PERRY: Two years is too long to wait for justice for Elijah McClain

Protesters at the foot of Aurora city hall June 27, the first of three Elijah McClain protest events slated for the day. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

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]

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Don Black
Don Black
1 year ago

Although Elijah McClain’s death was tragic, the resulting knee jerk reactions by the media and the legislature will cause the deaths of far more citizens. The fear of stopping anyone will now lead to far more misery and death. The danger to young black men from other armed young black men is far greater than the danger from the police. Not only that, but these same violent young black men have been the reason so many innocent young black men have been stopped. Put your anger where it should be. These same violent young black men and white thugs are going to cause misery untold. It is unfortunate that the circumstances came together the way they did the night Elijah was stopped. Poor soul Elijah should have been taught to do what the police said, as should all citizens. His immediate resistance caused an immediate response. If you don’t want the police to stop anyone who simply won’t stop, then accept that no laws will be enforced. Make a choice. You can’t deescalate something when the person won’t even stop. Deal with reality. Be sad for Elijah. Demand transparency. But deal with reality. Quit imagining the way things are. It doesn’t solve anything. If you impose your emotional response on the police, you endanger others.

1 year ago

Will we have to hear this same rant every year in August? McClain and his mother created the problem. The citizens of Aurora have expended millions of dollars in an attempt to change this outcome for no good reason. Don’t you think if there was real substance that it would have been resolved by this time?

Let it go, Dave, let it go.

1 year ago

As usual and nothing but a set of convenient embellishments with the so typical reckless slant, than offering any hard analysis. Just the facts Jack….  

  “dispatchers to say a “sketchy” dude”

 “Because he was a “sketchy” Black man walking”  
 These two sentences are a broad leap from the key word “sketchy”.
 But who cares when you make up your own dramatic back-drop?   We are all too familiar with motives Dave, with more intentional misleading outcomes.
After long and grueling investigations, it became indisputable that racism triggered events two years ago that led to McClain’s death? What? Where in any of the reports is this proved anywhere? You say there is evidence these APD cops own racism pushed them over the edge, and made this so easy cause that’s how APD rolls – You know this as so obvious.
And what about the conclusions of the Grand Jury? Does their findings enter into your breakdown Dave? What about this well-reasoned process compared to your wish list of your interpretation and illusory standards, will they also be judged insignificant?  Phil Weiser state AG, clearly did not want this on his plate, so he hides behind a Grand Jury. This gives him a nice political way out.  Dave Young,  the prior well-seasoned DA  in Adams county could not bring in good faith anything against anybody. Young a Democrat to boot.

 Next thing we know, Perry will inform us he knows the exact cause of death….  As nobody else -experts galore- has been able to.  I can hardly wait.