His brother’s keeper
Under a white-hot national spotlight, brother of slain Sacramento resident refuses to behave for the cameras
Stevante Clark does not want your sympathy. Or, to be more precise, at this moment he doesn’t want mine.
It’s late Monday afternoon, barely a week since his younger brother Stephon Clark was gunned down in their grandparents’ backyard for holding a cellphone at night.
Almost on a whim, Stevante caravanned to SN&R’s office on Del Paso Boulevard with a small entourage of longtime friends and two Vice News video journalists from Brooklyn. Before I can mumble an introduction or condolence, Stevante throws an arm around my neck and holds out a phone with a pulsing red light.
“Say, ’I am Stephon Clark,’” he commands.
I say it again.
This goes on for a while. I lose count of how many times I see my white face in a smudged screen saying, “I am Stephon Clark.” I register the Vice guys in the distance and wonder what they must think. A reporter, ceding control of an interview to a subject, becoming part of the story he’s supposed to cover objectively, without any emotion or opinion.
But Stevante already knows that’s a myth. We all live in the same world. And either we’re all human or we ain’t. So I say the words until he’s heard enough.
This interview came together suddenly. But “suddenly” is Stevante’s life right now.
A little after 9 p.m. on Sunday, March 18, two Sacramento police officers realized the worst possible outcome of the broken-windows strategy of law enforcement. Responding to reports that a tall, thin man had smashed some car windows along the 7500 block of 29th Street, Officers Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet chased the person they thought responsible into a residential backyard and opened fire.
The officers reportedly mistook the cellphone in Stephon’s hand for a gun. They threw 20 rounds after that assumption.
The city of Sacramento has been seized by unrest ever since. The vigils came first. Then the marches. Then the press conferences and the listening sessions and Tuesday’s announcement that the California Department of Justice would oversee the criminal probe into the shooting. It’s all happened fast, at a breakneck pace, at the speed of 20 bullets flying toward a 22-year-old man standing outside his home.
The death of Stephon Clark has become a national story—his name signaling the kind of tale America knows all too well: Unarmed black man dies by police firing squad. Leaves behind two sons, a mom, siblings, and all those who gave a damn about Stephon Clark long before the country started paying attention. Community rages. Politicians promise. Life sneaks on. Until the next tragedy.
Stevante Clark is here to upend that stale, sickening narrative. Since his brother’s killing, Stevante has been assigned a slew of roles he never asked for—grieving brother, social activist, avatar of injustice, symbol of the resistance. He wears those robes uneasily.
“Sacramento was put on my back,” Stevante says. “Like, I didn’t ask for this. I just got a raise at my security job. I was happy. You know what I mean? I was getting it, dude. I was getting mine. I was gonna get my car out of the shop next week. I was happy. And then all this shit happened. And I didn’t even get my car out of the fucking shop.”
Against his will, Stevante starts to cry. Doing as they’ve been instructed, his friends shout at him to stop. Stevante Clark won’t give the world his tears. So he sucks in his breath and rages instead.
Dressed in a black hoodie bearing his brother’s likeness, Stevante hides his expressive eyes behind dark sunglasses and burns down a couple of blunts while seated at the head of a long conference table. Meek Mill’s “We Ball” echoes from a blue-tooth speaker. He says it’s the one song getting him through. He used to be an artist, too. He was a rapper that didn’t trade in gangland cliches. He performed under the name Pharoah Davinci and had the local label, Black Market Records, backing him. He says he could go wherever he pleased in this city, because he didn’t claim a gang that chopped up Sacramento into territories.
But now, he’s lost the taste for his art, among other things. The hunger has left him. He can almost remember what it tasted like.
“I don’t wanna talk to you about this,” he makes clear. “I used to make music. I want to talk to you about my album or some shit, you know what I mean? … I don’t want to come here about this. It reminds me of 20 times.”
Somewhere behind the disguise, bullets fly through his head. Stevante slams a fist against the table. “Twenty times.”
When Stevante was 13 or 14, he says, he went door to door selling subscriptions for the Sacramento Bee. He managed to squirrel away a couple hundred bucks to buy Stephon’s way into Pee Wee football. “Because he loved football,” Stevante says.
Stevante wasn’t much interested in sports. Music was always his passion, but work was his life. He always had jobs, he says, plural. He says he spent time in the foster care system, where he learned to rely on himself. When his brother was killed, he says, he was juggling five jobs along with his music. Had a nice little duplex in Carmichael where his friends could hang. Had enough money to buy his mom a car and keep himself looking sharp. Was making enough to look after his people.
“I’ve always worked. I’ve always been trying to get it for them. I always tried to take care of them,” he says of his siblings. “Because they have no good examples. That’s why I’ve never been to jail. That’s why I’ve never done any drug in my life but smoke and drink. That’s why I’ve never got a girl pregnant or really been unemployed. Because I’ve always known that if I fuck up, what is that going to look like to them? We’ve already lost a big brother.”
Stevante doesn’t get specific, but others who know the family say his older brother was a victim of gun violence. They had a sister who died either during or shortly after childbirth, too. His was a family already carrying too much, and now it’s carrying this, too.
There are already fake crowdfunding sites (the real one: https://www.gofundme.com/justus4zoe) and merchandising fraudsters, who have slapped Stephon’s image on T-shirts or in music videos without the family’s permission.
And there’s still more nonsense. Stevante says he’s been mistakenly called his brother’s name in interviews, and that his photos have been mistaken for Stephon’s. It’s like he’s entered an alternate reality where he was the one who died, while a caricatured portrayal of his brother is what survives to peddle to the masses.
Under the most “normal” circumstances, grief can drive a person mad. But under this white-hot national spotlight, Stevante doesn’t get to grieve like other people. He’s wary of his private pain being turned into some crude commodity by the leering media and professional opportunists. So he tries to hold it in. The strain shows. Stevante pinwheels from sorrow to fury in a lightning flash. One moment he’s stomping his boots against the floor, the next he’s in someone’s face demanding to be heard. It’s understandable. It’s a human reaction in an inhuman situation.
“Every time people see me, they see pain,” Stevante explains. “They don’t see me, say, ’Oh, he’s cool.’ No, they see me, they wanna cry. They wanna cry. And I’m the one always gotta be like, ’Be strong, be strong.’ Knowing damn well my heart is just shattered.”
I ask Stevante when he tends to that broken heart. He answers rapidly.
“Never,” he says. “Sleep when you’re dead. Only thing that come to a nigga that sleeps is a dream. If you slept longer than 15 minutes, you slept too long enough. You hear me? Take care of myself,” he scoffs. “I got nephews I gotta look after. I don’t got kids myself. I’m irrelevant.”
Stevante removes his glasses and glares.“I’m Stephon Clark now.”
Sequita Thompson recognized the explosions for what they were instantly. Stephon and Stevante’s grandmother was inside her Meadowview house when the gunshots sounded, sitting at her computer in the den, she said during a Monday press conference. When the shooting started, Thompson went to the ground and scrambled to the 7-year-old granddaughter sleeping on a couch. Thompson had already lost two grandchildren well before their times, and wasn’t going to let the city steal another. She yanked the girl to the floor and the two of them belly-crawled into a bedroom.
“They shooting,” Thompson called out to her husband, wondering who “they” were this time.
Later, detectives came to the house and told the family not to go outside. Thompson feared the worst. Stephon was living with her, plus the house was a hub of activity for the tight-knit family, many loved ones coming through on the regular.
Thompson said she told the detectives she hoped police hadn’t killed one of her grandkids, “because they come through the back.” That’s where they get her husband’s attention through the window so he can open the garage door for them. She thought of the grandson she saw earlier that day. Stephon was looking forward to his birthday in August. Then she learned he would be forever stuck at 22 years old.
“But they didn’t have to kill him like that. They didn’t have to shoot him that many times,” she said Monday in a voice hoarse with grief.
Weeping for justice, Thompson was led out of City Hall’s atrium and spirited to her baffling new reality. Community leaders opened up the proceedings to questions from the media. Before a second one could be answered, Stevante manifested at the podium, seemingly out of nowhere. Puckishly kissing two women from the NAACP on their cheeks, Stevante mugged for the cameras. Then he zeroed in on an emotional spectator and led an impromptu call-and-response chant of his brother’s name. Then he disappeared.
He does stuff like that. His friend and manager Darron Powe cracks that Stevante’s probably the only person who has ever hung up on the Rev. Al Sharpton and missed a call from Sean Combs, the rapper-producer once known as P. Diddy.
“Who do you know who hangs up on Al Sharpton and misses a call from Diddy?” Powe bellows. “Diddy!”
Maybe Stevante just wised up to the game. He recognizes that he’s in the eye of manmade hurricane, one in which historical injustice flings shocking horrors that are now even easier to view on our mobile devices. He knows this is a culture that binges on tragedy, that vomits out the last one to make room for the next. Stevante is rebelling against that pattern. It’s about the fourth or fifth time that he mentions his plans to build a community library that I finally understand there’s a meaning to his message. Actually, Stevante is the one to explain it.
“When a president leaves office, what does he get?”
“And that says something, right?”
It sure does.
Stevante turns his attention to the friends he brought with him, the ones who knew him before this and will know him after. The ones who have lost people like he’s lost people.
“Nigga, we all we got,” he tells them. “Nobody has ever loved us. Ever. And now all these [people] here trying to exploit our pain. You see how they come through, see our pain? Now they wanna come down? Oh we gonna give them something to see, alright? And we gonna get this community together and we gonna do this for my brother, a’right? Because he was the shit. He loved Sacramento.”