#Justice4Elijah: In Colorado, a new BLM rallying cry emerges

Colorado is reopening its investigation into the death of Elijah McClain in police custody nearly a year ago. The chokehold used on Mr. McClain has been banned in several cities following George Floyd's death, and his story is finding new momentum online.

Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado/AP
Hundreds of protestors gather at city hall on June 6, 2020 to call attention to the death of Black people at the hands of police in Aurora, Colorado, specifically Elijah McClain. Mr. McClain was stopped by three officers while walking through a Denver suburb last year.

The Colorado governor on Thursday ordered prosecutors to reopen the investigation into the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man put into a chokehold by police who stopped him on the street in suburban Denver last year because he was “being suspicious.”

Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order directing state Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate and possibly prosecute the three white officers previously cleared in Mr. McClain’s death. Mr. McClain’s name has become a rallying cry during the national reckoning over racism and police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd and others.

“Elijah McClain should be alive today, and we owe it to his family to take this step and elevate the pursuit of justice in his name to a statewide concern,” Mr. Polis said in a statement.

He said he had spoken with Mr. McClain’s mother and was moved by her description of her son as a “responsible and curious child ... who could inspire the darkest soul.”

Police in Aurora responded to a call about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms as he walked down a street on Aug. 24. Police body-camera video shows an officer getting out of his car, approaching Mr. McClain and saying, “Stop right there. Stop. Stop. ... I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious.”

Police say Mr. McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers confronted him and tried to take him into custody.

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

As other officers join to restrain Mr. McClain, he begs them to let go and says, “You guys started to arrest me, and I was stopping my music to listen.”

One of the officers put him in a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain, something that has been banned in several places in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death May 25 under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and the global protests that followed.

In the video, Mr. McClain tells officers: “Let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.” Those words have appeared on scores of social media posts demanding justice for Mr. McClain.

He was on the ground for 15 minutes as several officers and paramedics stood by. Paramedics gave him 500 milligrams of the sedative ketamine to calm him down, and he suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. Mr. McClain was declared brain dead Aug. 27 and was taken off life support three days later.

A forensic pathologist could not determine what exactly led to his death but said physical exertion during the confrontation likely contributed.

Mr. McClain’s younger sister, Samara McClain, told The Denver Post shortly after his death that her brother was walking to a corner store to get tea for a cousin and often wore masks when he was outside because he had a blood condition that caused him to get cold easily.

In the video, Mr. McClain sobs as he repeatedly tells officers, “I’m just different.” Samara McClain said her brother was a massage therapist who planned to go to college.

A photo of him playing violin for stray cats has recently gone viral. He taught himself the instrument, reports The Cut

He often spent his lunch breaks at local animal shelters, putting on concerts for cats and dogs because he believed music would help soothe their anxiety. Those who knew him describe him as gentle: “I don’t even think he would set a mouse trap if there was a rodent problem,” his friend, Eric Behrens, told the Sentinel.

The Police Department put the three officers on leave, but they returned to the force when District Attorney Dave Young said there was insufficient evidence to support charging them.

“Ultimately, while I may share the vast public opinion that Elijah McClain’s death could have been avoided, it is not my role to file criminal charges based on opinion, but rather, on the evidence revealed from the investigation and applicable Colorado law,” Mr. Young said shortly before Mr. Polis ordered the investigation reopened.

Aurora police said interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson won’t comment to avoid interfering with the investigation.

Mari Newman, the McClain family’s attorney, said she was pleased with the governor’s decision.

“Clearly, Aurora has no intention of taking responsibility for murdering an innocent young man,” she said. “Its entire effort is to defend its brutality at all costs, and to lie to the public it is supposed to serve. It is time for a responsible adult to step in.”

Colorado’s attorney general said in a statement that the investigation will be thorough and “worthy of public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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