“They didn’t have to kill him like that. They didn’t have to shoot him that many times. Why didn’t you shoot him in the arm? Shoot him in the leg? Send the dogs. Send the taser. Why?”
That’s what Sequita Thompson said about the shooting of her grandson, Stephon Clark, by police last week in Sacramento. Days later, her simple question has stayed in my mind. Why?
By now, most of us have heard about the shooting of Stephon Clark — a Black father of two shot about eight times in his own backyard by Sacramento police who said that they thought Clark had a gun when they confronted him.
Stephon was only holding a cellphone. No firearm was recovered from the scene.
I should stop here and say that as a white woman, it’s unlikely that I will ever experience the nightmare Stephon’s family is living. I’m the mother of five, but I’ve never told my children to be careful around law enforcement — that those who should protect them could instead be a threat. If my 17-year-old son were to be pulled over by police, I wouldn’t worry that he may be in danger simply because of what he looks like.
After fatal shootings by police, it’s often leaders in communities of color who speak out first — not our national leaders. In fact, President Trump found the time to call to congratulate Roseanne Barr on her show’s ratings, but didn’t bother to reach out to Stephon’s family to offer his condolences. Instead, his spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, told media that Stephon’s death was “a local issue.”
But it’s not a local issue — it’s a national issue. And like every American who claims to be a gun violence prevention advocate, I have a responsibility to speak out against this uniquely American crisis. The unlawful shootings of Black and Brown people by law enforcement is gun violence. If we want to end gun violence, then we have to fight the systemic racism that can cause it, too.
Our country’s culture of shooting at what scares us has a body count in Black and Brown lives. Research has shown that Black people are three times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white men. In addition, Black men are 13 times more likely than white men to be victims of gun homicides. Black children and teens are 14 times more likely to be the victims of gun homicides than white children and teens.
This violence we’re witnessing is nothing new. It is deeply rooted in the history of our nation.
Last year, we watched as white supremacists descended on Charlottesville and exploited a law allowing the open carry of firearms like semi-automatic rifles to intimidate counter-protesters. And almost three years ago, a white supremacist entered the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and fatally shot nine Black people — worshippers who just moments before had been praying with him.
These blatant displays of intimidation and terror harken back to a time when hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized local Black communities, organizations, schools and churches.
Many Black and Brown people believe our country’s toxic gun culture and implicit bias led to the death of Stephon Clark — and I agree. In our work to deconstruct America’s “shoot first” culture, we have to include conversations and trainings with law enforcement centered on the dangers of implicit bias and accountability to the communities they serve. It is only through these means that communities of color can begin trusting law enforcement.
On April 9, I will join the California chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America in Sacramento to stand with the community, and to demand an end to this toxic gun culture that left a 20-year-old Black man dead in his grandmother’s backyard just days ago. We will also meet with lawmakers to talk about his death and discuss how we can reduce gun violence in communities of color.
Stephon Clark’s grandmother should not have to plead with law enforcement to “only” shoot Black youth in their limbs. Black and Brown mothers should not have to live in fear that their child will be shot on site because they were armed only with a cellphone. Something is seriously wrong when this is the reality of entire communities.
Last weekend, students across our country marched in Washington, D.C., and their local cities and towns to demand lawmakers do more to prioritize their lives over the agenda of the gun lobby. We must continue to follow their lead, and the example set by other groups and advocates who have been doing the work in this space, to make this movement intersectional, and to address gun violence in all its forms. We must fight for a safer country for all Americans.
What happened to Stephon Clark in Sacramento is unacceptable. We have to say “never again” to police violence, too.
Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and a mom of five. She lives in Colorado.