AURORA | An extensive protest against the death of Elijah McClain quickly jolted from peaceful to disorderly and back again Saturday when Aurora police deployed pepper spray and foam munitions against rowdy protesters they said were throwing rocks and bottles at cops.
Police and local sheriff’s deputies wearing riot gear and wielding shields called the protest an “unlawful assembly” and began to disperse the crowd at about 8:30 p.m. June 27. The scene was surreal and chaotic as musicians slated to play in a violin vigil wandered among the tense scene of protesters and riot-gear-clad police, string music wafting with the sounds of havoc.
In a tweet, police said they deployed pepper spray after protesters threw rocks and bottles at officers and attempted to further break down a barricade separating the crowd from Aurora police headquarters. Officers also fired at least four rounds of 40mm foam projectiles at protestors as officials attempted to clear the lawn in front of city hall, according to a department spokesperson. Officials are still reviewing video footage of the event to confirm exactly how many munitions were fired.
The protest became even more confusing at about 9 p.m. when police commanded people to disperse, but then allowed them to reconvene in an adjacent parking lot for the violin vigil. More than 1,000 people remained as police observed and apparently backed off their demands to end the protest.
Though police originally reported that three people had been arrested at the event, a department spokesperson confirmed Sunday that only two people were taken into custody. Both Mary Dygert, 24, and Elliot Forrest, 22, were issued municipal summonses for “failure to obey,” according to department spokesperson Fatih Winter. Both Dygert and Forrest have since been released from custody.
Earlier in the day, hoards of people began flooding the Aurora Municipal Center at about 1 p.m. for a protest hosted by the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which was followed by a youth march. At about 2:45 p.m., thousands of protesters began marching west on East Alameda Avenue before turning onto Interstate 225 and temporarily shut down the highway in both directions. Police kept the interstate closed and protected.
Aurora police and officials had been gearing up for the protests at Aurora city hall over the 2019 death of McClain, the 23-year-old unarmed black man who died after being detained by Aurora police last August. The protests come amid a wave of renewed media attention and flurry of promises for new investigations.
Moments before the event was officially slated to start, Interim Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said in a statement that “outsiders” may be here to “hijack the intended message … by being destructive and wreaking havoc.”
Throughout the evening police said some people wearing helmets and gloves were working to disrupt the largely peaceful but loud event that featured dozens of speeches from activists, politicians and local high school students.
Several Aurora City Council Members observed for much of the afternoon, with some lamenting the heavy police presence.
“I’m not convinced we’re doing the right thing right now,” Councilperson Juan Marcano said as tensions between protestors and police slowly amped up later in the afternoon. “Especially the agitators, they need a target. And if you have two rows of folks out here in turtle gear, that’s the target.”
More than 100 law enforcement personnel from Aurora police and several local sheriff’s offices were present at the events throughout the day, almost all of whom remained in tactical gear for hours.
The stated goal of the day’s first demonstration was to call for the arrest and prosecution of the three officers who detained McClain in the 1900 block of Billings Street. Posters depicting the faces of the three officers, who are all still employed with the department, were ubiquitous.
Earlier in the day, Aurora police announced the city would go on accident alert, a measure usually reserved for severe winter weather and road conditions. Most windows were boarded up in advance of the protest at the city hall complex, which includes a city library, courts, police headquarters and city offices. The complex is at East Alameda Parkway and Chambers Road.
The lawyer for the family of McClain, who died after being stopped by Aurora police who labelled him “suspicious” though he was never suspected of a crime, said Friday she and McClain’s relatives will now conduct their own investigation of an official inquiry that never resulted in three white police officers facing any charges for their involvement in the Aurora man’s death.
Mari Newman told The Associated Press the decision reflects her suspicions toward government investigations of cases of alleged police misconduct. It comes a day after Democratic Gov. Jared Polis announced he was appointing Attorney General Phil Weiser to re-investigate and possibly prosecute the officers.
“After over two decades of doing this work, my experience is that families cannot rely on the government to police itself,” Newman said. “And so my work is to continue to seek justice through the civil justice system so we’re doing our own investigation and preparing a civil rights lawsuit.”
Newman declined to elaborate or provide details about the independent investigation.
“We know that the police can’t police themselves and we know that district attorneys don’t charge the police officers because they rely on police in their other prosecutions,” she said.
Newman has represented the McClain family since last summer, when police in Aurora responded to a call of a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms as he walked down a street on Aug. 24. Officials said McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when officers confronted him and tried to take him into custody.
“I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious,” an officer is heard on a body camera recording telling McClain. The encounter happened as McClain, a certified massage therapist and self-taught violin player, was running an errand at a local convenience store.
To subdue McClain, officers used a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain — a tactic recently banned in several places in the wake of George Floyd’s death last month in Minneapolis. Paramedics arrived soon after and administered 500 milligrams of a sedative to calm McClain down. In less than a week, McClain suffered cardiac arrest, was declared brain dead and taken off life support. He died on Aug. 30, 2019.
Weiser promised a thorough investigation in a statement Thursday. He said it will be “guided by the facts, and worthy of public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.”
An email and telephone call to Weiser’s office for comment Friday weren’t immediately returned.
While the appointment of the attorney general isn’t “business as usual,” Newman said, it’s an acknowledgement of the special circumstances surrounding McClain’s death.
“A true, thorough, independent investigation should not be contingent on a case that garners the public outcry from three million signatures on a petition and international media attention,” she said, referring to a change.org petition online petition demanding justice for McClain. The petition has garnered more than 3.7 million signatures.
“So while I appreciate the governor stepping up and stepping in, it’s unfortunate that that doesn’t happen in every case,” she added.
Aurora’s city council will debate July 6 whether to hire another third-party investigator after a previous one was fired because he is a former police officer. Newman said she’s distrustful of that process.
The three officers who detained McClain were placed on leave but returned to the force after District Attorney Dave Young said there was insufficient evidence to support charging them.
“Although, I may not agree with the officers’ actions in this incident, the law requires me to determine if the force used was not justified beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury,” Young said in a statement issued Thursday. (READ YOUNG’S ENTIRE STATEMENT HERE) Based on the facts and evidence of this investigation, I cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers involved in this incident were not justified in their actions based on what they knew at the time of this incident.”
Recently, the officers have been reassigned to “non-enforcement roles,” police told The Sentinel.
TV News7, citing a statement from Aurora police, is reporting that officers “Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema were taken off street duty ‘because of threats and harassment.'”
Police told News7 that the officers have received phone and email threats.
Woodyard and Rosenblatt were reassigned on June 13. Roedema was reassigned on June 20, according to News7.
Newman said “without a doubt” all of those involved should be fired: “Their behavior demonstrates that they are not suited to carry that badge.”
Full Aurora Police Bodycam Video of Elijah McClain Encounter
Past Sentinel Colorado Coverage of Elijah McClain: