Stephon Clark is Dead Because America Values Police Lives More Than His

Editor's Note:

Author and public defender Sajid Khan writes that the killing of Stephon Clark is a lethal reminder of who America values over others.

Stephon Clark is dead because we as a community and country value police lives more than the lives of the rest of us, particularly black and brown men.  

We traditionally, proudly and unapologetically laud police officers and glorify their jobs. We accept mantras that “police put their lives on the line for us” and affirm the notion that police step into the line of fire every time they perform their duties. These sentiments have been reinforced time and time again by our judicial and criminal justice systems. We afford police officers great deference in their use of lethal force and more often than not leave them un-prosecuted and without consequence for their killings of civilians. We, community members, prosecutors and juries, approve police officers pulling out their guns during contacts with the public. We believe and trust officers when they claim fear to justify their killings of the very people that they signed up to serve and protect.

Ultimately, our system of policing and our reactions to police violence illustrate our communal decision and standard to prioritize officer lives over the lives of the un-uninformed populous, particularly our black and brown brothers and sisters. We’d rather have hundreds of unarmed civilians die, such as Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and now Stephon Clark, than a police officer remotely risk harm to him or herself. We’ve said as much to officers over and over by failing to hold them accountable for the killings of our fellow human beings.

This prioritization of police officers lives and glorification of their duties manifested on the night of Stephon Clark’s killing and ultimately in his death. We arm police with deadly weapons because we maintain a communal, blind belief that officers are consistently in the line of fire, that the citizenry of our communities, particularly communities of color, are a pervasive, constant danger to their lives. We, and these values, put the guns that killed Stephon Clark in the Sacramento cops’ holsters and hands.  

These same beliefs resulted in the officers pulling out guns when they arrived on scene despite reports only of property crimes without any allegation of weapons, violence or imminent danger of bodily harm.  Our preference for police officer lives permitted these officers to chase Stephon Clark into his backyard with their guns drawn even though he had not threatened them or displayed any weapon.  

Our valuing police lives over the lives of the rest of us laid beneath the officer quickly and presumptively yelling “gun” and the officers unloading 8 shots into Stephon Clark’s back even though he made no furtive gestures, didn’t attack the officers and had nothing more than a cell phone. The officers, subconsciously, had no fear of consequence if they were wrong because of our country’s systemic deference and allegiance to police officers.

Our choice to elevate the lives of police was demonstrated by the officers leaving Stephon Clark’s bullet ridden body to die doing nothing, prioritizing some minimal, hypothetical risk to their own lives over saving the life of Mr. Clark. We as a community sanctioned their inactivity and callousness.   

What if the presumption and framework were different?  What if we valued police lives and the lives of the rest of us equally? What if we didn’t give police officers such deference, if we held them accountable when they get it wrong, if we demanded a higher standard of care and evidence to justify their display and use of guns?

Perhaps, if our values were different, Stephon Clark would still be alive. Perhaps those Sacramento officers wouldn’t have been armed with guns in the first place. Assuming we’re not ready to disarm police, perhaps they wouldn’t have pulled out their guns absent more imminent harm or danger. Perhaps the officer wouldn’t have yelled gun unless he was absolutely sure. Perhaps the officers wouldn’t have shot at all or wouldn’t have shot to kill. Perhaps they wouldn’t have stood there idly waiting for backup as Stephon Clark died within feet of them.

Stephon Clark’s death must not be in vain. We must use this moment to indict our communal values, to question and criticize every premise, to dismantle and reassemble our system and notions of policing that result in the systemic deaths of our black and brown brothers and sisters.

Rest in Power, Stephon Clark.

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