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Hundreds gathered under a rapidly setting, flame-kissed sun on Sunday evening to celebrate Elijah McClain. On a football field outside Montbello Recreation Center, they sang, they chanted, and they danced down what had to be the longest Soul Train line in Denver history to mark the one-year anniversary of the night Aurora Police Department officers intercepted the 23-year-old on his way home from the store.
The memorial, organized in two days by McClain’s family, centered around music, the main soundtrack provided by D.J. Blasian with live performances from musicians playing stringed instruments, such as Strings of Justice, mixed in. (McClain was a violinist and believed playing for stray cats helped soothe them.) Christened the “Gathering in Gratitude” by the organizers, the event was a call for peaceful protest and a tribute to life. “It’s what Elijah led his life in—gratitude,” says Candace Bailey, a family friend who co-organized the concert along with McClain’s mother, Sheneen. “We all need to have gratitude for waking up. He doesn’t get to be here and hear this.”
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McClain was stopped by APD officers on August 24, 2019, while walking home from a store carrying a bag of iced teas. Responding to reports of someone “sketchy” wearing a ski mask and waving his arms, officers twice put McClain in a now-banned carotid hold; paramedics later injected McClain with the sedative ketamine, and he went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. He was taken off life support on August 30.
The officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing, and the Adams County district attorney declined to file charges. Governor Jared Polis has since appointed Attorney General Phil Weiser as a special prosecutor to investigate McClain’s death.
McClain’s case gained prominence nationally following the death of George Floyd this past May and sparked protests in Aurora and Denver. Some of those demonstrations, including one on Saturday in Denver, have resulted in clashes between protestors and police officers.
Members of McClain’s family hoped that the Gathering in Gratitude might help inspire nonviolent demonstrations. “We are not protesting in anger,” says Keisha Moseley, McClain’s cousin. “We’re protesting in peace and getting out what Elijah stood for till his last breath. We appreciate all the love and support we got from everyone, but if we can come in peace, everyone can.”
On Sunday night, however, it seemed everyone just came to dance. Helplessly lured to their feet by classic wedding/family barbecue tunes, revelers kicked, kicked, kicked, kicked along with the “Cupid Shuffle” before backing it up and dropping it down during the “Wobble.” Moseley’s son stole the show, though, by performing a velvety moonwalk made more impressive by the fact that he glided effortlessly over artificial turf.
Then came the nearly 100-yard long Soul Train line, with guests striding, strutting, and even worming their way down the field between two lines of applauding spectators.
As the sun finally disappeared into the hazy night sky, the crowd came together near midfield, many with their smartphones raised in the air, shining in the dark. Led by Denver School Board director Tay Anderson, they chanted “Say his name!/Elijah McClain!,” “What do we want?/ Justice!,” and “If we don’t get it? Shut it down!”
Watching the scene from a nearby bluff was Aaron Chapa, 18. He lives near the Aurora Municipal Center and had seen the aftermath of the July protest there. “I don’t go down for violence,” Chapa says. “Knowing he wouldn’t want no violence. I try to be like him.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that McClain died of cardiac arrest, and that the response to a chant was “If we don’t get it? Burn it down.” We regret the errors.