Saturday’s rally for Elijah McClain started with the president of the Aurora branch of the NAACP escorting counter protesters away from the Aurora Municipal Center and ended with division, riot gear, a traffic-stopping march and tear gas.
Demonstrators gathered on the green lawn outside of the Aurora Police Department Headquarters on the afternoon of June 27 to demand justice and show support for the family of McClain. The 23-year old unarmed Black man died six days after a confrontation with Aurora police and paramedics last year.
Just as the rally began, two counter protesters drew the ire of the crowd by outlining why they believed McClain’s death was not a murder. The NAACP's Omar Montgomery and several others stepped in and ushered the couple toward their car.
“Their reasoning for being here was strictly to agitate,” said Montgomery. He wanted them removed for their safety and to maintain the rally’s focus on justice for McClain.
On the night of Aug. 24, 2019, McClain was walking home from a story and did not stop when approached by Aurora police. Thinking that he was trying to get an officer's gun, police brought him to the ground by officers and placed in a chokehold.
While held down for 15 minutes, he began vomiting and said he could not breathe. Aurora paramedics were called to the scene and injected McClain with a sedative, ketamine, before driving him to a hospital. McClain apparently suffered a heart attack, went into a coma and died on Aug. 30, after he was taken off life support.
McClain’s death was first investigated by Adams County District Attorney Dave Young, who announced last November he would not pursue charges, stating that the evidence did not support the prosecution of a homicide. An investigation initiated earlier this year by Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly was canceled last week after Aurora City Council members questioned the impartiality of independent reviewer Eric Daigle, an attorney and former state trooper.
Then on Thursday, as national attention on the case increased, Gov. Jared Polis designated Attorney General Phil Weiser as a special prosecutor in the investigation of McClain’s death. That same day, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said in a tweet that the city intends to move forward with its own independent investigation. The officers involved in the death were also reassigned.
Saturday’s rally was hosted by the Party for Socialism and Liberation which demanded that three police officers and two paramedics be fired and charged as criminals for their involvement in McClain’s death and that the McClain family received immediate restitution.
People with the demonstration’s organizers spoke to a crowd in front of the Aurora Police Department Headquarters building. Another set of speakers, including Denver Public Schools board member Tay Anderson, Democratic State Rep. Leslie Herod and McClain family members, addressed a different crowd just yards away in front of the Aurora Municipal Center.
Why there were two sets of speakers was not clear, but Anderson later tweeted that he erred in dividing the rally. The Party for Socialism and Liberation asked the McClain family to join them during the rally and stated that the family had previously been invited to participate. Anderson told Colorado Politics that rally’s hosts just didn’t know that “the impacted family was here and that’s why we split apart.”
Earlier in the rally, some protesters taunted a handful of police officers that stood at attention between the police building and the Party for Socialism and Liberation speakers. Then, an hour into the event, approximately 40 officers in riot gear took their place.
Protesters responded with shouts of “Why are you in riot gear? I don’t see no riot here!” and the number of people jeering at the officers increased.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation then began the march and urged protesters to walk away from the police building. Thousands moved west along East Alameda Avenue, north on I-255 to 6th Avenue and then back, their bodies blocking traffic all along the way.
“It’s kind of awesome to see, that we have this much power,” Elena Katz, a recent graduate of Denver East High School, said about the march.
As evening fell, some confrontations developed. Aurora Police tweeted at 8:28 p.m. that they had deployed tear gas, even while across the street, a violin protest in honor of McClain was held.
The protests against racial injustice that began in Colorado just over a month ago have been powerful enough to generate changes in the state. In addition to the new investigations into McClain’s death, a police reform bill banning chokeholds was signed into law and the Stapleton neighborhood, which was named after a Denver mayor with ties to the KKK, began the process of finding a new name.
Montgomery said he’s glad about the new investigation but questioned protests were necessary to get them started.
“We shouldn't have to wait for a national outcry to do what’s right," he said. "We need to start doing what’s right from the beginning.”