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Police vehicle strikes protester at Stephon Clark vigil in apparent hit-and-run

The county sheriff's office may have escalated a situation that city cops have worked to calm.

Mourners embrace before the funeral services for police shooting victim Stephon Clark at Bayside Of South Sacramento Church. CREDIT: Jeff Chiu-Pool/Getty Images
Mourners embrace before the funeral services for police shooting victim Stephon Clark at Bayside Of South Sacramento Church. CREDIT: Jeff Chiu-Pool/Getty Images

A Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department (SCSD) vehicle struck a protester Saturday night and sped away from the scene at a vigil for Stephon Clark, who was killed by officers from the Sacramento Police Department (SPD) two weeks earlier.

Video shot by a legal observer shows marchers filtering past and between a pair of SCSD vehicles as one of the drivers tells them to back away from his car via loudspeaker. The first vehicle pulls out of the crowd cleanly, but the second driver accelerates toward a pair of marchers who were crossing between the cars and moving out of the second driver’s way. He accelerates swiftly and strikes a woman, knocking her to the ground.

The woman, Wanda Cleveland, was taken to a nearby hospital by city firefighters later. She was treated for bruises on her head and arm and released later that night.

“He never even stopped. It was a hit and run,” Cleveland reportedly said. “If I did that I’d be charged.”

The video, which is jarring to watch, conjures memories of the fatal ramming of protesters by a white supremacist driver in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, among other incidents.

Blocking cars is a common protester tactic because it is effective at getting a community’s attention. Conservative politicians in a number of jurisdictions have responded, bizarrely, by proposing laws that would give drivers the right to hit pedestrians with their cars in such situations.

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A sheriff’s deputy knocking a civilian to the ground with his car and driving away into the night, however, would presumably shame even those most ardent critics of the tactic.

The incident marks the most significant escalation of police-protester interactions since city officers killed Clark in his grandmother’s back yard on March 18. Officers had been told by a colleague in a helicopter that Clark seemed to have a weapon. He had only a cell phone, which the officers mistook for a gun. They began firing immediately, with eight of the 20 bullets they shot striking and killing Clark in his back and side. One of the officers is heard on body camera footage saying that Clark had moved toward them, a claim disproved by both helicopter video and an independent autopsy released Friday.

The tense and aggressive behavior from law enforcement at Saturday’s vigil marks a contrast to how colleagues in the Sacramento Police Department have handled larger, more disruptive groups downtown over the past two weeks.

The difference may largely come down to location: The vigil took place about 10 miles from the downtown zone where protesters have made headlines by disrupting city council meetings and NBA games over the past two weeks, closer to the Meadowview neighborhood where Clark was killed and deeper into the sheriffs’ jurisdiction.

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The SCSD also has a tenser institutional relationship with activists in the city’s black community. Sheriff’s deputies have been involved in multiple controversial police shootings and deaths in recent years. Sheriff Scott Jones has publicly feuded with local Black Lives Matter leader Tanya Faison, proudly refusing to entertain any of the movement’s demands in a reply letter blasting her personally for leading protests outside his home that frightened his children.

Protesters reportedly showered the SCSD vehicle with eggs moments before the unnamed deputies driving the pair of cars zipped out of the crowd. A department statement release on Sunday claimed that “Vandals in the crowd” caused “scratches, dents, and a shattered rear window” of a sheriff’s vehicle, according to the Sacramento Bee. “The release did not address why the vehicle that struck Cleveland did not stop, and [SCSD officials] did not immediately respond to a request for further details,” the paper notes.

Again, protesters in Sacramento have interacted roughly with police vehicles in recent days without drawing a violent response from officers. The contrast is sharp. Scenes of protesters standing on top of cop cars and having animated conversations with officers in close quarters have been common. The SPD has sought a disciplined, patient approach in responding to downtown protests, even as they jammed Interstate 5 at rush hour and kept thousands of ticketholders from getting in to a pair of recent basketball games. City police chief David Hahn has expressed sympathy for the high emotions in the crowd.

The spot where Cleveland was struck on Saturday, at 65th St and Cleveland Road, is within a few hundred feet of an SCSD station. The area is all strip-mall parking lots and big box stores, typifying the sprawl common to cities out west.

The sprawl itself is symbolic here, as Sacramento’s hundred-year history of quiet segregation and racially tilted urban planning choices illustrate. Meadowview, the nearby neighborhood where Clark’s grandmother lives, is one of the areas of modern Sacramento where city leaders rapidly forced non-white families into when they tore down the old West End, which had been the only area where banks and housing contracts allowed minority families to rent or buy.