On the evening of August 24, 2019, 23-year-old Elijah McClain was killed by three police officers in Aurora, Colorado. In what has become a familiar chain of events, police were responding to a 911 call when they confronted McClain, an unarmed Black man. The ensuing altercation resulted in McClain’s death at the hands of three white police officers.
Nearly a year after the death of McClain, his family and community are still seeking justice. The “Justice for Elijah McClain” movement has sought further investigation of the officers involved in the killing. So far, only one of the officers has been fired, though not for McClain’s death. National protests and petitions are urging that all three be charged with murder.
What happened to Elijah McClain?
On August 30, 2019, The Denver Post reported that McClain was being taken off life support “after a violent arrest last weekend by Aurora police officers left him brain dead.” Though his official day of death was listed August 30, McClain had been brain dead since the 24.
This initial reporting on the incident said McClain was confronted by police who were responding “to a call of a ‘suspicious person’ … The caller said the person was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms.”
According to the officers, McClain “refused to stop walking” when directed to. In response, the officers physically stopped him, leading to an altercation in which the officers say McClain grabbed one of their guns. As a result, the three officers wrestled McClain to the ground and put him in a carotid hold, a type of chokehold.
Police bodycam footage of the confrontation offers a somewhat clearer picture of the altercation. In the footage, McClain does stop walking immediately after the officers enter his field of vision. With the officers surrounding McClain, he repeatedly tells them to “leave me alone.” He is then pushed up against a wall, at which time all four men fall to the ground.
At that point, an officer exclaims, “He grabbed your gun dude,” though in the shaky footage, the accuracy of this claim cannot be verified. An officer then puts McClain in a chokehold, at which time he is said to have passed out briefly. After coming to, McClain can be heard saying, “I can’t breathe,” the same thing George Floyd said before he died in police custody in May of this year.
Following the confrontation, the officers called medical first responders to the scene. In the ambulance, McClain was given a sedative, ketamine, to calm him down, but this caused him to go into cardiac arrest.
Who was Elijah McClain?
McClain’s sister, Samara McClain, has said that the violent encounter was “a case of police brutality.” His family has insisted that violent force was unwarranted and that McClain, who was a massage therapist, would not have resisted the police.
As more details have come out in the months since McClain’s death, it has become clear he was innocent of any criminal activity and was likely not resisting the police. Due to being anemic, McClain frequently wore a mask outside to prevent getting cold. He was also listening to music at the time of his confrontation with police.
At the time of his death, McClain was returning from a convenience store with tea for his brother. McClain has been described as “sweet” by his sister, while his friend Eric Behrens said of him, “I don’t even think he would set a mouse trap if there was a rodent problem.”
In recent weeks, a viral post of McClain’s last words, heard on the bodycam footage, have offered insight into his final moments: “You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You are all very strong. Teamwork makes the dream work. Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”
Justice for Elijah McClain
Though McClain’s death didn’t receive national coverage last year, since Black Lives Matters protests erupted in late May over the death of Floyd, McClain’s death has become part of the national conversation.
Much of the focus of the movement, which has spread with the trending hashtag #JusticeforElijahMcClain, is focused on having the officers charged with murder. It has grown aligned with the Justice for Breonna Taylor movement, which seeks to have charges brought against the officers who killed her in her own home in March 2020.
Following the confrontation, the three officers – Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema – were put on paid administrative leave. However, in November 2019, prosecutors in Adams County, where Aurora is, announced they were not seeking charges against the officers.
In June, Piper Rundell began a change.org petition to have the district attorney investigate McClain’s killing. After Colorado Governor Jared Polis announced he was appointing a special prosecutor to do just that, Rundell has said that the new focus of the petition, which now has nearly 4,500,000 signatures, is ensuring that the officers responsible are charged.
Police officers fired
In Aurora, protesters surrounded the police precinct on July 3 after photos of three police officers mocking McClain’s death were released to the public. The three officers in the selfie, which was taken at the site of McClain’s killing, were not those involved in the confrontation. In one of the photos, an officer can be seen putting another in a chokehold while all three smile at the camera.
The three officers – Erica Marrero, Kyle Dittrich and Jaron Jones – were initially put on leave. After protests, Marrero and Dittrich were fired, while Jones resigned. One of the officers who was involved in the confrontation with McClain, Rosenblatt, was sent the photos and responded with “ha ha.” Rosenblatt has been fired for his response to the pictures, but not for his role in McClain’s death.
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