Law enforcement agencies in Aurora, Colorado have received a flood of emails and phone calls in recent weeks — tens of thousands, to be exact — about the death of a young man named Elijah McClain. A Change.org petition that bears his name has garnered over 2 million signatures. His name is trending on social media. But considering how Elijah McClain was killed, this reckoning is long overdue.
McClain is another in a long line of unarmed Black people killed by police officers — he was walking home from a convenience store when police arrested and assaulted him — but his death did not happen in the midst of this current uprising demanding justice for Black lives. McClain was killed nearly a year ago, on 24th August 2019, and the renewed attention on police violence towards Black people in the US has brought with it a renewed attention to his case.
McClain was 23 when he went to a convenience store near his home one summer night to pick up an iced tea for his brother. On his walk home, someone called 911 to report a “suspicious” person wearing a mask; McClain, who had anaemia and would sometimes get cold as a result, was wearing an open-faced ski mask. McClain was unarmed and, according to his sister, listening to music when three officers — Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt, and Randy Roedema — approached him.
What happened next has been pieced together from the body cam footage that exists, but that footage is difficult to parse because the officers said their body cams fell off during the struggle. Over the course of 15 minutes, during which officers claimed McClain was “resisting arrest,” the young man was thrown to the ground and put in a chokehold. One officer claimed McClain showed extreme strength when they tried to pin his arms behind his back — a claim rooted in racist stereotyping of Black men.
On the body cam footage, one officer can be heard admitting that McClain had done nothing criminal prior to his arrest. Another says McClain reached for his gun. For his part, McClain begs the officers to stop and says he cannot breathe. “Let me go. I am an introvert, please respect my boundaries that I am speaking,” he says. He vomits and then apologises for it, saying, “I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.” The young man can be heard sobbing, telling the officers his name and that he is unarmed.
Eventually, first responders were called to try to calm him down. First responders injected McClain with a “therapeutic” dose of ketamine in order to sedate him. While he was enroute to the hospital, he went into cardiac arrest twice. He was pronounced brain dead and taken off life support on 30th August.
An autopsy was inconclusive, listing McClain’s death as “undetermined.” The medical examiner noted extensive bruising on McClain’s body, along with haemorrhaging on his neck. The McClain family's attorney, Mari Newman, told ABC 7 Denver that "Whatever the report says, it's clear that if the police had not attacked Elijah McClain, he would be alive today.”
Immediately following the incident, the three officers involved were placed on administrative leave while investigators looked into what happened. On 22nd November, prosecutors for Adams County announced that the officers would not be charged, and they were allowed to return to their jobs.
“Based on the investigation presented and the applicable Colorado law, there is no reasonable likelihood of success of proving any state crimes beyond a reasonable doubt at trial,” District Attorney Dave Young said in a letter to Aurora police chief Nick Metz. “Therefore, no state criminal charges will be filed as a result of this incident.”
But that language is important — they are not saying that the officers were cleared of responsibility in McClain’s death, but that under Colorado law, there was no charge that prosecutors felt they could bring against the officers that would result in them being found guilty at a trial.
“If Aurora thinks this is appropriate policing, the community should be petrified,” Newman, the family’s lawyer, told the Sentinel. “We are disappointed, but not surprised that once again, members of law enforcement will not [be] held criminally accountable for killing an unarmed Black man.”
The same Aurora, Colorado, police force who murdered Elijah McClain detained James Holmes, who murdered 12 people in a movie theater, without incident. It’s so obvious at this point that it’s UGLY.— Evette Dionne (@freeblackgirl) June 24, 2020
In the aftermath, McClain’s case received very little press attention. Over the previous six months, District Attorney Young’s office had received only two calls about it. But the recent protests that have risen up in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers have shined a new light on McClain’s death and have renewed calls for justice.
On 9th June, Aurora Police Department banned officers from using carotid holds, and will obligate them to intervene when they see another officer using excessive force. Additionally, two Aurora council members are attempting to make bans on chokeholds and carotid holds part of the city’s ordinance. While those seem like positive steps, many organisers have pointed out that in New York City, for example, chokeholds had been banned since 1993 and yet Eric Garner died after an officer used one on him in 2014.
Also on 9th June, City Manager Jim Twombly agreed to an independent investigation of McClain’s death. He appointed Attorney Eric Daigle to conduct the investigation, a move that received pushback from the city council, since Daigle is a former police officer (it is common for former police officers to investigate police misconduct, and is one of the reasons that officers often escape accountability for their actions, along with police unions).
“Unfortunately, an attorney with a long career in law enforcement that specialises in defending municipal police departments from liability claims doesn’t qualify, in our minds, as a neutral review,” the council said in a statement. Aurora mayor Mike Coffman announced the following day that Daigle’s contract had been terminated and that he and the council will select a replacement.
McClain’s case is another example of why the current reckoning is necessary and why it must be ongoing. There are so many people who have died in this country simply because of the colour of their skin, people whose names we will never know. But thanks to this moment, we know at least one more: Elijah McClain. He deserves to be remembered, and he deserves justice.
Refinery29 reached out to the Aurora Police Department for comment. We will update this story as we know more.