Sacramento on edge ahead of police shooting victim's funeral


Sacramento (AFP)

Huge crowds are expected to join an outpouring of grief and rage Thursday at the funeral of an unarmed black man shot dead by police in California's capital Sacramento.

The service, where civil rights activist Al Sharpton will deliver the eulogy, has become a rallying cry for justice in the face of police violence against African Americans.

Body camera and surveillance helicopter footage released last week showed police chasing and then firing 20 rounds at 22-year-old Stephon Clark, fearing that he was carrying a weapon. He was actually holding an iPhone.

An uproar following the March 18 incident, erupting into days of protest in the streets of downtown Sacramento, with marchers blocking traffic and clashing with police in riot gear.

Rachel Noerdlinger, Sharpton's spokeswoman, said the public service would take place at 11:00 am (1800 GMT) at the Bayside Boss Church in southern Sacramento, not far from the rough neighborhood where Clark died.

The civil rights activist will hold a news conference, she added, with the Clarks' lawyer, renowned civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who negotiated the settlement for the family of Trayvon Martin.

Clark's girlfriend and two young sons spent Wednesday watching over his body as mourners filed through the church for a private wake.

"I just hope it can bring people together," his cousin Suzette Clark told NBC of the two-hour funeral. "Emotions are heightened, but I just hope everyone comes and shows compassion."

- Police abuses -

The incident was triggered by an emergency 911 phone call late on March 18 stating that a man was smashing car windows in the neighborhood.

Clark appeared to fit the suspect's profile and officers chased him, backed by a helicopter equipped with infrared cameras.

The helicopter and body camera footage showed Clark -- whom police say remains the prime suspect -- running through the neighborhood before entering his backyard.

The officers burst into the yard with their weapons drawn and confront the father-of-two before opening fire, each shot appearing as a flash on the helicopter's infrared footage.

"He would never want to leave his kids. He always wanted to make sure his kids were good," Salena Manni, the mother of the one and three-year-old boys told ABC 10.

The officers -- one of whom is black -- were put on leave. But the incident has revived a recurring debate over police abuses against African Americans, who account for an overwhelming share of suspects killed by police.

At least 16 other people -- three unarmed -- have died in confrontations with law enforcement from various agencies around Sacramento in the last two years, according to the Sacramento Bee newspaper.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has declined to comment in any detail on Clark's death, describing it in Wednesday's briefing as a "local matter."

More protests are expected after the funeral, following almost two weeks of unrest, with protesters blocking roads and access to NBA games.

Police have called for calm and earlier this week announced a state justice department investigation which will address, among many outstanding questions, why the officers muted their cameras in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

Dozens of Black Lives Matter members gathered at Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert's office on Tuesday to demand charges against the two officers who fired at Clark.

- 'Endemic racism' -

A city council meeting scheduled to last several hours was cut short as hundreds of protesters spilled into the chambers. Members of the public had already been able to testify about "endemic racism" they said had infected the police.

Clark's brother, Stevante Clark, suddenly burst into the meeting chanting his brother's name, captured in video footage that was widely shared on social media.

Sporting a shirt displaying his brother's image, he jumped onto the dias and cursed at the mayor, Darrell Steinberg, who called a recess.

Clark's grandmother Sequita Thompson, who shared the property where he was killed, wiped away tears as she chanted: "Justice. I want justice for my baby."

The Los Angeles Times printed Clark's criminal record, including cases of pimping and domestic abuse over the last four years, noting that he was on probation for a 2014 robbery when he was killed.

Clark remains the chief suspect for vehicle break-ins and an attempted burglary that brought police to the area, according to the Times.

Community leaders insist, however, that the officers' behavior, and not Clark's police history, is the relevant factor in determining the circumstances of his death.

The Clark family -- which lost Stephon's 16-year-old brother in a shooting in 2006 -- is considering whether to sue police over the latest incident, but even an out-of-court settlement is expected to take months to reach.