Adapted from remarks delivered at Stephon Clark’s funeral, March 29, in Sacramento, California.
In the aftermath of the violent shooting death of Stephon Clark, I ― like many of you ― felt the same pain and outrage that I felt after the unwarranted murders of so many others. Some time after, I learned that Stephon was a Muslim. But as Malcolm said, black people aren’t brutalized in this country because they’re Baptist, Methodist, Muslim or Catholic, but because they’re black people in America.
We cannot bring Stephon back from the dead, but we can make sure that his death is not in vain, that his family is loved and properly cared for, that justice is properly served, and that his memory is not slain as well.
Because, too often in the immediate aftermath of black bodies being riddled with police bullets, their characters are riddled with the bullets of politicians and the press.
The vilification of these victims thereby facilitates the continued racial profiling of young black men and the rationalization and entrenchment of racist attitudes in policy and law enforcement.
The images that will be plastered will be done so to paint a certain picture of Stephon, much like what was done to Trayvon Martin, much like what was done to Michael Brown. Not the images of a young man ― as imperfect as he may have been, like us all ― who had hopes and dreams. Not the images of a young man who had a family that loved him, and that was beloved to him. Not the images of him playing with his beautiful children. But images that will continuously defame his character.
He will be framed not as a victim of senseless terror, but as a representative of America’s criminal element that was inevitably destined to suffer from a violent ending.
They will use whatever few incidents or images of him that they can to characterize his entire life this way. All of this smearing to sustain the prevailing narrative and policy. All of this to somehow make Stephon culpable in his own death. To somehow justify an unarmed man holding a cellphone being shot at 20 times, mutilated by eight of those bullets, all hitting him directly in the back or side, left to bleed out on the ground, and then handcuffed all in his grandmother’s backyard.
You will see the prominence of racist symbols and constructions so embedded in the American psyche that we cannot see beyond them. Just as Trayvon’s hoodie, Alton’s gold teeth and Philando’s tattoos were used to portray these young black men as having a predisposition for violence, ungovernable except by brutality.
“The problem isn’t that so many people are hurt and angry, the problem is that more aren’t.”
The victim is somehow always made out to be the aggressor. Because if you cast enough aspersions on his character, create enough doubt about the circumstances of his murder and maintain an omnipresence of criminal identity, then maybe Stephon was asking for it. Maybe he’s not worth fighting for.
Many will, in fact, say that, though he didn’t deserve to be shot at 20 times, we also shouldn’t feel too bad.
Because if you distort his reputation enough, then you can discredit his status as a victim, and disregard his status as a human being.
The same media that humanizes domestic white terrorists like Dylann Roof and Mark Anthony Conditt deliberately vilifies black victims like Alton and Stephon.
And I, for one, don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand that black victims be treated with at least the same amount of dignity as white terrorists.
It’s not Stephon’s record or reputation that needs to be brought into question, it’s the way we police in this country that needs to be on trial.
The police are supposed to protect the peace, not reign terror on our communities.
They will say wait for all the facts, just like they did with Philando and Alton.
We watched those modern-day lynchings on our screens, and we watched the same cover that was granted to those who lynched by nooses in the 20th century be granted to those who lynch by bullets in the 21st century.
It’s not the whip of a slaveholder, the noose of a Klansman, or the gun of a police officer that has led to the murders of men like Stephon, but the system that continues to sustain this repression without accountability.
They will claim that it was just an unfortunate mistake.
Well, at what point do you deem a system that makes this many fatal mistakes as being either disqualifyingly incompetent or disturbingly evil?
The story is always intentionally ambiguous to create enough suspicion to avoid prosecuting the killers. In the case of young Jordan Edwards in Dallas, first the car was backing up too fast and then it was driving off too fast. And in the case of Stephon, first it was a gun, then it was a crowbar, then it was really only a cellphone.
Between the persecution and the “pressecution,” the goal is not to get the people to be 100 percent on the side of those who murder, but to make them shaky enough to be rendered indifferent. Because if enough of America can remain in indifference, then the murders can continue uninterrupted.
As a nation, we are guilty of indifference. Our entire nation is entirely guilty. Our American political, economic and social atmosphere is entirely guilty. The system is guilty of atrocity, but the country is guilty of apathy.
The problem isn’t that so many people are hurt and angry, the problem is that more aren’t.
Are we really so numb to this that we’ve resigned ourselves to shrugging our shoulders? To being more interested in calm than justice for a murdered 22-year-old young father?
We can’t have business as usual. Because business as usual is lethal to minorities in America. We refuse to accept that this way of policing is normal and unpreventable. That police shootings are to be expected and accepted.
And we don’t need to keep giving assurances and disclaimers that we are not anti-police. Because there will always be those who purposefully misrepresent anti-police brutality as anti-police, in the same way they will purposefully misrepresent the victims of police brutality to sustain this system.
And we are not irrational, we’re just fed up. But do not mistake our lack of faith in this system as a lack of faith. We have plenty of it.
And surely we will pray with our hands raised to the Creator. And we will call out to Him, with full trust in Him. But we will also pray with our tongues by continuing to say Stephon’s name and demanding justice for him. We will pray with our feet by continuing to march for him.
And while we have full confidence that God will bring retribution in the hereafter, we will not abdicate our own responsibility to ensure accountability on this earth.
Stephon will not be here to defend himself in the coming months, but we will. We honor Stephon when we fight for his memory, and protect other young black men from suffering from a similar fate. We will not let him die in vain. We will not let him be reduced to a hashtag.
And while the scope of this issue is larger than the murder of Stephon, Stephon is larger than this discussion as a human being. And today we honor that humanity.
That humanity that was unspeakably violated when Stephon had almost as many bullets put into his body as years he lived on this earth.
Imam Omar Suleiman is an American Muslim Scholar and Civil Rights Leader. He is the president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, and a Professor of Islamic Studies at Southern Methodist University.