SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A standing-room-only crowd packed into a church Thursday to celebrate the life of a 22-year-old black man who was shot to death by Sacramento police, prompting angry protests in California’s capital city and a resolve to force changes in police departments around the country.
The musical and scriptural celebration of Stephon Clark’s life was interrupted by his emotional brother Stevante, who hugged and kissed the casket, led the crowd in chanting his brother’s name, pounded his chest and shouted. Others on the stage attempted to calm him, with limited success.
The Rev. Al Sharpton hugged and consoled him and told the crowd not to judge how families grieve.
“This brother could be any one of us, so let them express and grieve,” Sharpton said as he delivered the eulogy with Stevante Clark clutching him around the neck. “We are proud of them for standing up for justice.”
Later Thursday, about 100 protesters blocked downtown streets for the third day in a row during rush hour but did not prevent fans from entering a Sacramento Kings NBA game at a downtown arena as they had during two previous games. Stevante Clark had asked protesters not to block the game.
Security was heavy outside, with police standing in riot gear and fans entering through heavy fencing and metal detectors. The game between the Kings and Indiana Pacers began without disruption.
Clark was killed March 18 by two Sacramento police officers responding to a report of someone breaking car windows. Video of the nighttime incident released by police shows a man later identified as Clark running into the backyard of his grandparent’s home where police fired 20 rounds at him after screaming “gun, gun, gun.”
It turned out Clark was holding a cellphone.
About 500 people attended the funeral, where friends and family shared memories of Stephon Clark’s “keen dancing ability,” sense of humor and smarts, and his desire to be a good father to his two young sons. Speakers frequently started call-and-response chants of “I am … Stephon Clark.”
Clark’s name has been a rallying cry at protests and calls for police reform in California and beyond. Families of people killed by police marched Thursday in Compton, calling for more transparency in use-of-force investigations, and the night before a small group of protesters gathered in New York City.
In Sacramento, Sharpton and others chastised President Donald Trump for failing to comment on police shootings of young black men. On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about the Clark shooting and demurred, referring to it as a local issue.
“That is a systemic problem, not a local problem,” said Zaid Shakir, a prominent California imam and former spiritual adviser to Muhammad Ali. “That’s an American problem, a uniquely American problem.”
Omar Suleiman, another imam who spoke, warned of attempts by the press to attack Clark’s character as a way to suggest he’s not “worth fighting for.”
“The same media that humanizes white terrorists vilifies black victims,” he said.
The near daily protests in downtown Sacramento have remained largely peaceful, with only a few instances of physical confrontations between protesters and police or other civilians. Several protesters Thursday approached a line of police on bicycles, with one holding up a cellphone and asking “is this a gun?”
At the funeral, Sharpton and others praised demonstrators for their restraint and urged them to follow the lead of the Rev Martin Luther King Jr. and his advocacy of nonviolent protest.
The Kings and their owner have been supportive of the Clark family.
The team announced plans to set up an education fund for Stephon Clark’s children and a partnership with Black Lives Matter Sacramento to bring “transformational change” to the city’s black communities. Former Kings player Matt Barnes attended the funeral and helped pay for it.
The arena is the focal point of a downtown revitalization effort. The area has struggled economically and has a large homeless population.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he’s committed to working with Stevante Clark to bring more resources to his South Sacramento community.
The two spoke at the funeral, where Stevante Clark apologized for previously disrupting a City Council meeting by jumping on a desk, dancing and shouting his brother’s name at Steinberg.
“We’re going to forgive the mayor, amen,” Clark said at the funeral. “Everybody say they love the mayor.”
Shernita Crosby, Stephon Clark’s aunt, has said the family isn’t “mad at all the law enforcement.”
“We’re not trying to start a riot,” she said. “What we want the world to know is that we got to stop this because black lives matter.”
Associated Press writers Sophia Bollag in Sacramento, John Antczak and Brian Melley in Los Angeles and videographer Haven Daley contributed to this story.