open field in 1965.
The King they reference is the nonabrasive post-assassination version, conveniently sanitized by history. This particular King is universally loved, does not create discomfort, but bears scant similarity to the man who actually lived.
As the authentic King demonstrated, if everyone is comfortable, change is unlikely. In this scenario, change is further hampered by attempts to nationalize local issues. With some 18,000 police departments nationwide, it is a Herculean effort, if not impossible, to craft a one-size-fits-all policy.
As former King County, Washington sheriff Sue Rahr stated recently on NPR, roughly half of those departments have less than 10 officers. Moreover, many of those departments possess inadequate training budgets. Might this be an area where the federal government can play a role?
That does not absolve, nor should it, local government of its responsibilities. Though police shootings of unarmed young males of color is a national phenomenon, it remains a local issue. Yet, the emphasis placed on race seductively mitigates the impact class also has on these occurrences.
We seem to be at an impasse, change vs. comfort. How can there be change that is not clearly defined? How can there be expectations of comfort when what ought to be defined as absurd is increasingly commonplace?
Rev. Byron Williams is one of the leading public theologians in the nation. He is a columnist, author, and adjunct professor at Wake Forest University. He is also host of the NPR-affiliated broadcast The Public Morality. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism, 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility, and the forthcoming The Radical Declaration: An Enlightened Ideal Learn more >