How Elijah McClain’s death impacted his friends and catalyzed a movement, one year later

The world knows Elijah McClain’s name now.

In the year since he died, McClain’s family and those who stood with them have watched rallies in his honor grow from a few dozen standing outside Aurora’s city hall to several thousand marching the city’s streets.

The story of a 23-year-old massage therapist, who played his violin for shelter animals, dying after police tackled him, put him in a chokehold and then pinned him as paramedics injected him with a heavy sedative has torn at people’s hearts and minds. McClain was walking home from a convenience store when police stopped him because of a suspicious person call.

Community members previously not involved in protests and activism found their voice, and McClain’s face and name have been painted in murals, projected on downtown Denver buildings and shared via viral social media posts. The world has joined the family’s outrage — nearly 90,000 people donated to an online fundraiser for the McClains and more than 5 million signed an online petition demanding the officers be held accountable.

The protests and public pressure forced changes at the city and state level. New investigations are underway. But there is so much more work to be done, family friends and community organizers say.

“When you fight a good fight for long enough, you’re going to win,” said Lindsay Minter, a McClain family friend and member of Aurora’s Police Community Task Force. “We haven’t won the war yet, but we’re winning battles.”

The McClains are demanding the police officers and paramedics involved in their loved one’s death be fired and arrested. And they aren’t speaking publicly until that happens. There’s nothing new to add, they say.

“I haven’t gone through his belongings yet, I am waiting for a better frame of mind before I tackle the box his bloody clothes are in,” Sheneen McClain, Elijah’s mother, wrote on Facebook last week. “I need my energy for that and other motherly responsibilities, I can’t entertain the world, I’m not a celebrity y’all. I’m a mother mourning the death of her son. Murderers are free and nothing has stopped the rest of their gang yet.”

As the anniversary of McClain’s death approaches , The Denver Post sought to go deeper than slogans shouted at protests to ask those deeply impacted by McClain’s death what it will take to improve relations between police and the people they serve.

Mariah Gentry: Shell station attendant

In the middle of the night, working alone at a gas station in Aurora, Mariah Gentry now hesitates to call the cops.

“Sometimes at 3 a.m. I can have a Black man acting the fool in my parking lot, roaming along on the floor, messing with my gas pump, and the first thing I’m supposed to do is call the police, get him out of there, get him for trespassing,” said Gentry, who sold McClain three drinks the night he died. “Since Elijah McClain, I don’t call the police on men anymore.”

McClain came into the store wearing a black ski mask, but he did that often, she said.

“He spoke to everybody and he told me thank you,” she said. “He paid just like a normal customer.”

On his walk home, police officers stopped McClain after a man named Juan called to report a suspicious person.

“Those police officers came ready with the intent to catch a robber,” Gentry said. “That’s what was in their brains. They came in thinking they were going to solve a problem and they created a problem.”

She’s afraid the police will kill again.

“The people who are supposed to protect and serve us, I’m afraid of,” she said. “My kids walk down Billings and Colfax every day. It could have been any of them.”

To move forward, the police will need to earn her trust again, she said. To start, the department should better screen recruits.

“We need to actually get to know the police officers before we let them become police officers,” she said.

It would help if she knew the officers patrolling her area, she said.

“It would make me a bit more comfortable than having a stranger roll up on me,” she said. “But I don’t know, Aurora police, I’ve had different encounters with them, and every time they stop someone, they’re stopping someone with the thought of, ‘I’ve got a criminal.’ And not just Black or Mexican people, but white people who are less fortunate out here, too.”

Lindsay Minter: Friend of McClain family, community organizer, member of Police Community Task Force

Lindsay Minter was criticized the first time she tried to incorporate McClain’s name into Denver protests of George Floyd’s killing. People in the crowd said she was distracting from Floyd’s death. But with persistence, thousands soon chanted his name as they marched the streets in Aurora and Denver.

“I’m so proud of the community of Aurora for rising up, for standing up, for showing up for their own community,” Minter said. “It took them a while, but once they found out all the facts they rose up.”

Minter has been close to the McClain family since last August. She attended the first rallies. She’s been there despite death threats and hateful stares.

“We haven’t won,” she said.

The creation of the Police Community Task Force — which she attributes to organizing she and others led at City Council meetings in the fall — was a step forward. The series of public events the police department was hosting during that time was important, she said.

“Through this whole process, APD was trying to engage and build bridges across to the community to redeem the relationship,” Minter said. “They’ve erased all of the progress they were making at the end of 2019, because 2020 was a whole different story.”

Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson needs to announce her plan to fix the department and then be transparent as it is executed, Minter said. The chief also needs to hold public meetings with residents for feedback on how to build trust, which is so broken between the city and community that people are driving their loved ones to the hospital instead of calling an ambulance, she said.

“That doesn’t mean basketball games, or riding bikes with cops. We’re asking them to treat us with dignity and respect just like they would their own family,” Minter said.

The city also needs to ban its use of ketamine — a sedative used on McClain– by paramedics, she said. The department needs to recruit and retain more officers of color from Aurora and who speak languages other than English, she said. At the end of 2019, about 80% of the department’s officers were white in a city where about 45% of the population is white.

For change to be effective, more of the city’s residents need to speak to the Police Community Task Force about how they want to be policed, she said.

Minter is wary when others say a healthy relationship between police and Aurora residents can be built.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t know.”

Marna Arnett: Massage client

Marna Arnett sees McClain’s face as she walks her neighborhood. But instead of his warm smile emanating as he massaged away her chronic pain, Arnett now sees the 23-year-old’s face adorning posters as the face of police brutality in Colorado.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Arnett said. “It’s great that people are coming together to do it but, man, I miss his giggle. I miss talking to him.”

In their last conversation, Arnett offered to teach the 23-year-old to drive.

She tried once this year to get a massage — but cried the entire session.

Arnett said she’s glad people are finally talking about racial injustice.

“I’m grateful he has a voice, but I’m just really upset it had to come about this way,” she said. “Somebody had to die, many somebodies had to die, for us to actually go, ‘This is enough.’ ”

The police department, she said, “needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.”

“The city of Aurora needs to think long and hard about outsourcing policing so they can dismantle and rebuild,” Arnett said. “They have been woefully out of control for decades, to be quite honest.”

Vanessa Peoples: Injured by Aurora police in 2017 and settled claims with the city

When Vanessa Peoples heard about McClain, she couldn’t help but think about her own violent experience with police just two years earlier.

On July 13, 2017, Aurora police came to her home for a welfare check. As Peoples tried to check on her mother, she was choked and thrown to the ground, her arm twisted behind her back as officers hogtied her.

Peoples suffered a dislocated shoulder, and officers kept her in the hobble for 30 minutes as she cried in pain. She was charged with obstruction — which was later dismissed — and Aurora settled a lawsuit.

Distrust never left. Not with Peoples, and not with her children.

“I don’t care for the police,” Peoples said. “When they get that gun and badge, they forget that they’re human. They have authority over anybody and they feel like they can hurt people and get away with it.”

Police had that mentality when they encountered McClain, she said.

“They were thoughtless, they didn’t care and they did what they did without thinking twice,” Peoples said. “They felt like he was in the wrong and they were right so whatever they say goes. That’s just not right.”

More than anything, she said she wants officers to stop and think.

“At the end of the day you gotta think, ‘How would I feel if somebody treated my family like this?’ ” Peoples said.

The Rev. Thomas Mayes: Pastor, longtime community organizer, member of Police Community Task Force

The Rev. Thomas Mayes received a warning about the Aurora Police Department just before his 16th birthday.

“My father said, ‘I will take your keys and your license if I find you’re driving into Aurora. Because they will kill you,’ ” Mayes said. “He was so right.”

Fifty-two years later, Aurora’s white residents and leaders are reckoning with video evidence that shows how police treat the city’s Black community, Mayes said. They were forced — through body camera footage, bystander videos, protests and media reports — to pay attention to McClain and the trauma of children handcuffed on hot pavement.

“For me, it was this: I listened to the cries of Elijah,” he said. “I listened to the cries of George Floyd. Elijah McClain said, ‘I’m sorry.’ That killed me, that he was apologizing. He had done nothing wrong. He was just trying to live.”

Mayes has served on various community police boards over the past 30 years, including the Police Community Task Force. The city must undergo deep structural change, he said.

The city needs to shift power from the city manager to an elected mayor, who can more easily be held accountable, he said. The city also needs to rework its Civil Service Commission, which oversees who is hired and fired from the police and fire departments. In several instances, the commission has reinstated cops fired for bad behavior.

The task force needs the authority to look at the city and police department budgets and make spending recommendations. It can’t become another committee that has no real power and is just a formality so that the city can say it worked with the community, he said.

“I was hoping at this time in 2020, we’d have been so much further ahead,” he said. “I’d hope we’d be more transparent and be in a healing mode. I would have hoped we’d thrown away our Band-Aids and done some surgery and root some things out. But we haven’t. We’ve still got our salve out.”

Emerald Bixby: Former coworker at Massage Envy

Emerald Bixby remembers clearly the moment Elijah McClain noticed the hunting knife she carries on her backpack.

“His eyes got all wide and he was like, ‘Whoa,’ ” she said. “He balked a little bit that I was carrying a weapon. He didn’t have a place in his mind or his heart for that.”

That’s why, a year after her coworker died, she just can’t fathom that he reached for an Aurora police officer’s gun, as officers have claimed.

“There’s no way in hell,” she said. But at the same time, she watched the body camera footage of the arrest, and she believes the officers did think McClain was reaching for the gun.

“I think it was a mistaken perspective, but honest,” she said.

To Bixby, McClain’s arrest, sedation and death are complicated, full of nuance that is sometimes lost when the crowds gather and chant his name. She sees a three-pronged path forward, one that includes independent investigations of police by a state board, changes to police training and protocols around deescalation, and a review of the circumstances in which medical personnel can forcibly sedate someone, as was done to McClain.

“It would have been very easy for the officers to step back and say, ‘Hey, we didn’t mean to scare you,’ ” she said. “If they had just communicated more calmly and honestly and respectfully, it would have deescalated immediately.”

Candice Bailey: Friend of McClain family, organizer, member of Police Community Task Force

Shortly after McClain’s death, his family were on hands and knees pulling weeds at the site where police confronted him as he walked home.

Candice Bailey got a call about the family’s work and arranged for someone with a lawn mower to help cut the weeds. Then she went to meet the McClains.

Bailey has been at Sheneen McClain’s side since then, through tearful phone calls and passionate rallies, through testifying at the statehouse in support of a police accountability bill and through every decision by officials that has devastated the family.

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Bailey said.

But the work toward change is barely started, she said.

“A lot of people are like, ‘We did it!’ ” she said. “We haven’t done (expletive), in my personal opinion. The officers are still working.”

It’s insulting that anyone would think the work is over with the passage of Colorado’s police accountability bill and the new investigations into McClain’s death.

“If you’re not on a police oversight committee, if you’re not on a budget oversight committee, if you’re not plugging away on legislation, you’re not doing (expletive).”

Much focus has been on Aurora police, she said, but other entities need tough scrutiny as well: district attorneys, Aurora Fire Rescue, the state health department, and even the U.S. Constitution that still contains language declaring slaves to be three-fifths of a person.

“This is a culture across the nation, not just in the Aurora Police Department,” she said.

“If we’re never getting to the root causes of this, there’s going to be a million more Elijah McClains. We’re going to have a million more George Floyds.”

“We have so much work to do. Work just keeps piling up.”

Brandy Nalyanya: Senior at Smoky Hill High School

When McClain’s name became a national rallying cry for racial justice this summer, Brandy Nalyanya felt guilty.

The Smoky Hill High School student heard about the 23-year-old’s death last August, but she didn’t speak up. She is not missing her second chance.

“I knew this time I had to really speak out and use my voice and get other youth to use their voices,” Nalyanya said.

Along with another student, the 17-year-old organized a rally in the school parking lot, leading chants. They set up a voter registration table, and student leaders spoke about their own experiences with police and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I’ve always been taught that when you feel hurt or pain or uncomfortable,” Nalyanya said, “instead of feeling angry or using emotions to turn toward something destructive, use it to make sure no one feels the way you felt.”

She wants the Aurora Police Department to think about how many officers it really needs patrolling the neighborhoods of people of color. She wants police to check their biases and address what she perceives as a consistent trope that “Black people are thugs and more aggressive.”

Nalyanya has watched as scandals involving Aurora police have emerged this year. She studied the video of Brittney Gilliam and her young nieces and daughter being mistakenly detained this month, wondering how close it was to her home.

“It feels like it’s creeping closer and closer to someone I know and love,” Nalyanya said. “It’s really scary — it’s like, who’s next?”

Eric Behrens, Massage Envy coworker

Eric Behrens sometimes played video games with McClain until one day McClain pawned his PlayStation because he thought it was a distraction.

“He was always trying to work on himself,” Behrens said.

The two were massage therapists and became friends through the job. On the night McClain was stopped by police, Behrens was in the apartment complex across the street, visiting friends for a game night. When he left, he drove around police barricades and blocked roads.

“I found out later that was Elijah,” he said, remembering his friend as gentle, spiritual and optimistic. Seeing how McClain was treated by police changed Behrens’ perspective on law enforcement.

“Kind of like everyone else, I was like, ‘Maybe that person didn’t cooperate,’ or something like that,” he said of past instances of alleged police brutality. “And then there came Elijah. I was like, ‘How the hell can someone do that to Elijah?’ My mind was so blown. I was in disbelief.”

Police departments should not be allowed to investigate themselves, he said, but rather should be investigated by an independent law enforcement agency. And there should be a more robust early-warning system to prevent future police misconduct by evaluating officers’ mental health and flagging those who receive the most complaints, he said.

“Not everyone deserves to be a cop,” he said. “Maybe the job gets too stressful. If that’s the case, and you start to lose your cool out there — like these guys were —  then you need to take a step down, get off the streets and focus on files or something like that.”

Behrens doesn’t believe all police departments should be defunded — there are good officers, he said. But departments like Aurora, where misconduct happens regularly, should be, he said.

“Nobody likes the Aurora Police Department,” he said. “You don’t look them in the eye. You don’t go near them. It’s not really a scary community, but the police can be a little scary.”

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