Protests have not subsided in Sacramento, a week after city and state law enforcement concluded that the officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark did not commit a crime.
Last week, hundreds of high school and college students from around Sacramento marched to the California state capitol building to protest the decision. On Monday, Sacramento police arrested 84 activists and journalists, declaring the protest unlawful after alleged vandalism (the Sacramento District Attorney declined to press charges). And yesterday, a vigil for Clark turned into a protest that ended at the District Attorney’s office.
“This could be you. This could be your family,” said Clark’s brother, Stevante Clark, as he lead a moment of silence in his grandmother’s backyard, where his brother was killed. “We’re going to say his name and we’re going to say it loud as hell.”
Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man, was shot and killed by two Sacramento police officers last year, after police say they mistook a cellphone he was holding for a gun.
The investigation into Clark’s death was drawn out for nearly a year, but last week, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said the evidence justified the officers’ use of deadly force. Extremely graphic body camera footage shows that one officer issued verbal warnings before they opened fire: “Show me your hands! Gun! Show me your hands! Gun, gun, gun!”
But protesters, like Tanya Faison, who leads Black Lives Matter Sacramento, argue that the investigation of the officers wasn’t nearly as thorough as the investigation into Clark. (The district attorney’s office reviewed interviews, Clark’s text messages, and toxicology report, and at one point implied that Clark may have been looking to commit suicide.)
“[Schubert] violated his family and the mother of his children’s privacy,” Faison told NPR. “So that was really problematic, really disrespectful.”
In the wake of the city’s decision, the situation in Sacramento has come to closely mirror what happened a year ago after Clark was killed: BLM Sacramento is ramping up protests in opposition to the district attorney and state leaders are again calling for legislation to change California’s “use of force” policy, essentially requiring police to exhaust all other options before using lethal force. Those calls are echoed by Clark’s family.
“Stop trying to justify [the shooting] by looking at a person’s character,” his mother SeQuette Clark told the Sacramento Bee. “Everybody should just stop and think about what they did at 22.”
California’s police officers are almost never prosecuted when they kill someone
According to legislative analysis from AB-931, a California State Assembly bill that was intended to change the standard for when police can use deadly force, California police kill more people than in any other state (162 people in 2017). While California did not have the highest rate of police shootings per capita in 2018, according to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force Database, there is a striking comparison between it and the nation’s other populous states: There was less than one police shooting per million people in New York, versus almost three shootings per million people in California.
CalMatter’s Opinion Columnist, Dan Walters, cited that analysis when he also noted that California has one of the oldest unamended police use of force laws in the country. That law, he notes, allows officers to use fatal force when “arresting persons charged with felony, and who are fleeing from justice or resisting such arrest.”
Similar laws in other states have been overturned by the courts, but California’s remains intact, described in a legislative report as “the single oldest unamended law enforcement use of force statute in the country.”
In practice, it is the basic reason why California’s police officers are almost never prosecuted when they kill someone, even when the circumstances indicate that deadly force was not needed.
“Was a crime committed? There’s no question that a human being died,” Schubert said at a press conference where she announced her conclusions. “But when we look at the facts in the law and we follow our ethical responsibilities, the answer to that question is no.”
Research by the Stanford Law School’s Criminal Justice Center suggests that interviews fully independent from the employing agency, which in this case would be the Sacramento Police Department, are a best practice when looking into police shootings. However, Schubert did not interview police directly, instead relying on interviews from the Sacramento Police Department. Attorney General Xavier Becerra could not say if Department of Justice investigators under his watch interviewed Sacramento Police or relied on the same provided interviews. Schubert’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the investigation by press time.
A legislative path forward?
The US Department of Justice will now launch its own civil rights investigation into Clark’s death, which will rely on the materials already collected by California law enforcement, but may warrant additional investigation.
AB-931, the bill that aimed to change California’s use of force standard didn’t make it to a floor vote last year. But Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), the state lawmaker who proposed it then, has already revived the bill for this year’s legislative session.
After Schubert presented her findings, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said there must be changes to the criminal justice system, but has not yet expressed support for the bill.
“We need to acknowledge the hard truth: Our criminal justice system treats young black and Latino men and women differently than their white counterparts,” he said in a written statement. “That must change.”
Newsom told the Sacramento Bee he would carefully review AB-931 if it got to his desk.
On Tuesday, protestors plan to occupy the Sacramento Police Department. The Facebook post, where Black Lives Matter organizers are coalescing supporters, still retains the same sense of urgency as last year:
TAKE THEM OFF OF OUR STREETS NOW!!
THERE WILL BE NO PEACE TILL THERE IS JUSTICE!!
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Whales dying from plastic bags: The alarming trend, explained
Another dead whale has washed ashore with a belly full of plastic.
This week, the carcass of the young sperm whale, estimated to have been 7 years old, was found on a beach in Cefalù, Italy. Investigators aren’t certain whether the plastic killed the whale. But it’s part of a gruesome pattern that’s become impossible to ignore.
In April, a pregnant sperm whale washed up on a beach in Sardinia with nearly 50 pounds’ worth of plastic bags, containers, and tubing in her stomach. Biologists in Florida last month euthanized a baby rough-toothed dolphin with two plastic bags and a shredded balloon in its stomach.
“The dolphin was very young and emaciated,” said Michelle Kerr, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in an email. “Due to a poor prognosis, the decision was made to humanely euthanize the animal on scene.”
In March, a 1,100-pound Cuvier’s beaked whale was recovered in the Philippines filled with 88 pounds of plastic bags, fishing line, and rice sacks. A beached sperm whale was found in Indonesia last year with more than 1,000 pieces of plastic inside.
As the quantity of plastic humans dump in the ocean has reached obscene proportions, we’re seeing more and more sea life — including birds, otters, sea turtles, and fish — choking on it.
But the impact on whales is particularly alarming. After centuries of whaling and overfishing, the survival of many whale species is already precarious. Now, just as their numbers are starting to recover, whales are consuming our toxic waste. And their deaths aren’t just about biodiversity loss: Whales play a critical role in marine ecosystems, which provide 3 billion people with their primary sources of protein.
To find out more about why whales are so vulnerable to plastic waste, I talked to Lars Bejder, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He said there are multiple mechanisms at work here and that dying isn’t the only plastic hazard for whales, and explained why the problem will only get worse.
There’s a gargantuan amount of plastic in the ocean
The root cause of these stranded, plastic-filled whales is that plastic is cheap and easy to produce but almost impossible for nature to destroy. Chunks of plastic linger for decades, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. This waste then churns in the ocean in massive gyres.
Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic — a mass greater than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza — enters the ocean each year.
Meanwhile, we’re still trying to figure out how much plastic waste has already accumulated in the ocean. A study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports estimated that 414 million bits of garbage weighing 238 tons have been deposited on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands 1,300 miles off the coast of Australia. It’s a sign that even the most remote regions of the world are now contaminated with the detritus of civilization.
“Sadly, the situation on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is not unique, with significant quantities of debris documented on islands and coastal areas from the Arctic to the Antarctic,” researchers wrote. “[G]lobal debris surveys, the majority of which are focused solely on surface debris, have drastically underestimated the scale of debris accumulation.”
And the amount of plastic waste in the ocean is surging. Our current trajectory puts us on track to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.
So for the largest, hungriest animals in the ocean, plastic is becoming an unwelcome part of their diets.
Different whales face different risks from plastic
Whales are among the more intelligent creatures in the ocean, so why aren’t they smart enough to avoid eating plastic?
Well, one reason is that often plastic is in their food.
Small crustaceans like krill and tiny fish like anchovies often end up inadvertently consuming microplastics. Whales, the largest animals ever known to have existed, have a voracious appetite for these critters. A blue whale eats between 2 and 4 tons of krill per day.
Whales like the blue whale have baleen plates in their mouths that act as filters, trapping their small prey as well as small bits of plastic. This means they are less likely to ingest larger plastic waste items like bottles and containers, but the small plastic bits they consume quickly pile up.
“These baleen whales filter hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water per day,” Bejder said. “You can imagine all these microplastics they encounter through this filtration process that then become bioaccumulated.”
Microplastics are unlikely to obstruct the digestive tract of a baleen whale, but as they build up inside an animal’s tissues, they can leach toxic chemicals like endocrine disruptors that make the creature sick. This problem can affect all ocean filter feeders, including manta rays and whale sharks.
That means there could be large whales dying of plastic poisoning without obvious culprits like flip-flops and food containers in their stomachs, according to Bejder.
A study published this week in Royal Society Open Science also reported that plastic pollution is more dangerous to baleen whales than oil spills. “Particle capture studies suggest potentially greater danger to [baleen whales] from plastic pollution than oil,” the authors wrote.
Toothed whales like sperm whales and dolphins normally catch bigger prey, like squid. But since they can swallow larger animals, they are vulnerable to larger chunks of plastic, like bags and nets.
“They might be seeking those out because they’re thinking they might be prey,” Bejder said. A plastic container in murky waters could resemble a fish to a toothed whale, or a sperm whale may inadvertently swallow plastic garbage as it hunts for a meal.
Once ingested, the plastic piles up in the whale’s stomach. It can then obstruct bowels, preventing whales from digesting food and leading them to starve to death. It can also give a whale a false sense of being full, leading the whale to eat less and get weaker. That leaves it vulnerable to predators and disease.
We’re only seeing a tiny fraction of the whales being harmed by plastic
Part of the reason we pay so much attention to whales killed by plastic is because the whales themselves are very big and the plastic culprits are startlingly obvious. Large animals decay slowly, giving people plenty of time to figure out the cause of death, whereas smaller fish and crustaceans dying from plastic decompose quickly and are rarely investigated. Even for casual observers, a dead whale blocking a beach vacation photo is pretty hard to ignore.
Still, we’re missing a big part of the picture.
“The ones that land on the beach that are killed through ingestion, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. They’re just the ones that we see,” Bejder said. “I’m sure that many, many marine mammals have some levels of plastic bags and plastic items in their stomachs.”
Many more whales could be dying from plastic poisoning without our knowledge. Around the Gulf of Mexico for example, 2 to 6 percent of whale carcasses end up on a shoreline. That means the vast majority sink to the ocean floor. This is likely the case for most of the world’s waters.
And the fact that whales are suffering shows that our marine ecosystems in general are in peril. “Whales, baleen whales, these larger dolphins species are pretty much at the top of the food chain,” Bejder said. “They are sentinels of ocean health for sure.”
But with more plastic waste pouring into the ocean, the prognosis for the most mega of megafauna is grim.
Yoga With ELLE: When You’re Low On Energy
Join Fern Ross, our Chief Sub-Editor / Production Editor and resident (ahem, registered) yoga teacher as she takes you through several yoga poses each tailored to specific needs. This week, yoga for when you’re low on energy aka yoga for when you’re on your period.
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