The moral arc of the universe is long, but in the end it is finally bending towards justice for Elijah McClain.
Critics of the Black Lives Matter Movement like to point out certain facts in famous excessive force police cases:
Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend fired first at police officers, wounding one in the leg; Michael Brown, as it was determined later by the Obama Justice Department, did not in fact have his hands up when he was killed by police. For others who have died while in police custody, similar excuses are frequently thrown around: This victim had a record of violent crimes, that victim resisted arrest.
The case of Elijah McClain is different.
McClain, who died after three police officers and two emergency medical technicians used multiple choke holds and a fatal dose of horse tranquiler to restrain him, had no criminal record. McClain was not even accused of any crime when he was accosted. Law enforcement officers were called to the scene by someone reporting a Black man wearing a ski mask and waving his arms erratically.
For wearing a ski mask- in Colorado- and perhaps waving his arms erratically, Elijah McClain lost his life.
Critics of BLM, and those opposed to criminal justice reform miss an important point about police killings.
Police killings are more than just killings. Derek Chauvin did more than murder George Floyd in cold blood. Extra-judicial killings by police officers are worse than murder. In addition to depriving someone of their life, a police killing deprives someone of their constitutionally protected right to a fair trial.
Police killings are constitutional and civil rights violations.
Saying so doesn’t offend good cops. Nobody hates bad cops more than good cops.
Law enforcement officers respond to millions of emergency calls per year. They have tens of millions of interactions with the public every year. The vast majority of police officers discharge their sworn duty to serve and protect without ever depriving someone of their right to fair trial.
But every year, police officers kill about 1,000 people while in the process of taking them into custody. Out of that 1,000, some are armed and attempting to kill police officers, or are committing what criminal justice experts call “suicide by cop”.
Others are not armed.
Elijah McClain was one of these.
Within seconds of interacting with McClain, officers tackled him to the ground and placed him in multiple chokeholds before handcuffing him, after which he continued to sustain multiple injuries. Body cam footage from the officers isn’t available; all cameras fell off during the arrest.
Audio of the arrest is available, however. In the recording, McClain can be heard choking, vomiting, begging, pleading, and most tragically of all, even apologizing for doing so. One of the officers can be heard threatening to sic a police dog on Elijah McClain.
“Please, please, I can’t breathe, I’m so tired,” McClain can be heard saying, “I wouldn’t hurt a fly, I swear. I don’t even eat meat.”
“I’m an introvert,” the 5 foot 7 inch, 140-pound, 23-year old man deemed dangerous enough to warrant multiple choke holds can be heard saying, before police officers went to work on him, “please respect my boundaries.”
An autopsy report on Elijah McClain was inconclusive, but the McClain family remained adamant.
“Whatever the report says, it’s clear that if the police had not attacked Elijah McClain, he would be alive today,” said the family’s attorney after the autopsy report was released. “They immediately went hands on and tackled him. And of course the fact that all three of their body cameras fell off is something that we should all be pretty suspicious about. It makes it awfully easy for them to say whatever they want, but what we know is that they attacked him for no reason whatsoever. It was excessive force and it led to his death.”
In spite of all this, the officers and first responders involved were not charged with any crime. After the officers and first responders were cleared by a review board in February 2020, Elijah McClain’s family issued the following statement through their attorney:
“Aurora has just released a statement to the media claiming that officers followed Aurora’s policy and training when they killed Elijah McClain, an innocent young man who was not suspected of any crime, had no weapon, had no criminal history, and had done absolutely nothing wrong. He was just trying to walk home.”
“APD officers confronted this innocent, unarmed man by immediately going hands on, grabbing Elijah, throwing him down, applying a carotid choke hold — twice — and continuing to inflict multiple other types of force even after Elijah’s hands were cuffed behind his back. As Elijah lay crying, begging, and then vomiting, an APD officer threaten to unleash a dog to attack him. Outrageously, Aurora has concluded that this force was “within policy and consistent with training.” The community should be horrified.”
“Aurora keeps promising “transparency,” but tonight’s late hour press release is yet another example of Aurora doing its best to keep Elijah’s family and the community in the dark.”
“We are disappointed, but not surprised, that once again, Aurora has condoned its officers’ killing of an unarmed black man.”
What Elijah McClain’s grieving family didn’t know in February as they surely gave up any hope those responsible for causing his death would face justice, was that something would soon happen to change everything.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis shocked the world in May of 2020. Like the day the Twin Towers fell, many of us still remember where we were the moment we saw a murder show up on our Twitter feeds.
What came next was a reckoning that continues to this very day. Across the nation, police departments and budgets came under new scrutiny.
One case that received new attention in the wake of George Floyd’s death was that of Elijah McClain. A Change.org petition demanding an independent investigation into McClain’s death received over five million signatures.
Colorado’s Governor responded.
After a subsequent review of the facts of the case, the tide turned against the officers and first responders previously “cleared of any wrongdoing”.
Last week came the news Elijah McClain’s family thought they would never hear.
Elijah McClain's Police-Custody Death Leads to Five Indictments
A Colorado grand jury has indicted several police officers and paramedics in the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man…
“Our department has the solemn duty to prosecute this case. Make no mistake, we recognize that this case will be difficult to prosecute — these types of cases always are,” Attorney General and Special Prosecutor Phil Weiser said of the investigation. “Our goal is to seek justice for Elijah McClain, for his family and friends, and for our state. In so doing, we advance the rule of law ad the commitment that everyone is accountable and equal under the law.”
“It was overwhelming knowing my son was innocent the entire time and just waiting on the facts and proof of it,” said Elijah McClain's mother, Sheneen McClain, at the news. “My son’s name is cleared now. He’s no longer labeled a suspect. He is actually a victim.”
“I looked at everything that happened to him because it’s my responsibility,” she added. “Even in death, he’s still my son. His name, his legacy. All that matters.”
While the case is far from over, the officers and former officers accused in the death of Elijah McClain are at last facing some measure of justice, and the family of Elijah McClain has at last been vindicated by these indictments.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)