There is an unbroken string connecting the deaths of George Stinney, a 14 year-old executed here in South Carolina in 1944, and Stephon Clark, an unarmed black male shot eight times in Sacramento last month by police.
One may choose to characterize the deaths as the government-sanctioned killing of two young black males, or one may rationalize that the legal system is not perfect, and that sometimes innocent people pay the price for crimes that they did not commit. Regardless of the characterization one chooses, one thing is clear: In 74 years, very little has changed regarding the white community’s general antipathy to the questionable killing of young black males at the hands of law enforcement. The only way killings of this type will ever stop is if the entire community begins to feel a sense of urgency and holds those responsible accountable for their actions. Until then, police shootings of innocent black males will continue, and confidence in our justice system will suffer.
There are major factual differences between the execution of George Stinney and the recent shooting death of Stephon Clark.
Stinney was convicted in a sham trial that at least had the semblance of due process. The Post and Courier recently ran an excellent series on this episode, reopening examination of the case’s factual details after several decades, and calling into question the evidence used to convict. Stinney was executed despite his tender age, suspect circumstantial evidence, and the fact that he seemed physically incapable of committing the crimes he was accused and convicted of perpetrating.
By contrast, Stephon Clark was executed without the benefit of a trial, before any charges were even levied against him. Although there was no official death sentence rendered, the Sacramento police officers delivered one when they shot Clark eight times, with six of those shots hitting him in the back. The police officers said they thought Clark had a gun in his hand at the time of his shooting, but it was subsequently discovered that he was only holding a cell phone. Clark, the father of two young children, was in his grandmother’s backyard when he was shot. At the time of the shooting, the police were responding to calls of a suspected vandal breaking car windows in the area.
What links these two victims despite the difference in time, geography, and manner of death is the profound sense of injustice and grief that their deaths caused to their families and communities. Compounding the sense of grief is the fact that these young men were executed at the hands of those entrusted to serve, protect and carry out just application of the law.
The standard response to deaths of Stephon Clark’s type, especially in the Trump political era, is to say that Blue Lives Matter. This statement is purposely designed not only to show support of law enforcement, but as a retort to the Black Lives Matter movement. What such a statement also implies is that police should always be given the benefit of the doubt when their actions are called into question after killing a black suspect. This argument diminishes the very real pain and grief suffered by the families mourning the loss of loved ones, and shows the wide racial disconnect on the unnecessary use of lethal force in black communities.
News reports similar to the death of Stephon Clark have become so commonplace that much of the country has gone numb to the families’ anguished pleas for justice. A recent Washington Post poll found that although blacks make up only 13 percent of the United States population, in 2015 they accounted for 26 percent of those that were killed by police, 24 percent in 2016, and 24 percent in 2017. In summary, blacks were the victims of the lethal use of force by police at almost twice the rate of the general population. Meanwhile, in 2017 the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty reached a 50-year low, according to USA Today. Blue lives do matter, but the hazards of being a police officer in the line of duty may not be as dangerous as being an unarmed black male in some communities.
Change to prevent more Stephon Clarks in the future, or to hold police accountable, will not occur until a majority of the white community begins to champion color-blind justice as a cause of their own. The civil rights movement did not gain steam until people of all races came together to decry the injustice which black protesters were opposing and losing their lives for. The reason why it took George Stinney’s family over 70 years to receive “justice” is because in today’s society, it does not take a racial affinity to the victim to recognize that killing a black boy for a crime he did not commit is wrong. Hopefully it will not take another 74 years before the entire community comes together to condemn shootings like Stephon Clark’s, and to ensure that when such killings occur, justice delayed is not justice denied.