(TMU) — Police in Colorado have caused an uproar after they barged in on a peaceful protest demanding justice for unarmed 23-year-old Black man Elijah McClain and began using physical force including pepper spray as they dispersed the crowd.
Officers with the Aurora Police Department could be seen marching into the calm Saturday protest clad in full riot gear before brutally breaking it up. In footage from the event, a group of protesters who maintain social distance can be seen holding signs and watching as some violinists performed during dusk.
The violin vigil was a tribute to the fact that McClain, who was brutally killed during an arrest last August, was a skillful violinist who was known for putting on small concerts for cats and dogs at the community animal shelter during his lunch breaks. The violin vigil included six-time Grammy nominee Ashanti Floyd from Georgia, and Lee England Jr. from New York City, and was meant to conclude the day’s events.
In video of the event shared online, the tranquil event appears to be proceeding normally before the police abruptly appeared at the lawn outside the Aurora Municipal Center. Suddenly, the violinists’ music is interrupted by the sound of the crowd crying “No!” as police begin manhandling and attacking the crowd.
In one recording, a woman pleads with the police to stop as the officers clad in full tactical gear including helmets, bulletproof vests, and gas masks prepare to remove the protesters from the public park by force.
Protesters peacefully refused to comply with the orders to disperse while forming a human chain around the violinists to protect them from the Aurora Police Department onslaught.
Attendees allege that at some point police used, or threatened to use tear gas – a chemical weapon banned from war by international treaties – against the protesters. However, an APD spokesperson denied the allegation while admitting to the Cut that “there was pepper spray deployed.”
Peaceful gathering to honor the life of #ElijahMcClain turned in a hostile “unlawful protest”. @AuroraPD antagonized peaceful protestors and put people in harm and used teargas to dispurse people attending a vigil. Shameful! pic.twitter.com/HtWS3mxFc2
— Carlos Espino (@CarlitoPlanet) June 28, 2020
The events on Saturday began without any incident during the afternoon as local organizations led a rally and march from a park between APD headquarters and the Aurora Municipal Center. Student groups also led a separate rally and march that would have ended with the violin vigil in Aurora’s City Center Park.
Marchers walked without incident behind a banner that read, “Justice for Elijah McClain, murdered by Aurora police.”
The @AuroraPD used tear gas canisters and aggressively pushed peaceful protestors out of the park where they were watching a violin vigil to #ElijahMcClain Take a look at the videos and see if this seems like an appropriate response by the APD. pic.twitter.com/LWI1IyE4Lk
— Jolene Fisher (@fisherjolene) June 28, 2020
Despite the lack of any violent incidents or unrest, however, police had a strong presence – leading some in the crowd to chant, “Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see no riot here.”
At around 8:30 p.m., however, the police began initiating aggressive tactics against the crowd. Carlos Espino, who attended the event, told the Cut that cops “quickly started moving in on just all protesters, getting them to move away and step back.” At that point he saw a “smoke plume in the air” that he believed to be tear gas. Others claim that the smoke, which Espino said had a strong chemical odor, may have been from smoke bombs.
When protesters were finally forced into a parking lot, the violinists continued performing while some singers broke into song to defiantly, yet peacefully, resist the officers’ aggression. However, police continued to charge the crowd.
— ً (@MacDaddyCJ) June 28, 2020
Three people were eventually arrested for violating lawful orders after warnings were given.
The police had issued a statement Saturday noting that while they support a peaceful protest, they would be vigilant about the presence of alleged “outsiders” with violent goals. Organizers saw the warning as ominous and seeking to justify in advance the police repression that took place.
“The Aurora Police Department has responded by circulating rumors of a `violent threat´ in order to intimidate organizers and attendees and to justify mobilizing a militarized police response to crack down on protesters,” a local chapter of the Party for Socialism and Liberation said in a statement quoted by New York Times.
The altercations of Saturday evening are likely to result in further anger and mistrust toward Aurora police.
The Aurora community held a vigil with live music in honor of Elijah McClain and the cops decided to come in and use f****** tear gas on them…APPARENTLY WE DON’T HAVE THE RIGHT TO MOURN THE LOSS OF AN INNOCENT LIFE!!! #AbolishThePolice pic.twitter.com/oDDeuEZyY9
— Laur (@lsimon210) June 28, 2020
McClain’s death at the hands of Aurora police had only led to small protests over the last 10 months but came under renewed attention following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop on May 25.
Police in Aurora were responding to a call of a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms while walking down the street. McClain’s sister later told Denver7 that he would sometimes wear an open-face ski mask because he “had anemia and would sometimes get cold.”
McClain, a certified massage therapist and self-taught violin player, was running an errand when officers tried to detain him.
As #Aurora municipal security forces lost patience with how long it was taking to illegally evict us from the #ElijahMcClain violin vigil, they began deploying chemical agents directly into protesters faces and at protesters that were fleeing while attempting to make arrests pic.twitter.com/ElDeu8Q4LD
— dula lipa (@dulapalooza) June 28, 2020
Police claim that McClain, who was unarmed and often listened to music as he walked home, allegedly refused officer commands to stop walking before “a struggle ensued” and the small-framed young man allegedly fought back as officers tried to take him into custody. Officers allege that he tried to take one of their guns.
“I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious,” an officer is heard on a body camera recording telling McClain.
In the meantime, officers used a carotid hold – a chokehold that cuts off the flow of blood to the brain – against the young man. When he attempted to roll over to vomit, officers screamed at him to “stop resisting!”
“If you keep messing around, I’m going to bring my dog out here and he’s going to bite you,” an officer told McClain.
McClain’s body eventually went limp. One officer asked, “Are you OK?” However, he wasn’t asking McClain, but the officer who was pressing his body weight down on the young man’s body.
“Yeah, I’m good,” the officer responded.
Aurora Fire Rescue then injected McClain with a large dose of ketamine in an attempt to sedate him, which police later called “a standard medication routinely utilized to reduce agitation.”
McClain suffered cardiac while en route to the hospital before he was later declared brain dead, and eventually taken off life support.
The haunting last words of Elijah McClain, transcribed from police video, have been widely shared since his death. He said:
“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people, I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You are all very strong. Teamwork makes the dream work. Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”
Three officers were eventually placed on leave but District Attorney Dave Young allowed them to return to the force on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to charge them.
Last Thursday, Governor Jared Polis ordered prosecutors to reopen the investigation.
Here’s the moment @AuroraPD decided to bash and pepper spray protesters who were peacefully protesting the murder of #ElijahMclain. No rocks. No sticks. No water bottles. This was instigated by the police.#blm #Auroraprotest #denverprotest pic.twitter.com/no5eo93M44
— blm | adam (@adamjtru) June 28, 2020