Protest Watch

Elijah McClain Death Goes National Amid George Floyd Protests

A photo of the late Elijah McClain.
Courtesy of the McClain family
A photo of the late Elijah McClain.
The tragedy that befell Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man who died after a torturous August 2019 encounter with Aurora police officers despite being unarmed and having committed no crime (a call to 911 reported someone dancing to music while wearing a ski mask), is every bit as shocking as the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month. But it didn't receive widespread national attention because there's no clear video of the incident. The body cameras of the cops involved all somehow got dislodged — a supposed coincidence that attorney Mari Newman, who represents McClain's family and is currently assembling a civil-rights lawsuit on their behalf, believes was a purposeful effort to disguise excessive and ultimately lethal force by Aurora officers.

Nonetheless, a growing number of people across the country are belatedly learning about the McClain case thanks to a confluence of factors related to the ongoing protests over the Floyd homicide. The response has been widespread outrage, epitomized by a petition focused on "justice for Elijah. Demand these officers are taken off duty, and that a more in-depth investigation is held."

The petition has collected just shy of 1.8 million signatures — an enormous number that could affect Aurora's handling of the matter.

Early on, city officials attempted to bury developments such as an "inconclusive" autopsy and the decision not to criminally charge any law enforcement officials. Then they hired a supposedly independent investigator to look into the incident; that investigator was dumped after critics complained he was on the side of law enforcement and would try to explain away what happened. The city is now searching for a new person to analyze the circumstances leading to McClain's wholly unnecessary passing. Meanwhile, McClain's story is expected to be a major topic at a virtual town hall with four candidates for Aurora police chief scheduled for tonight, June 23. The four finalists include three men, all persons of color, as well as interim chief Vanessa Williams. Nick Metz, Aurora's first African-American police chief, retired at the end of 2019.

Awareness of McClain's terrible fate has been growing among participants in the ongoing downtown Denver rallies that followed Floyd's death, prompting a slew of events, including a weekend skate jam and fundraiser sponsored by Chain Reaction Records. McClain has also frequently been name-checked by Representative Leslie Herod, prime sponsor of the Law Enforcement Integrity and Accountability Act, recently signed into law by Colorado Governor Jared Polis.

As a result, major media organizations are finally catching up, as evidenced by the June 20 New York Times article "After George Floyd, Fresh Scrutiny of Old Cases," which led with coverage of McClain's death. Shortly after that was published, McClain's name began popping up regularly on social media alongside those of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and many other African-Americans killed by police.

In this environment, Aurora can no longer hope that anger over McClain will simply fade away — hence this announcement on the city's website: "Prompted by the members of the city's Public Safety, Courts & Civil Service Policy Committee — Council Members Allison Hiltz, Curtis Gardner and Angela Lawson — the City Manager is working with members of the Aurora City Council and the Mayor to initiate a new independent, external investigation of the actions of our police, firefighters and paramedics in the Elijah McClain case. Together we all want to achieve meaningful improvements, eliminate racial inequity and make lives better in our community. This review — and ultimately its findings — is a critical step toward these goals."

The virtual town hall for Aurora police chief finalists will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. and will be accessible online and via Comcast channels 8/880 in Aurora. Click for more details about watching and participating. In addition, will live-stream finalists' conversations with business, legal and education leaders at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow, June 24, with community-partner organization chats airing at 4:30 p.m. and community-police task force exchanges accessible at 6:30 p.m. later that day.