Raising a son in South Sacramento in the time of Stephon Clark

The author's son (left) walks with a friend to a Black Lives Matter demonstration at Sacramento City Hall. [photo by Christina Martinez]

I made my way into the Sacramento City Council chamber on March 27, dragging a bit from the heaviness of recent events which have thrust my hometown into the national spotlight. Hundreds of people gathered that Tuesday evening to take part in a special council meeting centered around the police shooting of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed Black male who was killed in the backyard of his grandmother’s home.

The tension was palpable. The stress I held within my own body–for various reasons–prompted me to lean against the wall for support. Across the aisle from me, a grandmother rested her head upon the shoulder of the woman next to her.

“We’re tired,” she said aloud, to no one in particular. All around her, heads nodded in solemn agreement.

I massaged my temples, shifting my gaze around the room, wondering how many of us present were parents; and which of us had left children at home this evening to take part in this pertinent discussion? Surely there were many of us in attendance who chose to be there despite the difficulty it took to orchestrate the daycare, schedules and meal prep needed in our absence.

Who among us felt increasingly weighted– especially at a gathering such as this–saddled by the task of raising children of color in a world that threatens their well-being, while simultaneously seeking to justify their untimely deaths?

For over a decade, I’ve lived and taught in South Sacramento, including in the Meadowview area where Stephon was killed. Every afternoon on my way to the district office, I pass the spot where two teenage brothers were gunned down in broad daylight last May. I routinely drive by street memorials bearing pictures of smiling young faces whose futures have been cut short. I’ve counseled family members who have lost loved ones in the street.

Last year, as I was leaving a campus in Oak Park, I walked into an interaction between school staff and a student who was caught trying to leave campus. The student was being sternly chided for attempting to skip school, at which point the he spun around, looked a staff member directly in the eye, crying.

“I’ve seen two of my brothers shot dead. I can’t feel anything anymore, but you want me to feel school? Tell me, how I am supposed to care anymore? Tell me.”

In the past few weeks, I’ve struggled to maintain personal balance as I sought alternative education options for my own high-schooler which will allow him to make up lost credits in an environment that is both secure and conducive to his needs. During this time I learned that the school district that I am both a product of, and now employed by, had failed my child by misplacing and failing to carry out his 504 plan, which was designed specifically to support his learning style.

In part due to this major (and unlawful) oversight by the district, I was left to advocate for my son amongst my colleagues and fellow professionals in order to correct the situation in a way that would best support my child’s educational outcomes.

It was completely exhausting.

The author’s son plays a game of pool. [Photo by Christina Martinez]

The following week, my son was walking with friends near the South Sacramento high school that I once attended, when he came upon a child who was about to be jumped for his shoes. In his attempt to de-escalate the situation, my son got his backpack stolen, but not before sustaining a direct punch to his eye which left his face swollen and in need of medical attention.

I am tired of worrying about my son.

His burly, 6-foot-tall stature defies the gentle nature of his spirit. I know that people tend to size him up with caution when he approaches. I’ve witnessed it firsthand.

I also know that, much like myself at 16 years of age, he has made his share of problematic decisions which have added up to more than a few setbacks. But I also see that he is a bright, creative spirit with a curious mind and a compassionate soul, as I was at his age.

But in the end, none of that matters when a youth of color is laid to rest in the public eye.

Every time I began to skim through an article detailing Stephon’s nuanced life, I find myself recoiling in sadness. The images of him asleep on a couch, his two babies resting comfortably on his chest. The eerie night cam footage of his last moments. Accounts from teachers detailing his academic strengths. Comments from authorities calling out his past run-ins with the law.

I know the narrative all too well. In cases such as Stephon’s, the public is quick to look for flaws in the victim’s character in their hasty attempt to justify the death of a youth at the hands of authorities.

“Trayvon was a thug.”

“Tamir was big for his age.”

“Stephon was asking for it.”

The accusations and labels swirl through my head until I can no longer stand to read them. Because it’s personal. Because it’s too close to home.

What story would be told about my baby? Which images would be hand-picked to parade across social media? What details about my beautifully complex son would be strategically left out?

The author’s son builds a gingerbread house. [Photo: Christina Martinez]

Would media choose an image of him with a grimace on his face, brow furrowed, hoodie draped over his head? Would that image supercede the ones of him smiling sweetly in childlike fashion, meticulously decorating gingerbread houses with his younger siblings?

What narratives would be told?

Would his entire life be reduced to a school record and a GPA? Would anyone listen if I told of how he cradled his dying cat on my bathroom floor a few weeks ago, tending to her every movement until, exhausted, he fell asleep on the cold tile as she slowly faded nearby? Would they tell of how he helped pack his sister’s lunches in the morning before school, or consistently encouraged me during my own moments of daily frustration?

Or would he be minimized into an easily sensationalized character, hardly worthy of public empathy?

We are tired. We are weary.

We are sickened by the fact that–hashtag after hashtag–we are constantly left to defend the myriad of reasons our youth deserve to be supported, uplifted and humanized.


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Christina Martinez
Christina Martinez is an early childhood educator working in the culturally and linguistically diverse communities of South Sacramento. In addition, she is a co-founder of #NoTeenShame, a national advocacy group for young parents and their children. In her spare time, you’ll likely find her adventuring outdoors, posted up in a bookstore or indulging in a late night french fry binge.