Grief and rage at funeral for police shooting victim in Sacramento

Mourners stand in line to enter the funeral services for Stephon Clark at the Bayside Boss Church in Sacramento, California, on March 29, 2018.
Mourners stand in line to enter the funeral services for Stephon Clark at the Bayside Boss Church in Sacramento, California, on March 29, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

SACRAMENTO (AFP) - Hundreds of mourners joined an outpouring of grief and rage on Thursday (March 29) at the funeral of an unarmed black man shot dead by police in California's capital Sacramento.

The service, where civil rights activist Al Sharpton delivered an angry, rousing speech, became a rallying point for people demanding justice in the face of police violence against African Americans.

Body camera and surveillance helicopter footage released last week showed police chasing and then firing 20 rounds at 22-year-old Stephon Clark, fearing that he was carrying a weapon. He was actually holding an iPhone.

An uproar following the March 18 incident erupted into days of protest in the streets of downtown Sacramento, with marchers blocking traffic and clashing with police in riot gear.

A rabbi sang at the Bayside Boss Church in southern Sacramento, not far from the neighbourhood where Clark died, while Muslim cleric Zaid Shakir led prayers at the ecumenical service.

"We're tired of seeing our people die. It's not only our people, this is a systemic problem... this is a uniquely American problem," Shakir said.

But it was Clark's emotional brother Stevante Clark who dominated proceedings, dancing and goofing around as gospel numbers including "Take Me to the King" and "Can't Nobody Love Me Like Jesus" rang out.

Overwrought but defiant, he led the crowd several times in a chant of "Stephon Clark! Stephon Clark," declaring as part of a rambling ad-libbed speech that "the Clark family will never die," before breaking down in tears and embracing Sharpton.

"You don't tell people in pain how to handle their pain. You don't tell people when you kill their loved one how to grieve," Sharpton told the congregation.

"We came because this boy should be alive today... we will never let you forget the name of Stephon Clark until we get justice," he said.

- Police abuses - .

The incident was triggered by an emergency 911 phone call late on March 18 stating that a man was smashing car windows in the neighbourhood.

Clark appeared to fit the suspect's profile and officers chased him, backed by a helicopter equipped with infrared cameras.

Clark - who police say remains the prime suspect - was recorded by the helicopter and police body-cams running through the neighbourhood before entering his backyard.

The officers burst into the yard with their weapons drawn and confronted the father-of-two before opening fire, each shot appearing as a flash on the helicopter's infrared footage.

The officers - one of whom is black - were put on leave. But the incident has revived a recurring debate over police abuses against African Americans, who account for an overwhelming share of suspects killed by police.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has declined to comment in any detail on Clark's death, describing it in Wednesday's briefing as a "local matter." .

- 'Endemic racism' - "No, this is not a local matter. They've been killing people all over the country and we're here to say we are going to stand with Stephon Clark and his family," Sharpton told the congregation.

The funeral came after almost two weeks of unrest, with protesters blocking roads and access to NBA games.

Dozens of demonstrators, led by pressure group Black Lives Matter, rallied mid-afternoon in front of the office of district attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who will decide whether to bring charges against the police.

The protests, including a wreath-laying ceremony at the front door of Schubert's office, were allowed to proceed despite the previous disruption.

The hands-off approach appeared to have kept a lid on the ever-present threat of violence and just two arrests were made, according to local media.

Supervised by the California Highway Patrol, activists waved banners saying "No justice, no peace," "Indict" and "Convict killer cops" as they marched toward the federal courthouse, where Sharpton was due to speak again.

Police have announced a state justice department investigation which will address, among many outstanding questions, why the officers muted their cameras in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

A city council meeting scheduled to last several hours was cut short on Tuesday evening as protesters spilled into the chambers. Members of the public had already been able to testify of "endemic racism" they said had infected the police.

Clark's grandmother Sequita Thompson, who shared the property where he was killed, wiped away tears as she chanted: "Justice. I want justice for my baby." The Los Angeles Times printed Clark's criminal record, including cases of pimping and domestic abuse over the last four years, noting that he was on probation for a 2014 robbery when he was killed.

Community leaders insist, however, that the officers' behavior, and not Clark's police history, is the relevant factor in determining the circumstances of his death.