Police brutality and racism protestors face Aurora: ‘America, you owe black people’

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AURORA | Hundreds of demonstrators braved gale-force winds and sheets of rain at Aurora City Hall Saturday afternoon to protest police brutality and racism, focusing on black people killed or injured at the hands of Aurora police.

Protests were at city hall and later at an East Colfax Avenue building where a minority physician says a recent, videotaped encounter with APD illustrates the treatment and excessive force minorities must often endure.

“Elijah McClain died in this city, and nobody showed up,” Denver Public Schools Board Member Tay Anderson told the crowd on the west steps of city hall.”It shouldn’t take a Twitter hashtag for you to show up for black people. You have been officially called out.”

Anderson has been a leading force in ongoing Denver protests. He repeatedly referred to the death of McClain, a 23-year-old black man who died after being confronted by Aurora police last August while he was walking home from a store. Police confronted McClain because a passerby was worried that he wore a face mask. After subduing McClain with a carotid control hold, he was injected with ketamine, never regaining consciousness. Officers and rescuers involved were cleared of wrongdoing by prosecutors late last year. An internal city panel also cleared police of misconduct.

Speaker after speaker repeated McClain’s name and listed other black people who’ve died at the hands of Aurora police in the last few years.

Like Anderson, several people lamented the relatively meager turnout at similar demonstrations following McClain’s death last year.

“We did not have a great show-up and turnout for Elijah,” organizer and activist Candace Bailey said. “Here in Aurora we definitely did not … we cannot continue this, Aurora.”

McClain’s mother, Sheneen, has also expressed frustration that protestors have consistently taken to the streets following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, but showed comparatively little verve following the death of her son.

At the gathering Saturday, Sheneen McClain called on lawmakers to approve a piece of pending legislation that could enact sweeping changes for Colorado law enforcement, including harsher consequences for police officers who knowingly shed or tamper with their body-won cameras during an arrest. All three Aurora cops who detained McClain in late August 2019 had their cameras become dislodged, which police officials have repeatedly said is not uncommon.

“Everybody, vote yes on the bill,” Sheneen said before loudly proclaiming the name of her son: “Elijah McClain!”

Community activist Jason McBride later rallied the crowd with comments about how change for black Americans is overdue.

“America you owe,” McBride said. “You owe black people.”

He said America owes blacks for generations of injustices, systems that are inherently biased and unjust, and the endless lives lost by those abuses. “From Jim Crow until now, America, you owe.”

He said Americans have long backed institutions, from political parties to criminal justice, that have repressed and abused blacks and minorities. McBride is program assistant with the Gang Rescue and Support Project in Denver.

“We are coming for what is ours,” McBride said to a cheering crowd.

Councilwoman Nicole Johnston is spearheading a new community effort to make police reform recommendations to city lawmakers. After delays caused by the pandemic crisis, the effort begins in earnest next week.

“The City of Aurora is not immune to the issues we are facing as a country, as demonstrated by events over the last several months and years,” Johnston and councilmembers Allison Hiltz and Angela Lawson said in a statement read aloud by community activist Hashim Coates.  “Our communities of color are disproportionately impacted by police violence.  It is clear to all of us that police reform is not just needed, but long overdue.

“It’s not enough, however, to say that we need reforms – we need to implement them,” the council members said.  “Reforms don’t happen by a person but as a community and many leaders committed to hearing them.  We have been working together and here are concrete actions we are taking right now.”

That effort drew support from speakers.

“I appreciate the efforts of our elected officials, but every single elected official can do and should do more,” Coates told the crowd. “Now is the time for those of you with white skin to use your privilege.”

Aurora Public Schools board member Kevin Cox told the crowd that all blacks must come forward with their stories of discrimination and abuse.

“We need black people telling what’s going on in the black community,” Cox said. “We need us to tell our story.”

Greg Kisang, a founding member of the Aurora-based organization Social Injustice Crusaders, echoed Cox’s message.

“I’ve never had a black teacher, and I’m 24 and I graduated college,” said Kisang, who also helped organize a march from Gateway High School to city hall last week. “And a lot of teachers that are white that teach history, they’re saying they’re scared of teaching black history because it makes them feel bad, so a lot of our kids are growing up and not knowing our history and our culture. We’re here to educate and empower the community by us, for us.”

At the end of the gathering, Kisang’s group helped give away free cartons of eggs and bottles of water that had been donated by the Denver-based group Struggle of Love.

Other demonstrators repeatedly urged government officials and residents alike to seize the momentum to realize change.

“Change is needed and necessary,” said Aurora NAACP president Omar Montgomery said via a statement read by the organization’s secretary. “We will fight, and when we fight, we win.”

Before the demonstration at city hall ended, several dozen additional protestors gathered in front of the former Broyhill furniture showroom at East Colfax Avenue and Galena Street to further condemn Aurora police and show support for a local physician who believes he was recently wronged by the local agency.

Dr. P.J. Parmar, a family doctor who runs a north Aurora medical clinic that provides numerous services to area refugees, is preparing a federal lawsuit against Aurora police for what he claims is excessive force after an Aurora officer questioned him while pointing a gun in his direction in March.

The demonstrators standing in solidarity with Parmar marched up and down the sidewalk along the 1500 block of Colfax Saturday evening.

Parmar said he was pleased with the turnout.

“It’s not an issue of a few bad apples,” he said of injustices carried out by police. “It’s an issue of — we have a few good apples. The majority of the barrel of apples is a little bit rotten at this point.”