On Sunday, March 18, a 22-year-old black man named Stephon Clark was killed by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard. They took his life with 20 bullets. Near Clark’s body, there was only a cell phone. After killing Clark, the officers muted their body cameras. On Thursday, following a week of protests, civil disobedience and other actions, Black Lives Matter demonstrators marched and their actions made national news across the sports pages. Yes, the sports pages.
These protesters made the decision to surround the Sacramento Kings’ publicly funded basketball arena, the Golden 1 Center, preventing fans from attending the game. As police closed in, the team locked the doors, keeping all the fans out, with the exception of a smattering of people who arrived early or entered through a VIP entrance. The game was subsequently played in front of empty seats, the silence of the arena standing in for the silencing of Stephon Clark’s voice. On Sunday, before the Kings tipped off against the Boston Celtics, players on both teams wore T-shirts during warm-ups with Clark’s name on the back and the phrase, “Accountability. We Are One” across the front. They kept the shirts on during the playing 0f the national anthem. Then, on the Jumbotron, the Kings and Celtics players played a public-service announcement calling for police accountability. In the video Celtic all-star Al Horford said, “We will not shut up and dribble.” Word also got out that former Sacramento Kings players DeMarcus Cousins and Matt Barnes even offered to pay for Stephon Clark’s funeral.
Yet all of this athlete activism only happened because Black Lives Matter activists in Sacramento dared to act. I spoke to the founder of the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter, Tanya Faison, about the decision to surround the arena and shut it down. Faison said that none of it was planned beforehand.
She explained: “Normally, how I organize, I go with the vibe of the crowd. Since Stephon was someone who had a lot of friends and family, many of them attended our first event [earlier in the week] and they were coming to this one. I knew I wanted to kind of follow their lead. So it was not planned to go to the Golden One Arena. It also wasn’t planned to block the freeway. None of it was planned. It was just how the crowd moved. We went to go block an intersection and people started to get on the freeway. The police blocked the traffic for us to be there but we didn’t want that so we headed to the Kings’ game. And it was just like, automatically somebody said, ‘Hey, let’s not let anybody into the game.’ And so that’s what we did.”
One of the stunning parts of this story is the way that the Kings had a game without fans, costing the team an untold amount of money, and yet they immediately displayed sympathy with the protesters and the family of Stephon Clark, from ownership to the front office to the players themselves.
“Yes, that was really surprising,” said Faison, “But it just showed that, even though there’s a lot of people saying they’re not happy with what we did, it needed to happen. I’m very happy with the outcome, especially the video by the Kings and the players who spoke out in support. So yeah, I’m very happy with that. Hopefully, it’s followed up by some action.”
This action includes an open invitation to Sacramento Kings players to do Black Lives Matter organizing in the city. “Players should come through to one of our events so they can reach out to our chapter and help out because Stephon Clark is definitely not the first person in Sacramento that’s been killed or abused by law enforcement,” she said. “Last year, alone, we were fighting for a number of people and we’ve been fighting for different people since 2015. If they really want to help, there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Back in October, Sacramento Bee associate editor Erika D. Smith wrote that Faison “might not be the leader Sacramento wants, but she’s the leader Sacramento needs.” She has certainly proved that where it matters most: among the people and in the streets.