AURORA | The Aurora Police Department announced an investigation into the sudden violence on Interstate 225 during a Saturday protest march for Elijah McClain, including a driver who sped toward the crowd blocking lanes and a protester who apparently shot and wounded two people in the seconds that followed.
On Sunday evening, Aurora police described their new investigation and asked for evidence amidst public calls to identify the speeding driver, whom eyewitnesses said could have killed or seriously injured protesters blocking I-225.
The protest march Saturday began at the Aurora Municipal Center. Organized by the Party of Socialism and Liberation’s Denver branch, Aurora Cop Watch, Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action and supported by a “Wall of Moms,” the protest began near 5 p.m. near city hall.
Hundreds of people gathered on the lawn to hear speeches. Activists demanded murder charges against Aurora police officers and first responders who took part in stopping and subduing Elijah McClain in August 2019 after a passerby called 911 and described him as “sketchy.” Officers placed McClain, who was unarmed and never suspected of a crime, into a now-banned control hold that caused him to briefly faint. He went into cardiac arrest shortly thereafter and died at a hospital six days later.
Protesters then marched peacefully west on East Alameda Avenue and onto Interstate 225. Police had blocked off a portion of the interstate, and no cars traveled on the northbound lanes.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation has not responded to repeated requests for comment on why the march entered I-225.
Scores of drivers effectively became stranded on the southbound side of the interstate as hundreds of marchers threaded between vehicles.
Activists handed flowers to Black drivers stranded on the interstate. Many drivers honked their horns and raised fists in support.
But tempers were running high between protesters and some motorists who had found themselves suddenly stuck on I-225 in the throng swallowing southbound lanes.
One woman told protesters a pregnant woman was in her car; another man said he was exhausted and no friend of crooked police officers but was exhausted after a long shift at work. A man aggressively barked at protesters to keep away from his vehicle while organizers with loudspeakers railed against imperialism and called for a rebellion against the American state.
Near 7 p.m., according to eyewitnesses, a driver in a blue Jeep accelerated toward the crowd standing on the empty, northbound side of the Interstate. Sebastian Sassi maneuvered his white truck in front of the Jeep, slowing it down and possibly preventing deaths, according to eyewitnesses. Protesters also told the Sentinel a person in the crowd fired a handgun toward the Jeep driver, injuring at least one fellow protester.
Police said Sunday one adult male was shot in the leg and another was shot in the head, but only experienced a grazing wound. Both victims made their way to area hospitals and their injuries are not life threatening, according to police.
“At this time it is unknown if multiple people fired their weapons, or if it was just one individual,” police officers said on an official blog.
On Twitter, police said Monday they had identified the apparent protester who fired a weapon toward the Jeep.
APD also said its officers quickly found the Jeep Saturday, questioned the driver and impounded the vehicle as evidence. APD identified the driver as a male. In early interviews, the driver said he had found himself surrounded by protesters on I-225 “who were yelling and striking” his car.
“He claims that the reason that he drove towards the protesters is because he was scared and trying to get away,” police said in a statement.
That account differs from eyewitness testimony collected by the Sentinel as well as video evidence observed by reporters.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation condemned APD on Facebook for failing to immediately arrest the driver of the Jeep.
To conduct its investigation, APD implored protesters to submit evidence and testimonies concerning both the Jeep and the subsequent shooting.
“We are seeking the public’s assistance. We need any pictures, videos, or eyewitness accounts that show the events leading up to the Jeep driving into the crowd. Those can be submitted to Denver Metro Crime Stoppers. We are also seeking pictures, videos, and eyewitnesses who observed the shooting,” APD wrote on its blog.
Members of the public can anonymously submit tips to Denver Metro Crime Stoppers and be eligible for a reward of up to $2,000.
On Sunday, Mayor Mike Coffman said he had asked Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson for a briefing about the protest. He was largely concerned about the events following the official March, when a smaller group of protesters took to vandalizing the Aurora Municipal Court building.
In a Facebook post Sunday he was critical of Aurora police standing back from protesters while they vandalized the city hall complex.
“I understand that our police department chose to show restraint last night by not using nonlethal munitions but now these individuals smell weakness” Coffman said in the statement. “My concern is that they will be back again and again until they achieve their goal.”
The next day, APD officials told the Sentinel the mayor had made no such request to the department.
The official protest march ended as night fell on the Aurora Municipal Campus. The vast majority of protesters left the campus. About 150 people remained, clad in gas masks, makeshift armor and holding umbrellas. Some people held shields.
At that point, protesters pushed down a newly erected spiked-steel fence created to cordon the public from police headquarters. They ripped off plywood protecting windows from vandals and began smashing glass at about 8 p.m., taunting police with chants.
Police put out a small fire inside the building that houses the Aurora Municipal Court after someone shot a fire cracker into the building. More than a dozen windows on the building in the Aurora municipal complex were smashed during a chaotic scene that unfolded as night fell.
The scene is now bedlam. Windows are being smashed. Fireworks going off in the direction of police. Breaking glass can be heard all around. This is not June 27. pic.twitter.com/l3okY8YTzf
— Quincy Snowdon (@QuincySnowdon) July 26, 2020
The crowd used plywood torn from buildings as shields and moved into East Alameda Parkway. There, for a short time, protesters forced traffic to turn around and drive over a raised median, for about 30 minutes.
Police reported no arrests during the evening, and there were no physical confrontations between officers and protestors. Still, police issued multiple dispersal orders from a loudspeaker and threatened to use chemical weapons against anyone who stayed in the area. No such agents were used.
That event marked a change from how officers interacted with protestors at a violin vigil held to honor McClain on June 27. At that event, officers deployed pepper spray and foam rounds as musicians punctuated the area with music. Police actions at that event has since prompted a class action lawsuit.