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A year after Elijah McClain’s death, activists want charges against police who stopped him

Ebony Wallace honors the memory of Elijah McClain in Denver
Ebony Wallace holds her fist in the air at an event in Denver to honor the memory of Elijah McClain on Sunday.
(Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post)

A year after Elijah McClain was stopped by police in suburban Denver on his way home from the store, people gathered on a football field Sunday night to dance and sing and to also call for justice for him and his family.

The event was intended as a way to celebrate the life of the 23-year-old massage therapist who died several days after being put in a neck hold by police and injected with the sedative ketamine. The encounter with police happened a year ago Monday after a man called police to report that McClain seemed “sketchy” because he was waving his hands and wearing a mask — something his family said he wore because he had a blood condition that caused him to get cold easily.

The three officers who confronted McClain in Aurora, Colo., have not faced any discipline for their actions in the encounter. A district attorney said last year he could not pursue criminal charges because an autopsy did not determine how McClain died, but state Atty. Gen. Phil Weiser is looking at whether criminal charges are warranted in the case. Gov. Jared Polis ordered him to look at the case in June after outrage over McClain’s death grew amid protests over racial injustice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Like many other people, MiDian Holmes, 39, of Denver only learned of what had happened to McClain — just a few miles from her home — after his death received new attention following Floyd’s death. Holmes, a mother of a daughter and two sons, heard Elijah McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, ask protesters in May why they did not show up for her son.

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“She lost a joy. She has lost a treasure, and she has not had time to heal because she hasn’t had justice,” Holmes said.

Holmes said the festival-like atmosphere of the anniversary event gave people a chance to talk to each other without fear of being interrupted by police or tear gas.

The drug ketamine, which is sometimes injected as a sedative during arrests, has drawn new scrutiny since a young Black man died in suburban Denver.

A contingent of activists from Louisville, Ky., who joined a rally at the Colorado Capitol on Saturday, was recognized during the event. Colorado activists had earlier traveled there to protest the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who died in a police raid on her apartment.

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The music included Michael Jackson and the Cupid Shuffle, which the DJ encouraged everyone to join, as well as “We Shall Overcome” and the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

The anthem was an instrumental version, but H. Malcolm Newton, a former opera singer, sang along. “Let us march on till victory is won,” he sang as he tapped his brown leather shoe on the ground and his fingers on the railing he was leaning on.

A trio of violinists also played in tribute to McClain, a violinist who liked to play for cats at the animal shelter to comfort them. They made sure to play Pachelbel’s Canon, which violinists were performing at a musical vigil for McClain earlier this summer when it was interrupted by police deploying pepper spray and foam rounds. Police said they were trying to stop agitators.

Police in Aurora, Colo., have released photos that show officers smiling as they reenacted the chokehold used on Elijah McClain, a Black man who died.

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Cynthia Katsarelis said they wanted to finish what those violinists had started. “Just like we will finish the work we need to do,” she told the crowd.

When police approached McClain last year, body-camera video shows an officer getting out of his car and saying, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. ... I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”

In the video, the officer turns around McClain and repeats, “Stop tensing up,” and says, “Relax, or I’m going to have to change this situation.”

Other officers join to restrain McClain, who tells them that he had stopped his music to listen to them and asks them to let him go.

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The officers move McClain over to the grass in front of an apartment building, but what happens next is not clear from the video. Police have said one of the officers applied the neck hold.

All three of the officers’ body cameras eventually came off during the struggle but continued to record audio. An officer says McClain grabbed one of their guns. McClain can be heard trying to explain himself and sometimes crying out.

“I’m just different. I’m just different, that’s all. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff,” he said, as the officers talk among themselves.

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One officer eventually retrieves his camera, which shows McClain handcuffed and lying on his side as another officer leans on him. The leaning officer says, “Move your camera, dude,” but the camera doesn’t move and continues to show the scene.

McClain suffered two heart attacks on the way to a hospital and was taken off of life support six days later.

With Melina Abdullah and Patrisse Cullors playing key roles, Black Lives Matter has transformed from a small but passionate movement into a cultural and political phenomenon.

The increased spotlight on the case recently has made it more difficult for McClain’s family to grieve his loss.

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McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, initially had planned Sunday to take the same route her son was taking to walk his “spirit home” but later canceled the event, saying in a Facebook post that the event had gotten out of hand. She endorsed the event at the football field at a Denver recreation center but did not speak, sticking with a vow not to talk publicly until the police officers who stopped her son are charged.

She was also upset that McClain’s pleading words to police have been invoked by those protesting his death. They have shown up on signs and at protests and were read in an Instagram video by Janelle Monae, Meagan Good, Jonathan Van Ness and others calling on Colorado officials to pursue charges against the officers.

“IT’S NOT OKAY TO REPEAT MY SON’S DYING WORDS BECAUSE THATS ALL YOU CAN THINK TO DO. THINK HARDER!!!! THAT HURTS ME,” Sheneen McClain wrote.

Mari Newman, the McClain family’s lawyer, said they welcomed support from other people who are sharing the pain and outrage over McClain’s death but do not want to serve as a kind of “masters of ceremony” as they grieve.

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“It’s just a very challenging time for them emotionally,” she said.


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