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The Enduring Legacy of Elijah McClain’s Tragic Death

In summer 2020, the nation’s attention turned to the killing of a 23-year-old Aurora man. His death prompted a flood of more than 8,500 letters from outside the state of Colorado—all begging Governor Jared Polis for justice. We read every one.

Editor’s note: On 9/1/21, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that a statewide grand jury indicted two Aurora Police officers, one former officer, and two Aurora Fire Department paramedics in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain. Each of the defendants involved in McClain’s death will face one charge of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, plus multiple assault charges.

It took Shannah Wischik 15 minutes to write 141 words. She composed them late one night last summer from her home in Seattle, under the dimmed lights of her kitchen table overlooking her children’s backyard play set. She wrote the words with a fine-tipped, blue ink pen on white printer paper. Wischik was exhausted that evening—mentally, physically, emotionally. Three young children and a pandemic will do that. Some nights, from a mile away, she could hear the echoes of flash-bang grenades launched at people protesting the police in her city. She held her children tightly in those times, not because she feared for their immediate safety, but because she worried about their futures.

She was 42, a former financial reporter turned stay-at-home mother. If you ask, she’ll say it was an Instagram post urging people to write to Colorado’s governor that made her slip that letter into an envelope. She’d never heard of Jared Polis before June 2020. But Wischik had spent several days learning about the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man from Aurora, Colorado. His story was only now becoming known amid the wave of protests nationwide over the country’s ongoing epidemic of police brutality against Black men and women.

Photo by Matt Nager

 

5280 magazine · Elijah McClain Letter Reads

There had been so much to understand about McClain’s life and death, not the least of which were the awful details of that night on August 24 in Aurora, when he was walking home from a convenience store with iced tea for a younger sibling. Wischik read that McClain had been wearing a ski mask because his anemia made his body run cold; that he was likely dancing to music on his phone; that someone saw a man in a mask, moving unevenly in the street, and that the person phoned the police. The call led to a violent takedown of the young man, which led to the large dose of ketamine that was injected into his body and ultimately induced a series of heart attacks that ended his life a week later.

Wischik never got through the audio recording of the police encounter from that night—of McClain politely begging for his life. She knew McClain was a masseur, that he played his violin for shelter cats, that he was different. His death haunted her, as it did the tens of thousands of people who were posting about it on their social media feeds. Wischik, who is white, knew she couldn’t fully know what it was like to be Elijah McClain’s mother. She wondered about the hurt Sheneen McClain was feeling, what it would be like to lose a child and never expect justice.

So, on a night in late June, with her children asleep, Wischik sat at her kitchen table and began to write.

Dear Mr. Polis,
I wish I wasn’t writing this letter right now. I just put my 3 young children to bed and I’m tired too. I could be watching Netflix right now. But this is important. I heard about Elijah McClain’s life and his death at the hands of police officers in your lovely state, and although I’m just one person, and I don’t even know if you’ll read this, I had to try. Please help. Elijah didn’t deserve to be killed. He truly deserves justice, and our black brothers and sisters need our love and protection right now. I want my 3 little girls to live in a world where the people who can help change this problem of racism truly step up and take the steps necessary. Please be one of the helpers.
With love and respect,
Shannah Wischik

Nearly 1,300 miles away, in Denver, letters like Wischik’s came in a trickle, and then all at once. They came from places like Eagle River, Alaska, and Peaks Island, Maine; from Clay Center, Kansas, and Brooklyn, New York. The letters came from men and women and children, from a photographer in Kentucky who would use her letter to start a conversation with her mother about racial inequality; from a school nurse in Texas who lost friends when she posted a photo of her letter on Facebook; from a British architect in Atlanta who had never before mailed a letter in the United States; from a bodybuilder in Arkansas who had begun to chat about the Black Lives Matter movement during workouts.

Almost a year later, in a room at History Colorado Center, seven white boxes at my side were filled with their words. I put a letter opener’s blade to one envelope after another. And I read.

As protests over racial justice raged across the country last year, thousands of people—from Hawaii to Maine—wrote letters and postcards to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and demanded accountability for the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police. Here, three writers read the words they sent to Colorado’s governor, pleading for a better future for all Americans.

Since 2001, the governor’s mail has been sent to the state’s Integrated Document Solutions office, a white building on East 62nd Avenue in north Denver. Thousands of pieces of state mail are processed there every day. The mail is scanned, sorted, and then sent out to state agencies, some of which reside at the Capitol downtown.

The governor’s mail, which is regulated by laws and policies that determine its collection and retention, almost always eventually lands in the hands of the Colorado State Archive. Go to the archives today, and you’ll see letters to the chief executive dating back to Colorado’s territorial days. In the case of the Elijah McClain correspondence, though, History Colorado got a call from the governor’s office in September 2020 saying they had thousands of letters regarding McClain. History Colorado had been working to diversify its collections to better represent minority and underserved communities in the wake of nationwide protests against police brutality. McClain’s life and death certainly deserved attention. “The letters fit perfectly into what we are doing,” archivist Shaun Boyd told me.

Two cardboard boxes containing thousands of letters and postcards were dropped off that same month at History Colorado Center, the 200,000-square-foot museum and research center on North Broadway. Another box arrived a month later. Each of the three boxes was marked “Elijah” in black marker. Boyd sorted each letter by state, placed each state’s bundle of messages into acid-free file folders, and then put the folders into white archival boxes. The work took nearly 40 hours. The letters took up four boxes, each a little more than a foot long and one foot wide. Postcards took up two more boxes, and sealed cards occupied another. When Boyd finished her work, she stored the boxes on shelves inside the museum’s second-floor archives. When I arrived at the Stephen H. Hart Research Center months later to see them, more than 14 linear feet of correspondence awaited me.

In total, the seven boxes contained 4,153 letters and cards and 4,442 postcards. About a fifth of the envelopes had been opened—a few hundred of them by Boyd, as she tried to gauge what people across the country were saying about Colorado’s response to Elijah McClain’s death. “It was a profound experience,” she said. “It felt important, of this moment.” Over three weeks early this summer, I spent 49 hours at the library, opening envelopes and reading. Holding the letters and cards in my hands, the intimacy was intense. The words vibrated with urgency.

Thousands of letters and postcards sent on behalf of Elijah McClain reside at History Colorado Center. Photo by Matt Nager

I reached out to more than 100 people who sent letters to Polis. I wanted to know why they wrote to the governor and what they hoped their words would accomplish. “I didn’t know what else to do,” was a common response. Many said this was the first time they’d written to an elected official. “It felt like I was writing a letter to Santa Claus,” said Kat Bernardo, 40, who sent her letter from San Jose, California. “You’re hopeful, but you also don’t know how optimistic you should be.”

As was the case with most of the letter writers who spoke with me, Bernardo was white and female. She’d seen the governor’s address online in social media posts that asked for people outside the state to write Polis and demand accountability from those responsible for McClain’s death. The letter writers had seen photos of the young man: of McClain looking pensive in glasses and a red-and-white plaid shirt; of him with a coat hood over his head, smiling brightly; of the young musician, eyes closed, playing his violin. Some writers had listened to the audio of McClain’s last conscious moments, of the man apologizing to the same officers who continued to beat him.

Some typed McClain’s final words and put them into envelopes. Others wrote the words out by hand. They were polite. They were angry. They were disappointed. They were sarcastic. They were demanding. They were hopeful.

“The normal channels of justice weren’t moving quickly enough,” 29-year-old Katey Peck told me one afternoon from Honolulu. Peck said she generally focuses within her own communities—she splits her time between Hawaii and Virginia. But McClain’s life and death hit her differently. “There was something about him,” she said. “You hear his story, and you learn about the person he was, and it’s impossible to not be consumed by him.”

Dear Governor Polis,
I hope this letter finds you and your loved ones in good health…. [T]his is the first time I have ever written to a public official. I have never felt as sickened or stirred to action as I do by the murder of Elijah McClain, and I write on behalf of this young man and all the people who have been affected by his death.
…Elijah McClain was a 23-year-old man with limitless potential. I firmly believe that he should still be alive today. Please take accountability and lead your community along a path of reconciliation and healing that is desperately needed. The nation, and the world, are watching.
Sincerely,
Katey Peck

Like most of those who wrote the governor, Arjun Kaicker learned about Elijah McClain after first hearing about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Kaicker had begun his life outside the United States near London; he and his wife, Anisa Telwar-Kaicker, now lived together in Atlanta. For years, the pair had read news reports of police brutality against minorities. Still, the weight of the country’s racial reckoning had awakened something in each of them. “We wondered how endemic this was,” said Kaicker, a 50-year-old architect. “Like, how bad is it, really?”

In midsummer of 2020, a friend had told McClain’s story to the couple. The nature of the attack on the young man—the fact that any citizen could be injected with potentially heart-stopping sedatives because police ordered it—seemed an affront to everything the couple had believed about American freedoms. “The facts of the end of his life were brutal,” Kaicker said. “I know you don’t have to be an angel to deserve respect. And, yet, Elijah McClain seemed like an angel.” The more Kaicker read about McClain, the more outraged he became: “We all have humanity, but Elijah’s humanity just seemed to shine through. Vividly. Brightly.”

Kaicker pulled up YouTube and listened to the audio of the attack. He heard McClain begging for his life, heard him vomit and then apologize to the very people who had hurt him. “That young man played violin for rescued cats, for God’s sake,” Kaicker told me on the phone one afternoon this summer. His voice cracked. He was speaking through tears. “This struck me suddenly and deeply,” he continued. “He was so young. He had so much life, but then—.”

Photo by Matt Nager

One day in September 2020, a friend sent Kaicker a link to a website that told McClain’s story and encouraged people to write a letter. He hadn’t written a physical letter in at least five years; he didn’t even have stamps in his house. The websites promoted the use of strong language when writing the governor. They suggested listing demands: firings, resignations, arrests, convictions.

Kaicker opened a Word document on his laptop and dashed off a quick note. “I made myself imagine the governor of Colorado opening my letter and sitting down and reading it,” Kaicker said. He showed the draft to his wife. Kaicker didn’t like the word “demand,” so he replaced it with the word “ask.” After another draft, he thought that word seemed weak, feeble. “I needed to be polite, but forceful,” he said. Kaicker checked an online thesaurus and saw the word “implore.” His wife reread the letter. He revised his words again.

When he finished his final draft nearly a week later, he bought stamps at a nearby CVS pharmacy. He printed the governor’s address and attached it to the white envelope. Then he put the envelope in his mailbox. “I don’t know what I was expecting,” he said.

We are writing on behalf of Elijah McClain. We implore that Mayor Mike Coffman and City Attorney Daniel Brotzman fire all those responsible for Elijah’s death, making up those that took physical action against Elijah, as well as those who failed to intervene, as well as provide justice for his family. We also implore that Attorney General Phil Weiser file criminal charges in a swift manner against all those responsible. It has been over a year now. Please act now.
Sincerely,
Arjun and Anisa Kaicker

Ask any of the thousands of writers whose words ended up in Colorado, and they’ll say everything needed to be perfect, every sentence and paragraph. They’ll say they thought about the space along the margins, the choice of paper, the color of pen, even the stamp. Everything was considered. Julianna Swed, a 35-year-old school nurse from Hutto, Texas, said she used a brown envelope because she thought the color would stick out among the sea of white she hoped had flooded the governor’s office. Susan Champlin, a writer from New York, said she selected the American Gardens stamp, because she thought the gardens’ beauty would put the recipient in the right frame of mind to open the letter. Azure Dill, who lives in Virginia, said she hand-wrote her four-page letter with her favorite light blue ink pen. She lined her blank paper with a ruler and a pencil to make sure her sentences were straight.

My name is Azure. I am 13 years old and would like to share my thoughts. I have caught glimpses of the injustices going on around the world…. One particular death stood out to me and I hoped my opinion might influence a few lives. Life is not fair.I have been told that from a very young age….[G]rowing up being the middle child of six kids, I learned to grasp the fact that sometimes life is not fair. But recently after reading about several stories, I began to wonder if life could be more fair than it is.
Treating people differently because of the color of their skin is just dumb…. It took four amendments to the constitution for people to recognize that the color of someones skin does not matter. I don’t know what discrimination feels like but I do know that when one person kills another person, they are at least, arrested.
…Justice needs to be served. Lives need to be affirmed. Change the way things are happening. Be fair. Arrest the men that killed Elijah McClain.
#Blacklivesmatter

She’d written her letter when her family still lived in Florida, Azure told me one day this past June. “I thought I should say something because what happened to Elijah wasn’t right,” she said. Her mother was on the phone with her. Katy Dill knew her daughter had written Colorado’s governor, but she’d never heard the words. She was proud and melancholy all at once. “I have an amazing daughter,” Dill said. “But how bad does it have to be when a teenager feels like she has to be the person asking for justice?”

(Read more: Family of Elijah McClain Celebrate His Life a Year After His Fatal Run-in With Aurora Police

Photo by Matt Nager

Some took a few seconds to write their notes. Others took days. Their young children drew rainbows on blank pieces of paper; they attached the ubiquitous photo of McClain playing his violin. They wrote on the backs of their envelopes: “Please,” “help,” “justice.” They were teenagers. They were twentysomethings, thirtysomethings, fiftysomethings. They were preachers and doctors and students and actors and writers and teachers and stay-at-home parents. They were out of work. Some used printers. Others used pens. Yet others used markers.

Christina Creel wrote to Polis from the kitchen of her Brooklyn apartment in July 2020. “My heart was broken,” the 26-year-old account manager said. Like others across the country, she’d followed George Floyd’s case and the immediate push among Minnesota politicians to prosecute those responsible for his death. She’d seen the police-shooting death of Rayshard Brooks in Georgia and the swift investigation of an officer there. “It seemed like things were being done on all these police-abuse cases across the country, except for Colorado,” she said. “It was like no one was doing anything.”

Creel followed daily news about McClain. She was heartened to see the governor assign a special prosecutor to investigate the young man’s death but was disappointed it had taken a year—and a nationwide petition, hundreds of thousands of emails to the state, and ongoing social media pressure—to spur any real movement. Creel didn’t receive a response after her first letter. She set a reminder on her phone: “Send Colorado mail.” She wrote a second letter, and then a third. “At some point, I realized these weren’t getting read,” she said.

Governor Polis,
I am writing you today for the 4th time to demand action in the murder of Elijah McClain. Since last writing, Aurora banned the use of ketamine by law enforcement. While this is a huge victory, it brings to the forefront the extent to which leadership is willing to go to in order to protect the officers responsible. CO leadership will do everything except bring Elijah’s killers to trial…. As the four concurrent investigations and one lawsuit mount against APD, it is irresponsible to keep these men at the service of Aurora’s community.
In solidarity,
Christina Creel

The time and effort and sentiment put into the letters written by people like Creel was evident. I wanted to know whether the governor had seen them and what he thought about the thousands of people outside of Colorado who’d put envelopes in the mail and demanded that he do something. Polis’ spokesman, Conor Cahill, did not make the governor available for comment after multiple requests for an interview.

Cahill said, via email, that Polis had spoken to Sheneen McClain, Elijah McClain’s mother, “to make sure he had a sense of her idea of what justice for Elijah means, and to make sure that while people heard the voices of the demonstrators and others, that the wishes of the family were also honored.” Cahill initially said the governor’s office responds to all in-state and out-of-state correspondence, but added later that Polis received an “overwhelming” number of letters about McClain’s death and that in-state correspondence was given priority.

After spending three weeks with the letters, it’s clear very few out-of-state letters were ever read by the governor’s office. From the thousands of letters I opened at History Colorado, perhaps only a couple of hundred had been marked with the initials “EM” in black ink. Only a few of the more than 4,000 envelopes were marked “EM out of state.” Another envelope—which was one of several sent from a group in New Orleans—read, “we will send one letter to this org.” In some cases, letter writers included an email address or a phone number to make it easier for the governor’s office to respond. Of the 26 people across the country who spoke to me about their letters, none had received a letter or an email in return—including Greta Blau.

Dear Governor Polis,
I am a 52-year-old white mother of four boys from Connecticut. I am writing to you to ask Colorado decision makers to fire and/or bring charges against those responsible for the murder
of Elijah McClain….
…One year without justice is far too long, and I am haunted by the transcript of Mr. McClain as he’s being killed by the police. I am also haunted by his photos. He looks like he was a joyful person just trying to get by like the rest of us. Why did he have to die? Please tell me this. Explain to me why no one has been held accountable for this loss of life. Please….
Very Truly Yours,
Greta Blau

Blau included three photos of McClain she found online; she attached them to the bottom of her letter. “I wanted them to look at Elijah’s face,” Blau told me on the phone one night this summer from Connecticut, as she drove home from her job as an assistant probate court clerk. “I wanted them to see he’s a person and he’s happy. He has emotions. He has life. This is the person you’re OK with having police kill?”

She had a question for me: “Did they even open my letter?”

“No,” I told her.

“Oh,” she said, and thought for a moment. “You know, the fact they couldn’t even open the envelope makes me sick to my stomach.”

When Kaicker, the Atlanta architect, wrote Polis, he also wrote to Colorado Attorney
General Phil Weiser, to Aurora’s City Council, and to the city’s police department. Lots of people said they’d done the same thing and never got a response. “It’s disappointing, of course,” Kaicker told me.

Yet, even knowing his letters might never have been opened, Kaicker was glad he’d taken the time to write. “In my line of work, when you’re putting together a building, you don’t look at every brick,” he said. “You just see an amazing building. And yet, you needed every brick to make that.” I told him about the thousands of letters I’d seen; how a cart was needed to transport them. “Maybe, in some way, every one of those letters are like bricks,” he said. “Maybe it takes all of us to build something that makes a lasting change.”

I was halfway through the mail from New Jersey one morning in early June when Sheneen McClain walked through the second-floor double glass doors at History Colorado and was ushered to a conference room by Boyd, the archivist who’d organized the correspondence. Boyd had invited McClain to the museum to see the letters in advance of my writing about them. Before sitting down with McClain’s mother, Boyd grabbed the metal rolling cart on which the white boxes sat. She took a breath and headed toward the conference room.

About an hour later, she emerged. “She’s willing to meet you,” Boyd told me.

McClain was sitting alone on one side of a long table, maybe six feet from the boxes. She wore jeans, a black mask over her face, and a black shirt from an event last year that commemorated her son’s life, which read “#JusticeForElijah.” She’s a small woman, with warm brown eyes that reduced to a squint when she smiled. She nodded when I asked if I could sit next to her.

I stammered out a greeting, but the words caught in my throat. “I’m sorry,” I said.

Her eyes squinted. “That’s OK,” she told me. “Take your time. I understand.”

Sheneen McClain reads some of the letters sent to the governor about her son. Photo by Matt Nager

She’d seen some of the letters, read a few postcards. When she drove here from Aurora on this morning, she wasn’t sure how she’d feel about all this, or what she might see. “I was a little cautious,” she said. Her son had been hers for 23 years, and she’d felt alone in that quiet aftermath a year after his death. But now, it seemed to her as if everyone wanted a piece of his legacy, that the protests of 2020 created a mad crush to somehow know him as she knew him. “He wanted to heal the world behind the scenes as a massage therapist,” McClain said. She motioned to the stacked boxes on the cart. “We never would have imagined that.”

She still drove around the city in her Dodge Journey, with the words “911 Killed My Son, 911 Is A Joke” painted on the rear window. Even though Polis reopened the investigation into her son’s death, she says it happened far too late and only because of outside pressure. After nearly two years without a single criminal charge against any police officer from that night, nothing anyone said or did felt like justice to her. Amid all those feelings, she also was upset that it took George Floyd’s death to bring the initial attention to her son’s story here at home. She thought some of the mentions of Elijah on social media cheapened the cause, that they came across as inauthentic and attention-seeking. “Where were they way back when we needed them?” she wondered.

But then she showed up at the museum and she went through the double glass doors and she sat in the conference room and she saw all those letters. She saw those boxes and those folders, with the names of every state written on them. She saw the hand-written addresses. She saw the pictures of her son that some people drew on their postcards. None of that seemed perfunctory to her. “Sometimes, I wondered if anyone really cared,” she said, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes. “Then I saw this.”

Even with the demands on her over the past year, McClain says she’s had a lot of time to think. What would her son make of the memorials and marches and hashtags in his name? He was a kind young man, of course, but he was also quiet. He didn’t seek attention. The beauty of his life was in its subtle power. Sheneen McClain raised her son by herself, and because of that, she viewed her son’s legacy in ways no one else could possibly see—her son’s spirit, his essence, in ways that could never be understood by anyone other than her. And yet seeing the boxes with the thousands of letters and postcards, her son’s life continued to reveal itself to her. Those words, in a way, gave her son’s legacy new life. If he couldn’t speak, perhaps these letters could speak for him.

Before she left, McClain said she might want to donate some of her son’s photos to the museum. Boyd said she’d be honored to accept them. She assured McClain that they’d be preserved forever. “I’m sure he didn’t think he’d be part of Colorado’s history this way,” McClain said. Her eyes squinted.“You know,” she said, “I think he can change the world.”

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