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Sheneen McClain (center) at the Saturday protest in Aurora over the death of her son Elijah McClain. Photo by Robert Sanchez

Elijah McClain Remembered With Violin Strains, Pepper Spray

On a night that was meant to celebrate the life of the young man who died last year while detained by the Aurora Police Department, a protest turns tense.

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On Saturday night, Naomi McClain, the 17-year-old sister of Elijah McClain, sobbed in the parking lot outside the Aurora Municipal Center, where she’d spent most of her day listening to people talk about what a wonderful young man her brother had been. It was an overwhelming moment for the few people who knew her identity—among them her 21-year-old sister, Samara McClain, and Naomi’s best friend, both of whom wrapped the teenager in hugs and let her cry into their chests.

Her brother’s voice echoed from two speakers placed inside the truck bed of a Ford F-150. A hip-hop violinist named Jeff “Maestro” Hughes had been playing to a crowd of several hundred cell-phone waving protestors who’d just been forcibly moved from the lawn by the same police department those assembled accused of killing Elijah, a 23-year-old Black man who died last year after an Aurora police officer restrained him with a carotid hold, which restricts blood to the brain. Paramedics later injected Elijah with the sedative ketamine, and he went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital.

He died several days later.

Elijah was walking from a convenience store on August 24 when someone called 911, saying there was a man who was wearing a ski mask, waving his arms, and “looked sketchy.”

Saturday night in Aurora was a moment of defiance that capped a surreal eight hours in the city: Hughes jamming atop the truck bed to Tupac’s “Changes” while dozens of riot-gear-clad police officers pushed, poked, and pepper-sprayed a swarm of protestors toward the asphalt lot.

As Elijah McClain’s now famous words—taken from police body cam footage that recorded him pleading with officers—played over the musician’s speakers, the moment felt like an eternity to Naomi. Ten months after her brother’s death, it was the first time she’d heard Elijah speak those words.

“It’s OK. It’s OK,” Samara told her sister as she rubbed the teenager’s back. “You’re OK,” she said. “We’re here. It’s going to be OK.”

The crowd—none of whom appeared to recognize the McClain women at the moment—broke into “Black Lives Matter!” and “Elijah McClain!” chants. A woman screamed out, “That could have been my brother!”

Photo by Robert Sanchez

Naomi and Samara had spent their day listening to people say things about their brother that they already knew. They’d heard speakers talk about Elijah’s “gentle spirit,” about how he was a vegan, about how he played his violin for stray cats, about how he was an introvert who seemed to be loved by anyone who knew him.

They heard protestors say Aurora police needs to be held accountable for Elijah’s death, that Aurora mayor Mike Coffman needs to take responsibility for the city’s officers. They heard calls for the removal of Dave Young, the district attorney who has said evidence in the case didn’t support homicide charges against the three Aurora officers, all of whom are still employed by the department. On Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order designating state Attorney General Phil Weiser to “investigate and, if the facts support prosecution, criminally prosecute any individuals whose actions caused the death of Elijah McClain.”

McClain’s case received widespread attention following the death of George Floyd. Protestors in Denver began chanting McClain’s name earlier this month, which led to social-media interest in the case and pressure on elected officials. A GoFundMe for the family has generated nearly $2 million dollars.

“It’s been hard to process all of this,” Samara said of the events on Saturday, which included a march that temporarily blocked portions of nearby Interstate 225. “But it means a lot that strangers who didn’t know my brother are here, saying that he needs justice, that things have to change.”

Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, spoke briefly at an afternoon rally, flanked by politicians, and she urged the crowd of several thousand to “be united” and “to give peace a chance, because it really does work.”

Photo by Robert Sanchez

At around 8:15 p.m., Aurora police declared that protestors had unlawfully assembled outside police headquarters. (According to the department’s Twitter account, police alleged that protestors knocked over a barrier in front of headquarters, ignored orders to move back, and were throwing rocks, sticks, and bottles.) A few minutes later, dozens of officers dressed in riot gear—heavy padded vests, wooden batons, gas masks, visors, and baseball-catcher-style shin guards—began descending on the lawn, lurching across the grass with batons pointed like spears.

It was an awful juxtaposition: Police pepper-spraying men and women and firing smoke canisters 20 yards from a peaceful “violin vigil” in McClain’s memory that had drawn hundreds of spectators. As police began to form a human wall blocking one edge of the vigil from the rest of the protestors, bystanders lowered themselves to one knee. Some raised cell phone cameras and recorded the event while others put their hands in the air and chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

“There are children here! There are children here!” one woman at the vigil screamed at police officers.

“What’s wrong with you?” another woman yelled.

A man working a security detail with KMGH (Channel 7) was doused with pepper spray as he attempted to protect one of the station’s photographers. The violin vigil resumed amid the shrieks and cries.

Within 20 minutes, a chain of protestors was pushed toward the open parking lot, adjacent to the grass park. The crowd soon grew to several hundred people after Hughes backed the pickup to a spot near the curb, dropped the truck bed, and plugged in his violin. Soon afterward, eight violinists formed a circle next to the truck.

Two young women in the crowd learned that Elijah’s sisters were there. The women hugged Naomi, and one grabbed the sides of the teenager’s head. “You’ve gotta fight for your brother. You hear me? He can’t fight anymore, so you have to do it for him.”

A man in the crowd, apparently hearing someone from Elijah’s family was nearby, stepped forward. “Where’s mom?” he hollered. One of the young women pointed at Naomi and Samara and said, “Mom’s not here, but these are his sisters. His sisters are right here!”

It was clear Naomi didn’t want the attention. Neither she nor her sister spoke to the crowd, even when cell phones eventually turned their way. The violinists played “Amazing Grace” once Hughes left. Naomi raised a fist in the air, and her sister placed a hand on Naomi’s back.

More people. More condolences.

“Stay strong.”

“Your brother was a beautiful person.”

“I’m so, so sorry.”

Photo by Robert Sanchez

After the vigil, Naomi walked across the asphalt lot with her sister and her friend. The family’s attorney and the attorney’s daughter were nearby. Naomi said she was exhausted from the day, that the event had left her with mixed emotions. “I’m so happy that people are remembering him, that they know how special he was,” she said of her brother. “At first, all that attention [to George Floyd] made me so mad. It was like, Why are they marching for him when my brother was born here? He lived here and he died here. When we needed these people, where were they? Now, my emotions are more mixed. Now I’m just sad. I’m disappointed that it took so long to get attention to what happened here.”

Naomi doesn’t have photos of Elijah. She never thought she would need them, that she’d someday become desperate to see his face. She visits the makeshift memorial her family put up on Billings Street, where Elijah was walking before police stopped him.

“I don’t have him any more, and I really need him,” she said. “We had so much more time to spend together, but he was taken from me. I don’t know why this happened to him. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

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