July 5 marks the third day of the Occupy APD Space protest demanding justice for Elijah McClain, who died after his arrest by three Aurora Police Department officers in August 2019.
In the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, attention has been focused on McClain's case; a protest in Aurora on June 27 that ended with demonstrators being tear-gassed during a violin vigil honoring the 23-year-old massage therapist grabbed national headlines.
The protests reignited on July 3, when Interim Chief Vanessa Wilson held a press conference announcing the termination of two officers — Erica Marrero and Kyle Dittrich — who'd taken a photo re-enacting the chokehold that officers had put on McClain near the site of that stop. Jaron Jones, an officer also in the photo, had resigned the day before. Another officer who'd been sent the picture and responded with "haha" was fired as well; that was Jason Rosenblatt, one of the officers who'd responded to a 911 call about a "suspicious" man in late August. That was Elijah McClain, on his way home after buying an iced tea for his brother. He never made it.
The family was not allowed into the press conference, and people in the crowd that had gathered outside the Aurora Municipal Building became angry when they learned that officers were being fired for a picture, but not for the murder of Elijah McClain. Last November, District Attorney Dave Young had announced that the officers would not be charged criminally; in late June, Governor Jared Polis asked Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to conduct an investigation, and the Department of Justice revealed that a federal probe has also been under way since last year.
After the press conference, members of Elijah McClain's family and their lawyer, Mari Newman, met near the site where officers had stopped him on August 24; they then marched to the APD District 1 station, where Occupy APD Space set up camp. Some protesters are still there, vowing to remain until all the officers involved are fired and charged.
On July 4, Dena McClain, Elijah's cousin who came up from Texas for the protests, spoke about the family's reaction to the APD firing officers associated with the picture mocking Elijah's death, but not the officers involved in the actual incident. “All of the police at that department are under the same union, taught the same ways; that needs to end," she said. "Elijah is in the world’s heart now. If it affects the world this way to see Elijah's murder on video, imagine how it hurt our family's heart to see his murder the same way.”
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Ultimately, she explained, the McClain family wants terminations and convictions of all three officers involved in arresting Elijah McClain, as well as the medics who were called to the scene and administered ketamine, which led to Elijah going into cardiac arrest and dying a few days later. “Everyone who was there and sat around while Eli cried for his dear life must be terminated,” she said. “Although we are not satisfied with the outcome given by APD Friday, it is a step in the right direction.”
Dena said that she and other members of the McClain family want Aurora officials to understand that this is not the end: It is only the beginning to finding justice for Elijah and making sure that no one else is a victim of police brutality in Colorado. They want the APD to know that the family is strong, she added, and intends to push for policy changes so that no one else will feel the pain that they have felt for over ten months and will continue to feel for a lifetime.
Only recently has social media given the world the opportunity to hear Elijah’s story and understand what happened to him on August 24. Dena expressed the family's gratitude for #JusticeForElijahMcClain, support on Facebook and the Occupy APD Space. “It is amazing," she said.
The family supports Sheneen McClain in everything she is doing to find justice for her son, Dena continued, from holding the Aurora Police Department accountable to changing Colorado's law enforcement system. And Coloradans can do their part, she said, by getting out to vote, participating in the peaceful protests that are continuing in Colorado, and saying Elijah McClain's name.