SACRAMENTO — Hundreds of mourners joined black and Muslim leaders at a church in California’s capital on Thursday for the funeral of Stephon Clark, a black father of two whose shooting death by the police 11 days ago has touched off protests around the country and opened a new rift of public anger about police use of force and treatment of minorities.
The approximately 300 people who packed the Bayside of South Sacramento Church were joined by an overflow crowd of some 600 who waited in the midday sun outside. And though they had come to grieve, the anger and tension that have spilled over into NBA basketball games and city council meetings at times simmered beneath the surface.
It was visible on the face of Clark’s brother, Stevante, who threw himself on his brother’s coffin as the ceremony began and later interrupted speakers from the NAACP to lead mourners in loud chants of his brother’s name.
Speaking during the funeral, Dallas-based Imam Omar Suleiman noted that Clark, whom police shot at 20 times, “had almost as many bullets put into him as the years he’s been on this earth.” Clark, 22, converted to Islam several years before his death.
The Rev. Al Sharpton delivered a eulogy that encouraged protesters and slapped back the assertion made by the White House that Clark’s death was a “local issue.”
“No, this is not a local matter,” Sharpton said. “They’ve been killing young black men all over the country.”
Stevante Clark, who earlier this week interrupted a city council meeting with a group of protesters by jumping on a platform where Mayor Darrell Steinberg was sitting and telling him to “shut up,” took on a different tone when he spoke at the funeral. He called on mourners to “forgive the mayor,” and after the service, he walked out of the church with Steinberg and other family members.
Sharpton stood from his seat several times to comfort Stevante Clark during the ceremony. He acknowledged that some were criticizing the actions of Clark’s family members and protesters.
“You don’t tell people in pain how to handle their pain,” Sharpton said. “You don’t tell people when you kill their loved one how to grieve.”
Sharpton defended protests that have disrupted traffic and two Sacramento Kings basketball games around town.
“They were not violent, they did not shoot at anybody 20 times, they didn’t take anybody down,” Sharpton boomed.
The Kings — whose players also participated in an on-court protest of Clark’s death — have said that a heavy police presence would be on hand Thursday to avoid another disruption of the team’s game.
Clark was shot on March 18, as police responded to a complaint that someone had been breaking windows in the neighborhood and spotted Clark running into a backyard.
One officer yelled “Hey, show me your hands! Stop!”, followed shortly thereafter by another yell of “gun, gun, gun” before officers fired their guns, discharging more than 20 bullets at Clark. He died in the yard — it was his grandmother’s house, where he had been staying. Police later said that the officers feared for their lives, though the only thing in Clark’s hand was a white iPhone.
Captured in grainy footage from a police helicopter as well as a shaky video from a body camera worn by one of the officers, Clark’s death has become the latest to galvanize protests about police use of force against minorities.
Clark was one of more than 3,000 people who have been shot and killed by U.S. police since 2015, according to The Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings.
Sharpton and other speakers at the funeral said they were determined to prevent Clark from being forgotten.
Muslim leaders said that his body was in such bad shape after the shooting and autopsies that they were unable to give it a ritual washing for the burial.
“The tools of dehumanization are eerily similar in how they are employed against Muslims and African Americans,” said Suleiman. “The vilification of these figures after they are killed is to plant the message that this isn’t a person worth fighting for, this isn’t a community worth fighting for.”
On Wednesday night, Sacramento-area Muslims held an emergency town hall with community leaders, the NAACP, and members of Clark’s family to discuss how his death has impacted the city.
Clark’s body was transported to St. Mary’s Cemetery to be buried next to his brother, who also died from gun violence.
Outside mourners and Sacramento residents who could not get into the church stood waited for Clark’s body to be moved to the hearse. Imam Zaid Shakir from Oakland, Calif. led more than 200 Muslims in a funeral prayer in the church’s parking lot, calling on attendees to stand in straight rows, and face Clark’s casket.
“We built our coffins much too often and we are tired of seeing our people die,” Shakir said inside the church. “This is not a Sacramento problem. This is uniquely an American problem.”
Alex Horton, Avi Selk and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.