Anti-violence activist Semaj Clark was shot in Savannah and paralyzed from the waist down, but he vows to keep fighting the good fight. Photos by Cedric Smith.
A grainy cellphone video shows 18-year-old Semaj Clark sitting in a hospital bed, a blue and white gown tied haphazardly at his neck.
“I like to run,” he says to the shaky camera in this now-viral clip, which first aired on WSAV News 3. Then, he corrects himself. “I liked to run to get away from my pain, so, just to know that I might not walk again …”
He breaks down, brings a fist to his mouth, blows out a fast breath and tries to catch his composure. A hand reaches in from off-screen and wipes his tears away with a balled-up tissue.
Clark, a youth advocate and underdog success story from southern California, visited Savannah last October 21 as part of a nonviolence campaign. He was shot that night during a robbery attempt, and he’s now paralyzed from the waist down.
“It hurts me,” Semaj says in the video. “But I won’t let it stop me. I’m not going nowhere.”
I catch up with Semaj after a long day of physical therapy at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, where he’s learning to live as independently as possible. He’s bone-tired. He’s in pain. But he vows to me that he will come back and help Savannah deal with the very issues that landed him here. After all, they are problems he understands all too well.
Born to a teenaged drug addict and abused in foster care, Semaj began running with the wrong crowd. He soon dropped out of school with a long rap sheet trailing behind him. Hopelessness drove him to crime—much like many young people in our own city.
When he talks, Semaj sounds like a typical 18-year-old, using slang like “keep it 100” (100 percent real) and “some type of way” (raw, confused emotion), and making jokes about how cool his visit with President Obama was. But, when it comes to ending youth violence, he speaks with the wisdom of someone much older. Because he’s “been there,” Semaj explains, he can “come correct” with other at-risk youth—and sometimes even show them another way.
Savannah Magazine: What was it like growing up in foster care?
Semaj Clark: Sometimes it was a good thing, and sometimes it was a bad thing. The first home I lived in was a beautiful home, but then I got taken away. That’s when the bad homes started. I was beat, I was drugged, and all kinds of other things. Then, by the grace of God, I was taken back to that first home, and that’s the woman who raised me from then on.
When you decided to drop out of high school, where did that decision come from?
I was just going through a lot in school—dealing with people who weren’t good for me, fighting, giving in to peer pressure—and I felt like I was dealing with all of that stuff alone. I felt lost in the bunch. I felt suffocated. I was getting in trouble, stealing from stores and hanging with the gangs.
But then you found a program that changed your life.
I was introduced to the BLOOM program (Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men) through Brotherhood Crusade, a community organization in Los Angeles. It helped change my outlook, and that eventually changed my behavior.
For a while, I was like a yo-yo, going back and forth and still getting in trouble. But they didn’t blame me. They didn’t come to me and say, “Why did you do that?” Instead, they said, “Come home, it’s OK, we’re family.”
So you met people who understood and accepted you for who you are.
But it went even deeper than that. BLOOM Reintegration Academy gave us a place where we could breathe—it’s a wholesome environment. They took us from the ’hood and showed us a college campus, showed us why we needed to graduate. We were living in a culture of dysfunction, but once you’re in a wholesome environment, you can breathe.
Once you can breathe, you can think. And once you can think, you can excel. If you’re not in a wholesome environment, then I don’t think that’s possible.
Then you started taking a leadership role. Do you get nervous when you speak to large crowds?
A little bit, but I’m always up for a challenge. I also realize speaking is going to help someone and maybe influence them to do different, so that’s what I get out of it. That’s what makes it worth it.
“Tell Savannah that I’m not done yet. You can’t get rid of me that easy, and I’ll be back.”
How did you end up at the White House? What was it like to meet President Obama?
That was really mind-blowing. I think I was picked because I was doing a lot of things and part of a lot of different organizations. I was a part of the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition; and BLOOM Reintegration Academy; and I had an internship with Peace Over Violence. There were 11 of us in the group, and we talked about why these sorts of programs work.
So how does the youth culture in Savannah compare to South L.A.?
The gang culture in L.A. is definitely being mimicked—in a lot of places, not just here. It’s ironic to see things that started in my neighborhood so many years ago, the Crips and the Bloods, happening in other places.
Why is this happening?
There’s a failure in the system surrounding the youth. It could be at any point—the mother, the father, the development of that child, whether they get properly educated and cared for at school—at some point, there is hope missing. And if there’s no hope in the environment, then there’s no hope in the child. How are you supposed to do good if there’s no good around you? Young people need mentors: better examples of how to live.
What do you think Savannah is doing right for our young people?
Savannah’s stakeholders all seem to be on the same page. People like [Juvenile Court judge] Lisa Colbert and [Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney of Juvenile Court] Diane McLeod all agree that something needs to be done. That’s sometimes the hardest part: realizing your community is failing at something.
What are we doing wrong? What can the Savannah community do to cut down on juvenile crime—to make Savannah safer?
Everyone has a theory about what should be done, but that doesn’t mean a thing. You can say you mean well a thousand times, but you have to get hands-on and create the programs that work. Break the cycle. We need more mentors, more scholarships, more opportunities.
We need to reach these kids while they are young. And when I say young, I mean 8 or 9 years old. When I was walking in Savannah, I heard these little kids talking—man, it was crazy—they were already talking about gangs and shooting people and all that. But they’re like 8 years old! We need to reach them when they’re young because, by the time they are 12 or 13, it’s going to be hard to get to them. When I was that age, you couldn’t tell me nothing.
What has worked in L.A. that might also work in Savannah?
I worked with a lot of groups and organizations, getting certain bills and propositions passed, such as Prop 47, the “Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes” initiative, as well as the School Discipline Policy and School Climate Bill of Rights, which cut down on the school-to-prison pipeline by discouraging suspensions as a punishment. That means fewer kids out of school and fewer incarcerations.
It’s also important to make programs in the community where the issues are happening. We need to come up with solutions there—on the premises, not on the outskirts.
The programs we create should be specific to the needs of the children in that area. Maybe these programs just provide healthy meals and show the kids someone cares about them. Maybe they’re having trouble reading or writing, and too embarrassed to talk about it. I’ve heard so many stories like that just being here.
When we hear this conversation about youth violence, it’s often in search of someone to blame, whether it’s the parents, the teachers, the friends. Is there really someone we can point the finger at?
That’s a tough conversation to have and not always a helpful one. I don’t know if it’s helpful to say someone is to blame, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason. You can find a reason and a solution without needing to point a finger at someone. The important thing is to not blame the kids. Once you blame the kids, it’s a wrap.
That’s what I got from the BLOOM program. They never blamed me, never got angry, even when I was going back and forth. They were always there for me.
What do you tell kids who find themselves in the situations similar to your own?
Because every situation is different, I feel like it’s more important how I talk to them. I’ve been in their shoes. I did a lot of things I’m not proud of. I feel like I can talk to those kids truthfully—I know why they did it, because I know why I did it. They are me, and I am them. So I keep it 100 when I speak to them.
What keeps you motivated, even after everything that’s happened?
The success stories keep me going. I may speak to 30 kids at a time and only reach one or two. But those one or two will break the cycle. People see them change, then maybe make a change for themselves. You’ve got to wait, be patient and trust that things are changing, even when you can’t see it right there in your face.
You say you want to stay and speak out against crime in Savannah. What makes you want to stay in a city where something terrible happened to you?
I want to show people that I really care and that I mean the things I’m saying—my heart is in it. I really feel like I can teach people how to relate to these kids in a way that nobody else can—so how can I just stop now?
Has this incident changed the way you approach the subject of youth violence?
No, not really. If anything, it lets me know the problem is escalating, and we need more people to get in the trenches and help beat back this issue.
I read an article in the Los Angeles Times that questioned whether your shooting sends a negative message to other young men. “You can’t outrun it or rise above it, so why should you try?” Do you worry about that message?
That’s a real concern. At times, it will feel like you can’t outrun it or rise above it. But if hope could reach me, it can reach anybody. That’s why mentors are so important. I can only hope that, by continuing to speak out on what I care about, I will show other young people that I haven’t been stopped.
What are your plans going forward?
Oh, man—a lot. I want to be a civil rights attorney, an advocate for the end of youth violence, and a motivational speaker. And now, because of my injury, I’m interested in being an advocate for those with disabilities.
A lot of the conversation about what happened to you is focused on how ironic and heartbreaking it is that the young men were supposed to be at your event that day. How does it feel to know that?
It did make me feel some type of way, to know that if they had showed up and heard me speak, there was a chance we may have been cool. We may have been friends. Maybe I could’ve talked to them and had some influence on them. We’ve probably been in a lot of similar situations, maybe even forced to do some of the same things. Sometimes when you get involved in gang violence, you have no option but to do something you don’t want to do. You never know how we could’ve connected. There’s no telling.
If you could say something to the young man who shot you, what would you say?
The world needs a lot more forgiveness. I forgive you, and I understand you. Everybody deserves a second chance—I was given two, three, four chances—so you deserve one, too. Take that second chance and get your mind sorted. Find a mentor—someone you can really look up to, who takes the time to find out what’s really going on in your life. That’s exactly what I would do. I’ll leave it at that.
Tell Savannah that I’m not done yet. You can’t get rid of me that easy, and I’ll be back.