A bead of sweat drips off my face and hits the gray concrete sidewalk as I bend over. I lock my dusty black road bike to the cold, metal bike rack in front of Sacramento City Hall. A chubby tall, white man with a barely visible ring of grey thinning hair around the base of his head talks loudly on a cell phone. He paces back and forth.
“You know I am a white man, so I just here to support and take orders from you all.” I hear him say. He is wearing a black oversized T-shirt that read “Build. Black.” in purple and white letters across his bulbous chest.
I am here at City Council for the community forum about Stephon Clark, a man who was murdered by the police in his Grandma’s yard on March 18th, 2018.
I am trying to figure out how to place myself in this scene. I am alone and traveling by bicycle–a strategic way to get from place to place in a city that has been erupting in sporadic bursts of protest for the past week. You don’t know what streets will be shut down and when, so you cruise on by.
I put my bike helmet in my backpack and stand up straight, stretching my arms to the sky. I am trying to look natural mask the subtle anxiety that starts churning in my belly. I feel like a high school student who had to show up to a dance by herself. She stands on the sidelines, a wallflower watching the mob of people sway back and forth under cheap disco lights in her school gymnasium. It takes some courage to walk towards a crowd alone. I may have left my courage at home today. So, I fake it and try to look natural.
I roll my shoulders back and pretend to stretch again, biding my time. I look behind me towards a row of tall oak trees that line the city street. News trucks are crammed together, parked next to a curb. I see a row of cheap plastic tables and a line of people waiting with vacant expressions waiting in front of them.
It’s a peculiar scene. It seems so out of place. A petite woman with gray, wrinkled skin serves bowls of beans and loaves of bread to the outstretched hands. A homeless man paces back and forth throwing his hands up in the air and intermittently screaming things like “we’re just here to support you guys” and “they shot his ass.”
Nuns feed the homeless here. I make a mental note.
I start walking down the block and turn towards the massive concrete building. I shimmy my shoulders adjusting the weight of my backpack. I feel painfully conscious of every move I make.
A woman is standing in front of a circular fountain handing out shirts and buttons that read “Build. Black.” Everywhere I look I see people wearing these shirts. A thin white woman offers me a “Build. Black.” button as I walk by. I shake my head and say “no, thank you.” I am skeptical of the forces at play here—about who is trying to brand this moment and create the next hashtag, about who is swooping in and trying to turn a tragedy into a photo opportunity.
I walk towards rows of gray, tinted windows that must be over 50ft high stretching up from the concrete and obscuring the City Hall chambers from the gaze of the outside crowd. A mass of black bodies all stand in front of 3 metal detectors that are perched in front of the entrance to the building. It’s 4:35 pm and the “community forum” is supposed to start in 25 minutes. The chambers are full and crowds of people are still waiting to get in.
I stand on a black metal park bench, trying to get an aerial view of the crowd, trying to get a sense of where the lone white lady might fit.
My efforts to “show up” feel futile. I feel sheepish. My eyes scan back and forth. I pull my home-made from my bag and just stand there, on top my this black metal park bench, watching, taking it all in. I feel the gravity pooling in my ankles, a weight holding me in place.
As I stand there, I think of a term my mentor told me, “sacred presence.” It’s where you don’t have to give or say or do anything, you just show up and learn how to be with people. This is not easy for an overachieving alcoholic, but I “fake it til I make it.” I stand there and just hold my sign, breathing, trying not to worry about what happens next.
It’s been 10 days since Stephon Clark was murdered. The waves of shock have stopped reverberating through people’s mind and now everyone is sitting here in line, holding back anger and sadness that would spill out in unpredictable spurts from next three and a half hours.
I scan the crowd and see Mary, a 50 something elder, radical lesbian woman who has been on the streets of Sactown for year. I know from my Friday Women’s meeting. Our eyes connect, we give a knowing nod and half smile. I jump down from the bench and go stand next to her, feeling relieved to see another white, alcoholic woman alone in this crowd. We’re about 100ft from the entrance to City Hall standing next to a speaker that is projecting the voices from within the City Hall chambers.
At 5:02pm, the forum begins and I am startled by the disembodied voices that pour out of the speaker. The mayor drones on about the pain and suffering and all the policies, protocols and other irrelevant things that were going to happen. A councilman from the Meadowview community then takes the floors. More words float through the air. They are sorry. They know the community. Insert all politically correct diatribes here. The numbness is ruptured by a sudden silence, rumbling, and string of expletives pierce the air.
“Man, shut the fuck up,” I hear as I look at Mary, realizing that the droning on of political appropriate jargon had ended.
Stevante Clark, Stephon’s brother, just took over the city council meeting, rushing past security, jumping on the mayors desk and screams “fuck you” in his face. He hoists his sagging pants above his hip bones, thrusts his fist in the air and does a celebratory dance like he had just scored the winning touchdown at his high school football game. I’d later learn that this was his winning moment. The few moments where he had control of the dialogue, a say in what happened next.
He has a red and white bandana tied around his cleanly shaven head. Bright white head phones draped around his neck. He is wearing black felt slippers—the kind more “appropriate” people would exchange for shoes upon leaving their house.
“The rent is too high.” “Dre T is mayor now.” A reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. I stand in semi-circle of people watching anger burst from between Stevante’s lips. It’s a string of non-sequitors, ideas that emerge and disappear as quickly as they form. It’s a mix of pain, grief, sadness and impending psychosis.
I am watching this all unfold from behind the tinted glass of the City Council chambers, standing in a concrete courtyard surrounded by Black people–most of whom are doning “Build. Black.” shirts. We’re all staring at a TV screen next to the window. The screen gives the crowd a close up of Stevante’s coup unfolding inside.
A homeless woman with tan, weathered skin and her meaty pitbull lay on the concrete underneath the TV screen. She is curled up next to our feet. We are all looking past her. She is wearing a “Build. Black” t-shirt as she lays on her red tattered sleeping bag, one arm draped over her white and tan spotted dog. She has a soft smile on her face and looks peaceful even as the swarms of bodies around her grow more agitated and shocked. She doesn’t move. The gaze of onlookers, the crowds of black community members watching as Stevante screams into the microphone filling the chamber with disconnected words and ideas, don’t seem to disrupt her rest. Perhaps she is immune to this, the gaze of others, the world churning on as she tries to get some rest.
Over the next several days, the nation would watch Stevante Clark’s mind unravel, his thoughts growing more and more disconnected. We’d watch his nostrils flaring, eyes narrowing, seething with anger. “We haven’t slept. We haven’t eaten. I didn’t ask for this.” The next moment he flings his fists in the air, knees bouncing, jubilantly dancing seeming electrified by the attention of onlookers. He throw his body on his brother’s casket. “I love the mayor,” he’d declares on national television no less than 48 hours after telling his to “fuck off.”
It’s been two days since the City Council meeting and I am pushing my bike down the sidewalk looking for the Black Lives Matter protest. We were supposed to meet in front of D.A. Anne Marie Schubert’s office at 3:00. It’s 4:00 and the sidewalks are all empty, save for one white woman and her partner standing in front of the D.A.’s building. “I just got off work. I don’t know where everyone is.” She is holding a sign that reads “Justice 4 Stephon” in green lettering. A white PVC pipe holds the poster paper in place. She gets a text from her friend and says the protest moved to the courthouse.
I ride several blocks, round the corner and head towards the courthouse. I see Stevante Clark dressed in a oversized white t-shirt marching down the side walk toward a crowd. He is surrounded by semi-circle of large black men, his “body guards.” I feel strangely star struck. He’s become a symbol for police violence and collective resistance in America. I watch Stevante walk towards a group of about 50 protestors are chanting “justice 4 Stephon.” A line of bodies are blocking the on-ramp to the I-5 entrance.
Stevante makes his way towards the center of the crowd. He grabs the bullhorn and screams “anyone blocking the streets is disrespecting my family.” I stand on the outside of the circle and listen to his rant and scream, “I didn’t ask for this.” “Do y’all love me?” “I am….(Stephon Clark).” A black, cloth high top sneaker flies through the air and lands at the base of a telephone pole about 3 feet from me. Stevante had taken off his shoes and hurled them through the air. A older white hippie dude hands the shoes to one of his body guards the shoes.
The same disconnected bursts of sadness and jubilation are spilling forth in an unpredictable sequence. Synapses in his brain can’t seem to connect on idea to another. I imagine someone giving a lecture on trauma and showing a photo of a brain lit up like Christmas lights—one part isn’t communicating with another. There are just flashes of random lights.
As an addict, I have banned myself from most social media—installing apps that prevent me from accessing Facebook, but I have broken all my self imposed social media rules these days. I re-watch videos of the City Council meeting and my eyes fill with tears. Watching Stevante’s very public decline into hysterics reminds me of my sister. He is acting out a pattern I have seen one too many times before. I am reminded of times when I was with my sister in the emergency rooms. She would verbally and physically act out as nurses and doctor’s trying to restrain her. She’d yell one disconnected thought and then another. A stream of emotions and ideas flowing through her mind so fast and she is grabbing onto whatever piece she can, just trying to stay afloat, but nothing will hold her. “I didn’t ask for this.” “I am…. (Stephon Clark).”
As I watch these scenes unfold over the past week, I am desperately trying to form a coherent thought around all of it. I am trying to piece together the senseless, lawless murder of young black man, the public decay of his brother’s mind, the homeless woman clad in a “Build. Black” t-shirt peacefully sleeping on the concrete as history unfolds around her, of my sister who also suffered irreversible trauma and is now locked in an institution far from me.
I found an article on Facebook that is helping me figure this out, helping understand the deep connections that just underneath the surface of all this. The article is entitled “White People Don’t Understand the Trauma of Police Killing Videos.” It’s written by Monnica Williams, a black social activist professor who studies race-based trauma and mental health disparities. She writes:
“We need the world to see what is being done to our people to help bring it to an end. And it’s not just black people – these things are happening to Hispanic people, Native Americans and the mentally ill. The stigmatized and disenfranchised among us. I feel solidarity with all of them.”
I feel solidarity with all of them.
The scenes I saw last week will be lodged in my mind for a long time. I don’t doubt that as I go back to work next week, I’ll be refreshing browser and trolling Facebook looking for answers and information. I don’t know exactly what this all means yet and that makes me uncomfortable. The poet in me likes to think I am OK with ambiguity. But, if I am honest, the alcoholic, who prefers control and black and white, wins every time. So, I’ll keep sitting here with this discomfort—unsure of what to think of it all.
What I can say is that I do feel a new form of hope growing inside me in the midst of the chaos. Growing up with the sort of chaos that never really gets better, hope is never a word that resonated with me. However, I learning to open up to it and to let a little hope grow inside of me.
For now, my hope is that as we Build. Black., we, as a Sacramento community, cast a net wide enough, we grow a vision large enough, that it can hold all of us together. For me, Building. Black. is about bringing the margins to the center, and allowing us to feel solidarity with “the other.”