It was a warm August night, not unlike these, that two years ago Elijah McClain made a fateful trip to an Aurora convenience store for iced tea, ending his life and inciting an upheaval of protest and imminent police reform.
Yet two years after he was violently accosted by police for clearly being afraid of the cops, his death at their hands is essentially still unresolved. The unrequited justice adds to the pain and horror of the crime.
McClain’s tragic story has nearly become legend in the past two years. The young, deferential massage therapist walked from his north Aurora apartment at about 10 p.m. Aug. 24, 2019 for some cold drinks for himself and family members. He strolled a couple of blocks to a nearby East Colfax convenience store, like he’d done endless times before.
Inside the store, he picked out bottled iced teas, all while wearing a runner’s mask, a habit he had. That mask probably contributed to his death. No one in the store was bothered by it, witnesses said. It’s East Colfax and people there and everyone who knew McClain said there was nothing threatening about the slender, easygoing 23-year-old man.
That wasn’t the case with a man who drove by McClain as he was returning home. The man called Aurora Police dispatchers to say a “sketchy” dude in a face mask was out and about. When asked if he was doing anything worrisome, the man said no. It was just odd.
You can’t miss the rich irony of how just two years ago a face mask on a man on Colfax on an August night was “sketchy.” Now, however, in the middle of the pandemic, it would have been ignored.
When police arrived, two years ago, officers quickly escalated the incident with an aggressive confrontation that escalated McClain’s fear of their sudden and unexplained hostility.
What Black person in America isn’t outwardly or subconsciously afraid of any cop? It was still months before George Floyd would be murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. But McClain’s confrontation came after years of Black people dying at the hands of police. People of color have long been well-aware that overt and subconscious racism is a widespread malady in our country.
Several months ago, Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn wrote in an essay to The Sentinel that, like most Black men, he grew up fearing what police might do to him because of his race.
“I am a Black man in America who holds a position of relative authority and privilege,” Munn wrote. “America has afforded me the opportunity to worship as I please; to get a college degree and a law degree. In America I have been able to earn a living, marry the girl of my dreams, raise two beautiful children and participate in the civic and cultural life of my community. But also in America, I have been spit on, called a nigger, harassed by the police, denied opportunities and watched Black friends and loved ones systematically jailed, impoverished and dehumanized.”
Anyone who denies that racism is alive and well in Aurora, and across America, is deluded or lying.”
After long and grueling investigations, it became indisputable that racism triggered events two years ago that led to McClain’s death. Because he was a “sketchy” Black man walking at night in a poor part of town, police treated him and the situation in a way they would never have if McClain had been White, behaving the same. Because he succumbed to his fear of being maimed or killed by police, he was unable to play the game so many Black people, and especially men, are taught to preserve their lives: relent.
So McClain, who had done nothing wrong, was savagely subdued by Aurora cops, strangled into a faint and then wrongly injected with a potent tranquilizer, far more than what was deemed needed.
And he died because he went out for iced tea while being the model of a scary Black man for a handful of cops.
Two years later, the police department in Aurora has been ravaged by probes, protests, accusations, reform, apologies and subsequent horrific encounters with Black people. It all points to failings by some officers to separate their needed but astounding legal power, and their afflictions of racism.
Props to Police Chief Vanessa Wilson for pushing back against ignorant or corrupt officers and city leaders who have continued to defend police for the unforgivable. In a recent interview with Colorado Public Radio, McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, said that Wilson had talked to her about speaking to new classes of police recruits. It stands as a summary of where Wilson stands on this needlessly divisive issue.
Elijah’s horrific death incited not just protests, but real change in Aurora and across the state. It’s now, for the first time, illegal for police on duty to witness another officer abusing someone and not intervene. As a testament to how that will create a sea change in law enforcement, an Aurora officer was recently fired for standing idly by as another officer pistol-whipped and strangled an innocent Black man.
Despite the tragedy, the catharsis and the progress, however, two years after, Elijah’s death goes without holding the officers and medics who caused it accountable. There have been no firings for their deeds. No charges. Nothing.
The officers and firefighters involved were absolved of their crimes and malfeasance by convoluted and incompetent internal panels, whose long-standing purpose has been to accommodate such derelictions of duty rather than prevent them. Had real, independent processes been in place, it would be unthinkable that those who caused McClain’s death would continue to work in law enforcement. To think that a district attorney’s office looked at this case and could not conclude even that McClain was killed by ineptitude, let alone malevolence, speaks to the gaping hole within our criminal justice system afforded to police.
For the sake of all of us, but especially McClain’s friends and family, I hope overdue probes by the state attorney general and a grand jury return a step toward justice for Elijah, which he, and Aurora, have been robbed of.
Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]