The crowd of protesters was estimated by the Sacramento Bee at “a few hundred,” and all but about 4,000 fans were kept from entering the 17,608-seat arena. The protests were in response to the March 18 death of Stephon Clark. Two officers, believing he was an armed burglary suspect, shot at him 20 times in his grandparents’ backyard after a helicopter pilot spotted him jumping a fence. Clark was holding a cellphone, not a gun, and graphic videos of the shooting, released by police, have prompted protests in Sacramento and elsewhere. Tuesday night’s game was the second Kings home date this month played in front of an abnormally small crowd because of protests outside the arena.
“If there was nobody here, I’d salute that,” Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. said of the crowd of 4,000. “It was different. I didn’t know that’s why they weren’t coming in, but like I said, I salute that if it brings attention [to the Clark situation].”
The Kings-Mavericks contest was the fourth game of Sacramento’s six-game homestand. Protests on Thursday had forced a lockdown before a Kings-Atlanta Hawks game, and on Tuesday night, the Kings arena was again the target of protesters, this time after a boisterous city council meeting. According to the Bee’s account, council members left the dais, police officers entered the city hall chambers and protesters and ministers alike called for peace after citizens testified for hours about what they said was decades-long racism among police and lack of action by public officials.
The team said in a statement that the protests prevented fans “from safely entering the arena,” that “the safety of our guests is our number one priority,” and that “the doors were closed to maintain guest and public safety.” Ticket holders, the team said, would soon receive refund information.
Over the weekend, the Kings had sought to send a message to protesters, as they and the Boston Celtics wore pregame shirts honoring Clark. The Kings’ shirts, like an accompanying video, stressed unity and responsibility, bearing the words “Accountability. We Are One.” on the front and #StephonClark on the back. The idea, which came from a member of the team’s player development staff, was carried out by veteran guard Garrett Temple.
“It’s probably the toughest job in America,” Temple said of police work Sunday, “and I applaud them for putting their lives on the line every night, every day, but with that comes responsibility. That’s the mantle that they carry and the burden that they bear.”
Players on both the Mavericks and the Kings suggested Wednesday that what was happening in the streets outweighed a game played inside an arena only about one-quarter occupied.
“The beauty of the game is that we have this platform to speak about these things and to be able to speak about police brutality and citizen-police relationships, disproportionate amount of African Americans getting killed, stuff like that,” Harrison Barnes said (via SportsDayDFW.com). “I think it’s important that we use that platform and talk about these things. Our hearts and condolences go out to those affected.”
Barnes told reporters he had discussed converting awareness into activism with Temple and other players.
“Obviously it’s not easy. It’s difficult,” he said. “But we just want more accountability all around, whether that’s community policing, whether that’s the policymakers and the people at the table have more conversations with activists. These stories can’t become a regular thing. That’s what the tragedy is, that they’re becoming the normal.”
Protesting elsewhere in the area, some players said, would not have had the same effect as marching to an NBA game.
“If they were doing this somewhere else in the city, would they still be garnering the same attention?” Barnes said. “Would it be at the front of every opposing team that’s coming in here? Would it be national news that the Sacramento Kings are locking fans out of their stadium? ‘Why are they locking fans out of the stadium? Oh, because this young man was killed.’ Then the dialogue keeps going that way.
“There’s never an easy way that’s easy for everyone who’s involved to accept it and be on board, but the point is to bring attention to something to start a debate, and that’s what they’re doing.”
The Kings, well out of playoff contention, have three remaining home games this season: Thursday, Saturday and on April 11.