The cause was simple enough, a vigil to remember Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man who died last summer at the hands of police.
Mr. McClain was walking home from a convenience store on Aug. 24 when someone called 911, saying he “looked sketchy” and was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms.
The police arrived, and after struggling to handcuff Mr. McClain, officers brought him to the ground and used a carotid hold, which restricts blood to the brain to render someone unconscious. When medical responders arrived, after about 15 minutes, paramedics injected him with ketamine, a powerful sedative.
He died of cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. This didn’t make the national news at the time, and there are some questions as to whether the chokehold was the cause of death, although it unquestionably was the “but for” cause, as was the 911 call because someone thought he “looked sketchy.” And unsurprisingly, the ensuing Terry stop didn’t go well.
According to the camera footage, the officer responded, saying he had a right to stop Mr. McClain for looking suspicious, and grabbed him by the arms. As another officer approached, Mr. McClain can be heard saying, “I am an introvert, please respect the boundaries that I am speaking. Leave me alone.”
Though Mr. McClain had not committed a crime, officers immediately restrained him, telling him to stop resisting when he put his arms up to his chest and to “stop tensing up.” The footage shows Mr. McClain pleading with the officers to let go of him, and trying to get out of their grip.
Some will react with the ubiquitous “he should have complied,” and as the adage goes, comply now, grieve later, would have been the safer course. But McClain was, of course, legally in the right. Looking “sketchy” isn’t a crime and gives rise to no reasonable articulable suspicion that a crime is afoot. The cops can ask. He can tell them to get lost and assert his right to be left alone. McClain did. The cops didn’t take kindly to it, and McClain ended up dead.
His death deserves recognition, just as the police response deserves condemnation, not to mention substantial damages in the § 1983 suit. Whether the latter will happen remains to be seen, given that the hurdle of qualified immunity must still be surmounted. But that didn’t prevent the people of Aurora, Colorado from remembering a life needlessly lost.
“I see myself in him a lot. That easily could have been me in a lot of situations,” said Ashanti Floyd, a six-time Grammy-nominated violinist. “I’ve heard about it for a long time but I just watched the video a couple of days ago. It really made me think about life and how blessed I am.”
“I was really just looking somewhere that I would fit because I’m not one to just sit by and do nothing. I wanted to be able to back up my words with action,” said England Jr., a world-renowned violinist and artist who is signed to Michael Jordan’s ‘Jordan’ brand. “It was like, I saw myself in his story. That could have been me.”
Floyd and England Jr. heard Elijah’s story, saw the video of how he died, and knew they had to speak up.
Saturday they’ll fly to Denver from Georgia and New York to use the most powerful voices they have to fight for justice: their violins.
It’s a wonderful way to honor Elijah McClain’s memory. While some may destroy, Floyd and England Jr., together with local musicians, would create music and beauty.
But the Aurora police would not let this be.
As police in riot gear were spraying protesters with pepper spray and using batons to push them back at the #ElijahMcClain protest in Aurora today, this man began playing the violin. One of the most surreal scenes I’ve ever seen. Music is powerful. #9News pic.twitter.com/3adLTuBZB7
— Marc Sallinger (@MarcSallinger) June 28, 2020
It harkens to images of violins playing as people arrived at concentration camps, or the musicians on the deck of the Titanic, but it was Aurora, Colorado. According to the Aurora police, there was reason for their actions.
UPDATE: There is a small contingent of protestors that are arming themselves with rocks & sticks and continue to ignore orders to move back. This is now an unlawful assembly. Disperse.
Peaceful protestors & community members should move to the s/w parking lot by the library. pic.twitter.com/SqBeF0Z4MJ
— Aurora Police Dept. 👮🏼♀️👮🏾♂️😷 (@AuroraPD) June 28, 2020
Violence and destruction by mobs might give rise to a need for police response. But a violin vigil for a young man who is dead for no reason finds absolutely no justification.
If you’re wondering what Aurora PD had to say about this, they claimed the crowd was getting unruly and some were even arming themselves and hurling projectiles at the squad. In the end … the police say only 3 people were arrested for violating lawful orders after warnings were given.
What a disgrace.