In a news conference, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a private medical examiner who was commissioned by the family of Stephon Clark to perform an autopsy, didn’t mince words when describing how the 22-year-old was shot and killed by police officers.
“He was shot from the back,” Dr. Omalu explained as he proceeded to note that the seven of eight shots could have had a “fatal capacity.” Clark apparently “bled massively” after being “shot from the back” several times to the point that his shattered vertebrae, collapsed lung, and broken arm were collectively turned into “tiny bits” by those bullets.
By now, we are used to feelings of anger, despair, and angst over yet another unarmed Black person having their lives taken away by trigger-happy cops. In the case of Clark, it feels even more exhausting and induces feelings of helplessness given it comes on the heels of Alton Sterling’s killer not only not being found guilty of any wrongdoing, but has since returned to work at the Baton Rouge Police Department. There is already reason to worry about Clark’s looming case as it was reported that within days of him being killed by Sacramento police, Sacramento County’s top prosecutor conspicuously received $13,000 in campaign donations from two local law enforcement unions.
Yet, while the majority is rightfully infuriated by Clark’s death, there has been some recently uncovered tweets by Clark that has since spurred mixed feelings. Not so much about Clark’s death; no one would dare excuse what Sacramento police officers did to him and his family. However, there have been some who have been upset by Clark’s apparent contempt of Black women — a contempt he shared with his non-Black girlfriend.
Indeed, since those tweets surfaced to a wider audience, many have openly expressed not only their discomfort, but their newfound lack of empathy. Some of the responses have been harsher than others, but one in particular stuck with me: “To know that Stephon Clark and his girlfriend were exactly that really makes me want to leave that situation alone because now she’s requesting the help and support from the women she hates… request help from the white people you love so much.”
Although I don’t hold such a sentiment, like writer Kimberly Foster, I don’t want to vilify anyone that does. “While some may see the tweets as wholly irrelevant to the ongoing fight for police accountability, those who take offense and opt to turn their political energies elsewhere should not be demonized,” Foster writes in an essay for The Huffington Post. “Black women cannot be asked to make allowances for Black men’s hatefulness in order to fight for the greater good because creating a world that offers no passes for the degradation of Black girls and women is not a negligible goal.”
I felt similarly following the untimely passing of Erica Garner once her old tweets were reintroduced and promoted some to brand her as homophobic. The tweets in question were categorized as mostly in defense of Ramsey Ortega, the man who recorded her father’s murder and found himself in legal trouble following the rising national attention, though Garner nonetheless made statements that I considered homophobic. Others either disagreed with the categorization or argued that it was irrelevant.
Writing for Cassius, Stephanie Long argued just the latter and went on to argue: “We cannot expect that all who are called to activism must show up perfect—personally or politically—especially those abruptly called onto the field in the wake of the death of a loved one. While it’s important that communities hold folks accountable for error—especially when that error is harmful to marginalized people, #CancelCulture has seemingly left no space to teach. Or learn. Or grow.”
Long went on ask, “If we turn our backs on our own for being human, then who does that leave us in our fight against injustice? Can we afford to leave everyone behind?”
No, but we should all be for each other, and when someone isn’t, should anyone remain silent about it? And if so, to whom’s benefit?
At the time, I was asked to cover Garner’s tweets but refused. Frankly, like many of the women with misgivings about Clark’s anti-Black woman tweets, I didn’t find it appropriate to talk about that at the time. The best I could muster was a tweet: “You can be saddened by Erica Garner’s death and be disappointed in her homophobia. What you probably shouldn’t do, though, is tell people how to feel about the latter — particularly if you’re someone who will never have to contend with it.”
I feel the same way about anyone struggling with Stephon Clark’s old tweets. Victims nor activists fighting on their behalf need to be perfect. Perfection is impossible and “cancel culture” does indeed make it harder for human beings to accept the infallibility of other human beings. However, we cannot instruct other people how to feel about others — particularly if they come to discover a victim may have harbored prejudices that impact them directly.
Stephon Clark deserves justice. Erica Garner deserved justice. Nevertheless, we all exist within a white supremacist patriarchal society with a defined hierarchy. Black people are near the very bottom of it and even lower are two subgroups of our community: Black women and Black LGBTQ+ people.
If you are not white, you do not benefit from this society. So when you travel in anti-blackness, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any pointed bias against Black women, you are the doing the work of those who have already proven to think of you as the least. This doesn’t make the likes of Clark or Garner any less of sympathetic figures to me. What it does do, though, is remind me that there are moments when those who look like you think as little of you as the racists do.
Whether or not one understands that type of pain on a personal level will vary, but at the very least, we should all respect that it exists and allow people to react accordingly.