On the evening of March 18, Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old African-American man, was returning to his home in Sacramento, California, when the police mistook him for a vandalism suspect — and his cell phone for a gun. They fired 20 rounds, eight of which hit and killed him. On episode 3 of “Deconstructed,” Clark’s fiancée Salena Manni — the mother of his two children — speaks out on Clark’s death. In her first national interview, she calls on President Donald Trump to take action on police violence. “We urge you, Mr. President,” she says, “to help us get justice for our family, and justice for all families that have lost any loved ones by police brutality.” And she responds to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who last week called Clark’s death a “local matter.” “It’s not a local matter,” Manni tells Hasan. “This is happening all over America. So it’s bigger than that.” And professor Ibram X. Kendi of American University joins Mehdi to discuss how America’s history of racist ideas creates the law enforcement environment we see today.
Salena Manni: I do believe that he was taken from us to bring change. This was all a part of God’s plan, and we will get change.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m Mehdi Hasan. Welcome to Deconstructed, a new podcast from The Intercept. I’ve been writing columns and op-eds, producing and presenting TV shows for nearly two decades now. But I’ll tell you what — doing a podcast for the first time in my life is such a unique opportunity; it gives me such a unique platform. And it’s so good to be with you all each week to chew the political fat, get past the media spin, deconstruct the headlines and make sure you hear from people who really need to be heard from.
This week, the week we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, this week I’ll speak not just to a brilliant young author and academic who breaks down racism in the most eloquent, yet bluntest of terms, but also to the fiancée of the latest high-profile and fatal victim of two seemingly trigger-happy police officers: Stephon Clark.
SM: And then, I get another phone call from his grandma saying, “They murdered him, they murdered him and they killed him. They killed Little Poppa,” and then she hung up.
MH: one of the hardest interviews I’ve ever had to do and that conversation with Salena Manni on Deconstructed is coming up in full in a moment.
It’s week three: Let’s talk black lives in America, and why they still don’t seem to matter.
President William “Bill” Clinton: We’ve had all the turmoil in New York City over this Diallo case, and I don’t want, as I said before, I don’t pretend for a moment to second-guess the jury. I didn’t sit there and listen to the evidence. But I know most people in America of all races believe that if it had been a young white man in a young, all-white neighborhood, it probably wouldn’t have happened.
MH: My first exposure, to my first memory of a story involving a U.S. police officer killing an innocent young black man, as a young British college student, was the gunning down of Amadou Diallo in New York in 1999. I remember watching a Michael Moore special on that case.
Amadou Diallo was a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea in West Africa, who came to New York in 1996 and became a street vendor. While returning home one night in Harlem, he was mistaken by four New York Police Department officers for a rape suspect. And when he pulled out his wallet, they thought it was a gun. They fired 41 bullets at him — 41 bullets — 19 of which hit him and killed him. All four of those officers were charged with second-degree murder; all four of those officers were acquitted of second-degree murder. One of them was even later promoted.
And I couldn’t help but think of Amadou Diallo when I heard the horrific, tragic and recent story of Stephon Clark, which I want to talk about on today’s show.
Newscaster: When two Sacramento police officers confronted Stephon Clark in his grandparents’ backyard, they fired 12 shots.
MH: Stephon was shot and killed last month by two police officers from the Sacramento Police Department in California who were looking for a guy breaking car windows in his neighborhood. They saw Stephon in his grandmother’s yard, mistook his iPhone for a gun, and fired 20 bullets at him — eight of which hit him and killed him.
Amadou Diallo had a wallet; Stephon Clark had a cell phone. Amadou Diallo was 23; Stephon Clark was 22. He was engaged and the father to two small boys.
Imam Zaid Shakir: Today we are gathered to memorialize and subsequently burry Stephon Clark. But yesterday was Amadou Diallo, and Sean Bell, and Trayvon Martin, and Walter Scott, Gary King, Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner. The community is rightfully pained, is rightfully angry, is rightfully frustrated, to borrow from the poet, because we build our coffins much too often, and we’re tired of seeing our people die.
MH: That was the Californian Imam Zaid Shakir speaking at a memorial for Stephon, who was Muslim, and reminding us that the black community is rightfully pained, rightfully angry, rightfully frustrated — not just about the constant killings, but the constant lies.
At first, the police in Sacramento said Stephon had a toolbar in his hand. He didn’t. They said he was rushing towards them, and yet, a private autopsy commissioned by the family found eight of the twenty bullets hit Stephon, six of them hit him in the back. In the back!
Benjamin Crump: The findings of his autopsy contradict many of the narratives that the Sacramento police put forward.
MH: Now, I’m no ballistics expert, but how do you get shot in the back if you’re rushing towards your shooter?
There’s a big investigation, a big inquiry expected into all of this, but right now it looks like the police shot dead a man who was not just unarmed, but running away from them.
And even if he was guilty of breaking car windows, and there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest he was, that’s not even a crime that deserves the death penalty. The reality is, as Bill Clinton said nearly two decades ago about Amadou Diallo, that Stephon Clark would probably be alive today were he a white guy, living in a nice white neighborhood. We all kind of know that. And it’s so tragic, so frustrating that so little has changed in the nearly twenty years since Amadou Diallo was gunned down.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, the Clintons weren’t great on race. Remember the whole super-predator stuff? But even Bill spoke out at the time about the racism involved in that shooting. And, yet today, you have a white nationalist president sitting in the Oval Office, who unlike Bill Clinton, unlike Barack Obama has nothing to say about racism or the innocent victims, the innocent black of victims of police violence, like Stephon Clark.
Listen to White House spinner-in-chief Sarah Huckabee Sanders, when she was asked about this story the other day.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders: Certainly a terrible incident. This is something that is a local matter, and that’s something that we feel should be left up to the local authorities in this point in time.
MH: Local matter? Local matter? Are you kidding me? This is a president who is obsessed with almost every murder that takes place in Chicago. How is that not a local matter? Who obsesses over every crime committed by an undocumented migrant in a sanctuary city. How is that not a local matter?
In fact, this is a president who not only stays conveniently silent when it comes to anti-black violence by the police, but actually endorses and encourages police brutality.
President Donald J. Trump: I said, “Please don’t be too nice. Like, when you guys put somebody in the car, and you’re protecting their head, you know? The way you put their hand — like, don’t hit their head, and they’ve just killed somebody, don’t hit their head?” I said, “You could take the hand away, OK?” [Audience laughs and cheers.]
MH: And this is a man, remember, who can’t stand the idea of black people peacefully protesting the killing of other black people at the hands of the police.
DJT: Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field, right now! Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!” [Audience cheers and applauds.]
MH: But, of course, he doesn’t like people protesting racism because Donald Trump has always believed that white people are the real victims of racism. I kid you not — this is him speaking nearly 30 years ago, back in 1999 on NBC:
DJT: A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market. I’ve said on occasion, even about myself, if I was starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black because I really do believe they have an actual advantage today.
MH: See, in this president’s warped worldview, and in the warped worldview of so many of his followers and fans, it’s white people — not black people — white people who are the oppressed and persecuted ones. That’s partly why it’s so hard to get millions of white Americans, especially, but not exclusively, conservative white Americans to take institutionalized racism, systemic discrimination, police brutality against black people seriously, to get them to make it a political and moral priority that needs resolving now. So how do we get them to do that? How do we get through to those people who have buried their heads in the sand, even as black parents bury their young kids in the ground?
MH: In a moment, I’m going to talk to a real expert on race relations and racism in America, the acclaimed author and academic Ibram X. Kendi.
But before that discussion with him, I’m going to speak with Salena Manni, fiancée to the late Stephon Clark, and mother to their two boys: Aiden, age three, and Cairo, age just one.
MH: Salena Manni, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed. I am so, so sorry for your loss and what you’ve gone through. I can’t imagine what you must be going through now. Can I just start by asking you to tell our listeners about Stephon, about him? What was he like?
SM: He was really loving and caring. He always wanted to be around me, the kids he wanted, he just wanted to be around love. I mean, he would do anything for you. Like, you wouldn’t even have to ask him to do anything for you, and he would just do it out of the kindness of his heart.
MH: And you two were together, I think, five years, you were together?
SM: About five years. Yes.
MH: And you were going to get married?
SM: Yes. Eventually.
MH: And what’s your memory of that night? Where were you when you heard that horrific news, when you were told what had happened to Stephon?
SM: I was home in bed with my kids, and I got a phone call from his grandma, telling me that she heard gunshots in the back, in her backyard. And she was calling to make sure that me and the kids and Poppa were OK. And Poppa is Stephon.
And I had told her that me and the kids were OK, and that Stephon wasn’t with us that day. And then I get another phone call from his grandma about, maybe like ten, fifteen minutes later, saying, “They murdered him, they murdered him and they killed him. They killed Little Poppa.” And then she hung up.
And then it kind of hit me a little bit, because he was answering and I didn’t know where he was. I still didn’t want to believe it, and then, finally, when I called his brother, he said, “Yeah it was him.” That he was standing in front of the scene. And then that’s when it, like, really hit me. And I finally realized that, you know, he was gone.
MH: And he had two young sons, you have two boys, Cairo and Aiden. You have to bring them up on your own, for now, without their dad?
SM: Yeah. It’s definitely hard when they ask for him every day, and they were so used to being around him every day, and now he’s just gone. Like every day they’re wondering, “Where is my dad?” You know? “Where is my dad? Are we going to go see Daddy today?” And I don’t want it to hurt them in a way, you know? Without me being able to explain it to them and letting them understand, you know, because whatever’s out on the media, too, is not who their dad is. I want to be able to explain to them who their dad really was, and that he actually loved them and was there for them, and that he actually wanted to be there in their lives. He wanted to be the best father he could be. So…
MH: Did Stephon himself, as a young black man, you knew him for many years, did he ever talk about being distrustful of the police, being afraid of the police? Had you ever had those conversations with him?
SM: Oh yeah, he’s definitely — I’ve definitely had those conversations with him. He would be afraid for being a black man in America, because he wouldn’t know, like, if he were to get stopped or anything, he wouldn’t know what was going to happen to him. He was definitely afraid.
MH: How do you think Sacramento Police Department have handled this whole issue? I mean they he said he had a toolbar in his hand; he didn’t. They said he charged the officers, but the autopsy from his family that was commissioned from you guys seems to show he was shot in the back. What do you think the response of the Sacramento Police Department has been like?
SM: Well, in my regards, I want to let them know, when they shoot someone, it affects more than the person that they kill. Here, me, my children, my family and Stephon’s family, we’re all suffering the shooting of an unarmed man. It’s caused unrest within our family, unrest within the community. And we seek justice for my love. That’s all we want.
MH: Do you think the police lied to you and your family into the world in the aftermath of what happened?
SM: I do.
MH: And there’s going to be an inquiry, an investigation. Do you have confidence that there will be justice done in your fiancé’s case?
SM: I do. I do believe that he was taken from us to bring change. This was all a part of God’s plan, and we will get change.
MH: You talk about change. There have been a lot of protests and vigils for several days now in Sacramento, I know you’ve attended a lot of them. What is the main purpose of those protests and vigils?
SM: To get justice. To change the legal systems. To change all the laws that they have within the police department, sheriff’s department. We just need change, you know? We need to make sure that innocent people are not getting killed for no reason.
MH: The White House says this is a local matter. The White House was asked about Stephon’s killing the other day in a press conference. And they said it’s a local matter, it’s not for the president to comment on. Do you wish the president of the United States had said something so far about this?
SM: I do. I wish he would’ve, you know, made it bigger than, like he said, it was a local matter, because it’s not a local matter. This is happening all over America. So it’s bigger than that. And he should’ve, you know, said something — and he should have had — he should have been able to say something more than that, because it’s not just happening here.
It is a national issue, and I want to let the president know, like, we urge you, Mr. President, to help us get justice for our family and justice for all families that have lost any loved ones by police brutality. There’s, there’s just so much more to it that he could be speaking about, and we ask for his help.
MH: And just on Stephon: What do you most remember about him, about your fiancé? What was the most, your most cherished memory of him?
SM: We were just always together as a family. We’d always do everything together as a family — whether we’d be home, just together, watching movies, eating dinner, playing the games — whatever we were doing. We were just always together as a family. And that’s what he’d always wanted: He always wanted family. He always wanted love. And we wanted to make sure our kids had that love, as well.
I grew up with both parents. He grew up with only his mother, so he wanted to make sure his kids had both the love that he never had, and I wanted to give my kids everything better than I had. So we made sure, we made sure our love was strong for our kids. Our bond was strong for our kids. We were, we were just happy as a whole. As long as we were together as a family, there was nothing that can break us. We were inseparable.
MH: Salena, it’s so sad to hear you talk about this. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, and I can only give you condolences from me and everyone listening. We’re so sorry for your loss and we pray for Stephon, and for you guys.
SM: Thank you, I really appreciate it.
MH: Thank you so much.
SM: We all really appreciate it.
MH: You know, you hear stories like that. You listen to people speaking about their pain in that way, and the injustice that’s being done, and your heart breaks, and you get mad. You get angry. It doesn’t matter what color or race or ethnicity you are. You can’t deny the pain; you can’t deny that unfairness, that injustice.
And normally that would motivate a lot of us to take action, to not tolerate the situation we find ourselves in, in terms of police violence and police shootings. But the problem is that in America today there’s so much misinformation, so many myths that are put out, that are used to deflect, to distract, to divert from the core injustice of anti-black violence, of seemingly never-ending police killings. And I want to deal with a couple of those myths.
Number one: You often hear people say, “Well, this isn’t a race issue. Yes, unarmed black men are killed by the police. But so are unarmed white men. It’s not just black people being gunned down by the police. It’s not a race issue.”
But that’s complete BS. The fact is that black Americans are much more likely to be shot and killed by the police than white Americans. That’s just a fact, a statistical fact. In 2012, 31 percent of the people killed by the police were black, even though only 13 percent of the people in the U.S. are black. In fact, black drivers are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested than white drivers. Black defendants are more likely to get a longer sentence for committing the same federal crime as white defendants. Black people are more likely to be sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit than white people. The law enforcement, the criminal justice systems in this country are riddled with racism from top to bottom.
The second argument — “argument” — that is put out there on the issue of Black Lives Matter and police brutality is that: “Police killings of black men aren’t the real issue, black-on-black killings are the real issue. That’s how most black men lose their lives.” In “black-on-black killings.
The truth is that there’s no such thing as a black-on-black killing. There isn’t! It’s a completely made-up term, because if there was such a thing as black-on-black killings, there would also be such a thing as white-on-white killings. After all, yes, according to FBI data, in 2016, 90 percent of black victims of homicide were killed by other black people. But you know what? Eighty-three-and-a-half percent of white victims of homicide in that same year were killed by other white people. But when was the last time you heard white-on-white killings being discussed on Fox News or on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal? It’s a distraction, black-on-black killings. It’s a deflection from what is essentially state-sponsored violence against young black men. That is what these police shootings, these police killings are, and why they need to be so urgently tackled.
I want to talk about some of these double standards, these challenges, in more detail, with someone I consider to be one of America’s leading new voices on race relations, and specifically on anti-black racism, Ibram X. Kendi, who is a professor at the American University here in Washington, D.C., and author of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction, and according to one reviewer will “forever change the way we think about race.”
MH: Ibram X. Kendi, thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed. And we often hear this phrase that a lot of the police violence meted out towards black people in black communities is structural. Explain to our listeners what that actually means.
Ibram X. Kendi: Well, first and foremost, I think police have the power to get away with violence, because police officers are typically investigated by other police officers and they also are allowed to put forth a defense of: “Well, I felt — I feared for my life.” And so police regulations allow them to shoot to kill, whenever they fear for their lives. So they are allowed to continue to get away with it because of those structural policies.
MH: How much do you think Americans as a whole need to come to terms with the history of racist ideas and people in this country? One of the figures you focus on in your book, “Stamped from the Beginning,” is Thomas Jefferson — Founding Father, president, slave-owner. His statue, his memorial isn’t far from where I’m sitting right now.
What do you think Americans need to know about Jefferson, for example, which would help them understand how to save black lives today?
IXK: To me, knowing the history of Jefferson, it was not surprising that white supremacists who are pushing for what they call a “white ethno-state” marched most popularly in Charlottesville, which is, of course, the iconic home of Jefferson, and marched through the University of Virginia which was built by Jefferson.
Because Jefferson in the 19th century was the most prominent advocate of a white ethno-state. He was a pusher of what was known as colonization, in which Americans, particularly racial moderates, were imagining that the best way to solve the race problem was to get rid of black people.
You have people who worship Thomas Jefferson, and disavow white supremacists when they both advocated a white ethno-state, and then you have a president United States, who simultaneously, his policies are creating or seeking to maintain a white ethno-state, policies of mass incarcerating and mass deporting and mass killing.
MH: We hear the phrase white supremacy bandied around a lot these days, and some white liberals, not just conservatives, but white liberals as well have gotten annoyed with it and say it should be reserved for outright racists, for the Ku Klux Klan, and not for the Republican Party or the police force. What do you say to them?
IXK: I say to them: How do you define white supremacy? Because if white supremacy means that white people are supreme, then white people are supreme, or least their ideas, are supreme within the policing forces that are killing black and brown bodies with impunity. They, their bodies, are supreme in the U.S. Senate, their bodies have historically been supreme in the White House, in the governorships, on the Supreme Courts, in the halls of executive power and corporations, in the people determining curriculums.
And so I would ask them: How do they define white supremacy if they’re not defining it as ‘white people are supreme’?
MH: You wrote recently in The New York Times that, “the denial of racism is the heartbeat of racism.” And I completely agree with that. But what is the way you persuade people, especially white people, who feel uncomfortable about, you know, talking about white supremacy and talking about a history of racism, how do you get them to get past the denial? Is there a strategy? Is there a particular approach that you take in your conversations?
IXK: Well, I think one of the things that white people do not realize, particularly white middle-income and working and impoverished white people do not realize, is that in many ways historically racist ideas and policies have actually not been in their self-interest. They’ve been led to believe that it’s in their self-interest.
You know, we’re taught about the ways in which black bodies have been mass incarcerated, you know, as a result of these tough-on-crime policies. But white people are not taught how those very same tough-on-crime politicians were steering money away from their public schools, their public universities, social programs that benefited their families, for incarceration and the military, which simultaneously led to these growing disparities between white middle-income and white upper-income people. And so we call this economic inequality, and people like Bernie Sanders have brought attention to this, but this is, of course, harming white people writ large.
MH: You mention Senator Sanders. Right now, the left in America is having a big debate about whether it’s race or class that’s the real challenge going forward. It’s something I touched on with Bernie Sanders in a recent interview on this podcast. Do you think the left in the U.S. has got that balance right in terms of the attention paid to race versus class?
IXK: Well, I think we should pay attention to both, and I don’t understand why it always has to be either/or scenarios. In truly having a fundamental understanding about class divides, you’ll also have a fundamental understanding about racial divides. So I try not to divide them.
MH: One of the things I was talking about earlier in the show is some of the myths and misinformation that’s put out when it comes to the debate over racism, over police killings. You always hear this nonsense about black-on-black killings, which is a completely made-up concept. You have all this kind of nonstop propaganda all the time. When you write about this stuff, and talk about this stuff, and travel around the country lecturing on this stuff, what’s the most frustrating thing you hear that really winds you up when you talk about this subject, that really can irritates you?
IXK: Wow. It’s — I think the concept of “not racist,” which is a category, even an identity that almost every racist American in history has actually wrapped themselves in. So I think Americans like to imagine that they’re racist and “not racist.” And typically, the category of “not racist” emerges when somebody is charged with racism.
MH: Oh, yeah.
IXK: “Oh, my friend, my colleague is not racist.” But there is no such thing as a “not racism,” categorically. Either you believe in racial equality as an anti-racist, or you believe in racial hierarchy as a racist. There is no ‘not-racism’. There’s only two philosophical and historical categories, and that’s racism and anti-racism.
MH: That’s a very fascinating point. Let me ask you this, before we finish: Are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to racism and race relations and overcoming bigotry in the United States of America? Right now, a lot of us are very pessimistic when we look out and see who’s in the White House, what’s going on across America, when you look at what happened to Stephon Clark in Sacramento. It’s hard to be anything other than pessimistic.
IXK: Well, I think it is easier to be pessimistic based on everything that we have witnessed. At the same time, I know, philosophically, that you have to believe change is possible in order to bring it about. I think the greatest activists and change agents in history have been philosophically optimistic. And it was that optimism that motivated them consistently, especially during difficult Trumpian moments, to imagine that there was a possibility, you know, of an anti-racist place or an anti-racist nation or world.
And so I’m an optimist, not necessarily because I’m not aware of everything that’s going on, but I’m an optimist because I believe in order to truly bring about change, in order to truly been an effective change agent, you have to believe change is possible.
MH: Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept and is distributed by Panoply.
Our producer is Zach Young. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshore and Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief.
I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every Friday. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice.
And if you’re new to podcasts, we’ve got all the info there. Please do subscribe, whether you’re on an iPhone or an Android or whatever. That means this podcast will automatically download to your device every time a new episode is available. You won’t miss any! And you don’t want to miss any, now do you?
If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review. It helps other people find the show.
Thanks. See you next week.