Donté Clark is an actor, musician, for the past year, he’s also put his griot skills to use serving as an expert witness in criminal trials, where district attorneys pursue gang enhancements that can add years to a sentence.
Photo by Abené Clayton
Donté Clark waved his hands with equal amounts passion and precision as he addressed an audience of 20 UC Berkeley law students. Wearing a black tunic and jeans, and a white scrunchie that tied his long locs neatly behind him, Clark gave the students a crash course on gang enhancements.
The 27 year old spoke after a screening of Romeo is Bleeding, a documentary that focuses on Clark and his student artists. As the film ended, a somber tone lingered in the lecture hall.
The documentary follows the production of Té’s Harmony, a stage play written by Clark’s poetry class, RAW Talent. It focuses on two “star-crossed lovers” from dueling sides of Richmond, and the filmmakers delve into the city’s history, “turf war,” and the healing power of artistic expression.
Clark is an actor, musician, and self-described “griot,” a name for an ancient West African storyteller and poet. For the past year, he’s also put his griot skills to use serving as an expert witness in criminal trials, where district attorneys seek to add gang enhancements that can add years to a sentence.
Clark says gang enhancements criminalize the language and lifelong relationships of people in Richmond. He’s also doubtful of the motivations behind the use of gang enhancements in the city.
“If a mayor or city council wants to make themselves look good, and you want to be hard on crime, you have to put down certain firm actions cracking down or your law enforcement,” Clark said, arguing that these enhancements are largely used as a dragnet to round up multiple people for a singular crime.
“In Richmond, I don't know no gang members,” Clark said.
Not an expert, but a witness nonetheless
During the lecture, a law student asked Clark for advice for lawyers-in-training. He responded with a story from one of his brothers’ criminal trials: The DA tried to use a photo, which featured Clark’s brother and “known gang members,” they said, as evidence of gang affiliation. But the “just because he hangs with gang members doesn’t mean he’s a gang member” defense was didn’t work, he argued.
Clark says that, had his brother's public defender known one of the “gang members” in the photo was in fact Clark’s cousin, the lawyer could have made a stronger argument. He could have told the jury that they were family, not gang associates.
The lesson? “Really get to know your clients,” Clark said.
He told the law students that the best service they can offer is humanizing people who are often classified as “criminal street gangs” to the juries that will determine their fate. The only way the lawyers can do this, he said, is by understanding the environments that have shaped their clients.
For clients from North Richmond this environment includes generational poverty, violence and decades of negative media coverage.
City council members are considering annexing North Richmond, a step that will end the neighborhood's status and an unincorporated territory, governed by Contra Costa County. Clark says that North Richmond’s possible entrance into the city of Richmond’s political fold makes the community more vulnerable to gentrification.
“No telling what they're going to do,” Clark said when asked about the fate of his stomping grounds. “I can easily see them coming out there, locking folks up. Investing into the neighborhood. And protecting that investment.”
Clark got involved in the courts last year, after meeting two public defenders at a screening of Romeo is Bleeding. He says they were losing cases and seeing gang enhancements tacked on to their clients’ sentences. The lawyers noticed that Clark had vast knowledge of the history and social structure of Richmond, and invited him to talk to other public defenders to demystify his hometown.
Instead of stained glass, Clark used the history, neglect, and disparate conditions to create a mosaic that, once held up to the light, revealed to public defenders the complex environment that is home to many of their clients.
Since this initial meeting, Clark has become known among public defenders as a valuable “expert witness” because of his analyses of Richmond and its culture.
Gang enhancements are spelled out in The Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act), is a statewide law that lays out punishments for any crime that is committed to benefit a gang.
The STEP Act defines “criminal street gangs” as a group of three or more people who “commission criminal acts,” including armed robbery or felony vandalism. By this definition, all members have a “common identifying sign or symbol.”
Anyone convicted of a crime with the intent to “promote, further, or assist in any criminal conduct by gang members,” is subject to a gang enhancement.
But Clark argues that not many factions in Richmond fit the state’s description of a gang. “There is no hierarchy in the sense of recruitment,” he said.
“It’s either you big homie or you not.”
All this isn’t to say that Clark doesn’t believe that violent and drug crime isn’t happening in Richmond. However, Clark he says that North Richmond is not made up of the criminal syndicates that the district attorneys portray.
“It was, “What side did you grow up on? Who are your family members?” Clark continued. “And how deep is their history in this particular neighborhood or throughout the city?”
He also speaks about the criminalization of commonly used slang, and his efforts to prove that many of these terms are benign.
“[Prosecutors] use that against us,” he said, referring to terms of endearment like “unc” and “bruh” that have been used to establish gang affiliation.
He spends time reviewing cases and refining his testimony so that he can break through to the people who decide many a young black man’s fate.
The challenge, he says: “You’ve got a jury who don't use this language.”
A target on his back
Clark’s brother Deanzer Clark was one of three men arrested in connection a 2003 car accident, which some say was the tipping point of a violent turf war in Richmond. One of the UC Berkeley law students asked Clark about his brother’s case, and a comment he made in the documentary.
“They tried to justify that [Deanzer] was a gang member because my older brother got a criminal record,” Clark said.
With this reasoning, Clark said that the DA was “pretty much calling me a gang member.”
Clark was never involved in any violent crimes, but he recalled being paranoid during his teenage years.
“I remember being scared and proud of the the fact that, ‘Dang this is my brother,’” Clark recalled during his talk at UC Berkeley.
Although Deanzer was cleared of any wrongdoing and has since charted a new course in his life, Clark recalled people telling him he ought to watch his back, because he “looked just like his brother,” Clark told the law students.
“[Donté] still goes to Richmond, and that’s what I love about him, and it’s also what made everyone so nervous,” said Clark’s close friend Molly Raynor.
She’s featured in the documentary, has known and Clark since 2008 and taught alongside him at RAW talent, the after school program that staged the play, Té’s Harmony.
“When [the film] first came out, we didn’t show it in any Richmond schools,” Raynor said. “To this day we actually have only shown it to specific small groups of students.”
Raynor still worries for his safety. “He still lives there, and two of his brothers are out now,” she said.
“It’s just a little too risky because there are still young boys who are out here trying to get street cred and could see the film and say, ‘His brother’s the one that started all this, I’m gonna take him out.’”
At almost 9:30 p.m., Clark received a round of applause from the law students. While some dashed out into the night, others stuck around, forming a line in front of him in anticipation of a momentary one-on-one with Richmond’s griot.
“It was a good experience to be able to articulate a world that they don't know nothing about,” Clark said after the lecture.
Many titles come up when talking about Clark. He lectures to students. He’s a writer, a musician, a public speaker, and the list goes on, depending on what he is doing that day.
But Clark says that all of these extraneous activities are an extension of his poetry. “A poet is entrusted in a particular community to articulate the history understand the cultural context,” Clark said with unwavering conviction.
“I just say I'm a poet.”