Authorities in Aurora have repeatedly tried to bury controversial news related to the August 2019 attack on Elijah McClain, an unarmed 23-year-old black man who died after an encounter with police prompted by a 911 call reporting "suspicious" activity: a man dancing to music while wearing a ski mask. But the tragedy continues to receive national attention anyway, prompting a highly unusual strategy by Visit Aurora.
Like the vast majority of tourism agencies from coast to coast, Visit Aurora, a nonprofit born in 2010 and funded by a percentage of the city's hotel-stay tax, is perpetually positive, with its focus trained on promoting the town's restaurants, entertainment options and more. But today, July 9, one of the main items on its home page is headlined "Visit Aurora Stands With Its Community in the Fight for Systemic Equality" — and it links to a letter that mentions McClain in the first sentence.
The missive, credited to Visit Aurora President and CEO Bruce Dalton, begins: "Our community is grieving the loss of Elijah McClain and the countless other Black Americans who have fallen victim to acts of racially based violence. As we sit with our grief, we have heard the frustration, the cries, and the call to ensure change is a priority as we work towards systemic equality."
That Dalton groups McClain's death with those of others felled by "racially based violence" is a major change from the spin that Aurora officials have deployed over the years — and they've had a great many chances to deny bias. Even before McClain's death, the ACLU of Colorado documented thirteen allegations of Aurora police abuse against people of color since 2003. And the apparent offenses keep coming, as witnessed by reports of a potential federal lawsuit on behalf of Dr. P.J. Parmar, owner and founder of Mango House, a gathering place for members of the refugee community; a viral video shows a member of the Aurora Police Department pulling a gun on Parmar as he parked at one of his own properties.
Here's the Parmar video:
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Still, the McClain case has certainly made the biggest impact — and generated the most national attention. It's the focus of a civil-rights investigation by U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn and other federal authorities, as well as a probe by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. A panel expected to be chosen soon by the Aurora City Council will expand the study to Aurora policing in general, guaranteeing that McClain's death will continue to generate negative headlines for months, if not years, to come.
This scenario raises the prospect of Aurora earning a reputation as one of America's most racist cities — and in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd, that's not good for tourism. Hence Visit Aurora's decision to talk about subjects that city cheerleaders almost always avoid.
Here's Dalton's letter:
Where We Stand
Our community is grieving the loss of Elijah McClain and the countless other Black Americans who have fallen victim to acts of racially-based violence. As we sit with our grief, we have heard the frustration, the cries, and the call to ensure change is a priority as we work towards systemic equality.
As an organization dedicated to welcoming and encouraging visitors to our vibrant community, Visit Aurora proudly promotes one of our greatest assets: the diversity of people and cultures that have made Aurora their home. Pillar institutions, including the Aurora Cultural Arts District, On Havana Street, Colfax Avenue, and many more act as cultural beacons that enhance our destination.
It is our responsibility to educate ourselves on the issues surrounding people of color and share our city as a place for equal opportunity. We can do more, and we must do better. We cannot exclusively promote this great city — we must also commit to tangible steps that ensure equality for all who live and visit here.
We refuse to be silenced. We are here to listen, to support and to drive meaningful change, and we stand with you, our friends, neighbors, and partners, in never backing down from this mission.
Initially, we will:
• Be a voice for positive change in our community and engage in conversations that have already been initiated;
• Ensure that our team reflects the diversity in our community (this includes refocusing our hiring with a goal of community parity by the end of 2021);
• Ensure that all tourism marketing efforts for Aurora reflect the racial and cultural diversity of our community; this includes the images we use, the content creators we partner with, and the platforms and outlets we choose to invest in;
• Structure our community programming, outreach, and sponsorship in a way that nurtures Black-owned business as well as BIPOC organizations and events;
• Institute mandatory unconscious bias training for our team and offer it to our partners and stakeholders;
• Support diversity and inclusion initiatives spearheaded by key tourism industry organizations such as the Professional Convention Management Association, Meeting Professionals International, American Society of Association Executives, Association Forum, and Destinations International.
This is just the beginning. We are driven by the need to find every avenue to stand for justice. And it’s within the spirit of our community, as a whole, that we will stand up for what matters.
President | CEO