SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A protest over the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man briefly shut down a major California freeway and disrupted the start of an NBA game Thursday.
The game between the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks got underway about 20 minutes late as thousands of frustrated fans waited outside. Protesters shouting “Shut it down” formed a human chain blocking fans from entering Golden 1 Center while dozens of police initially attempted to clear entrances before fans were told to go home.
There was shouting but no apparent violence.
Kings officials moved the few hundred fans inside to courtside seats and offered them free non-alcoholic beverages before the game began in the largely empty arena. A half-hour after the delayed tipoff, officials announced no more fans would be admitted.
Fan Doug Hillblon said he thought protesters upset at the Sunday’s shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark went too far in blocking the entrances.
“Their rights don’t supersede everyone else’s,” he told The Sacramento Bee as he waited with his wife and a family friend outside the arena.
But season ticket holder Barbara Mitchell, who is black, told the newspaper she was “appalled by what happened to the young man. It was a travesty. So as much as I love basketball, it’s OK. I’m not angry. I admire them for taking the time to protest an injustice.”
Earlier, the several hundred protesters marched from Sacramento City Hall onto a nearby freeway, disrupting rush hour traffic and holding signs with messages like “Sac PD: Stop killing us!”
They were upset that Clark was shot in the backyard of his grandparents’ home. Police say they feared he had a handgun when they confronted him after reports that he had been breaking windows in the South Sacramento neighborhood.
But police found only a cellphone.
“We are at a place of deep pain” because of recent violence directed at black people in Sacramento and elsewhere, said the Rev. Les Simmons, a community leader. He said the city’s first black police chief, Daniel Hahn, is doing what he can but protested the actions of Hahn’s officers.
Clinton Primm said he was friends with Clark for about six years and fears others are also at risk at being shot by police.
“He was a great dad,” he recalled of Clark, the father of sons ages 1 and 3. “He loved both of them to death.”
Sacramento resident Vanessa Cullars said she has lost two family members to police violence.
“I’m fed up with this,” she said at the protest. “I feel like our lives don’t matter to them.”
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg earlier said he was horrified but won’t second-guess the “split-second decisions” of the officers. He praised Hahn for quickly releasing videos of the shooting and said the department has improved its policies since the fatal shooting of a mentally ill black man in 2016.
But independent experts said the footage from body cameras and an overhead helicopter raises more questions than it answers.
The officers appeared to believe they were in danger, they said, and if so the shooting was likely legally justified.
One officer is heard “doing a mental inventory to make sure there’s no holes in his body” because the officers appear to think Clark may have shot at them and missed, said Peter Moskos, a former police officer and assistant professor in the Department of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
But Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police use of force, said the officers may have a tough time explaining why they jumped to the conclusion that Clark had a gun.
He also questioned why an arriving backup officer had the two original officers turn off the microphones on their body cameras, eliminating what he called “important evidence.”
In an ideal world, the two officers should have immediately provided first aid instead of waiting five minutes for backup, said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But that could be more the product of hope than reality,” he said, with the officers still in shock and worried about their own safety.
The Sacramento Police Department said officers were responding to reports of a man seen breaking into at least three vehicles and later into a neighbor’s home. The police said deputies in the helicopter saw Clark break a neighbor’s sliding glass door before jumping a fence.
As a result, “their threat radar is really high,” said Plumas County sheriff’s deputy and special prosecutor Ed Obayashi, who trains officers and testifies in court on police use of force.
“They have to assume that their lives are in danger at that very second,” he said.