Days later, Clark’s name would become the latest on the list of black men killed by the police, the fresh flashpoint for the nation’s long simmering tensions between racial minorities and law enforcement.
His funeral service, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, was held at Shiloh Temple, an international congregation just blocks from where Clarke died after being shot in the head by a Minneapolis police officer.
The shooting came after Clark allegedly got in an altercation with officers responding to an assault call on Nov. 15. But the details remain murky. Witnesses say Clark was handcuffed when he was shot, and the Department of Justice has launched a federal investigation. In the meantime, thousands have taken to the streets in protests — hundreds have camped out at the local police precinct for more than a week — demanding that police release bystander and surveillance video that allegedly captured the shooting.
“It’s a sad situation, but I think we need God right now,” said Tray Jones, a family friend who performed a hymn at the service. “He’s the only one who can intervene right now.”
About 100 people sat in purple velvet pews, some in dark suits but many more in T-shirts calling for “Justice for Jamar” or emblazoned with the dead man’s likeness.
“Today I want you to leave all of your issues, causes, cares and concerns at the door,” said Gloria Walton, a minister at Clark’s church. “We have collectively come together to share the pain, grief and mourning.”
But, as they spoke one at a time of the brother, cousin and son they lost, Clark’s family members could not divorce their slain loved one from the symbol he has now become in death. They praised the ongoing protests, they called on local elected officials to show leadership, and they insisted that justice requires that the officer who killed Clark be charged in the shooting.
“The savages have got to be held accountable,” said James Hill, one of Clark’s older brothers.
For the last 15 months, the nation has engaged in a passionate debate about race, policing and justice. On average, police officers have shot and killed more than two people each day this year — more than 880 in total. And almost three dozen police officers have been shot and killed by suspects in the line of duty.
Some of the dead have become national symbols, anecdotes in a bitter struggle between police reform activists and law enforcement groups: each new black man or woman killed by an officer proof that American policing needs drastic reform; every officer killed in the line of duty new evidence that the protests amount to a war on police.
“Jamar, your life did and does have purpose,” shouted Bishop Richard Howell, the pastor of the church that hosted the service, who said the state must address the economic plight of Minneapolis’ black community and called for a special session of the state legislature. “Your death was not in vain!”
On Monday night, five of those protesting were shot and wounded, an attack for which three white men were later taken into custody. The activists decried the attack as an attempt to intimidate them, and hundreds showed up to protest the following day. Then shots were fired again early Wednesday morning for the second night in a row. One man was arrested, but there were no reports of injuries, police said.
“We’ll be back out there tonight,” said Jayme Ali, a local minister who has been involved in the protests and attended the memorial service. “But first we need to be here for the family.”
For many of the families of those killed by police the rush of scrutiny and attention — a burden that comes as they prepare to bury their loved one — is overwhelming.
At the memorial, one of Clark’s sisters fought tears as she urged mourners not take their loved ones for granted. A brother, Eddie Sutton, implored worshippers to send a text message to someone they love before it’s too late.
Their dead relatives become hashtags, characters whose lives are publicly dissected both by those seeking to lionize the dead and those seeking to demonize them. Whether they wish it or not, their loved one’s funeral services double as public events that are equal parts grieving and politicking.
Thousands packed the funeral of Michael Brown last year in St. Louis, requiring an overflow room so the hundreds who could not fit in the sanctuary could watch on video screens. When two New York City police officers were ambushed and killed last December, their funeral services were broadcast nationally and included a eulogy by Vice President Biden. On the day after the officer who killed her son was charged with murder, the mother of Walter Scott snuck past the television cameras propped on the lawn of her modest South Carolina home — she had to choose a funeral plot.
Clark’s funeral service was preceded by a two-hour viewing, during which a seemingly unending stream of family filed past the casket, Clark’s face covered with a thin white veil.
He was the youngest of 10 children, and the third of his parents’ children to die. His obituary testified to his love for swimming and fishing, noted that he had been working for a local trucking company and car wash, and recalled that “as a child, Jamar was always full of energy and had a big smile.”
Hill, his brother, recalled the excitement in Clark’s voice when he called several months ago to relay the news that he had gotten a new job at the car wash.
“You would had thought he hit the lottery for $50 million,” Hill said with a smile.
But the speeches and tributes focused as much as the legacy of Clark’s death as they did on his life. Most included calls for justice. The eulogy was an alter call, in which a local minister urged mourners faced with the reality of earthly death to choose eternal life.
Several of the speakers used their remarks to return to Clark’s final Facebook post — his premonition of his own death and his public pondering of whether his life would serve a higher purpose.
“Jamar had a purpose,” Sutton said. “Jamar had a purpose. He was put on this earth with a purpose…to unite us.”