A mother’s determination, combined with an independent racial justice struggle, scored an important victory on September 1, when three police officers and two paramedics were charged over the death of Elijah McClain in Colorado in 2019.
McClain, a Black man, was put in a chokehold, beaten and injected with a powerful sedative after being stopped by police in suburban Denver. There were no witnesses to film the attack. Because of this, the case was not initially widely known.
Police justified stopping McClain as he walked home from the shops in August, 2019, because a 911 caller had reported seeing a man wearing a ski mask and waving his hands, who seemed "sketchy". Elijah’s family said he wore a mask because he suffered from anaemia, which caused him to feel the cold.
McClain, then 23 years old, was unarmed. His crime was being young and Black.
McClain’s death finally gained widespread attention during last year’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
McClain’s pleas to the cops at the scene were captured on police body camera video: "I'm just different." These words have been posted on signs at protests and spoken by celebrities who have joined those calling for the prosecution of the cops involved.
The young man was a massage therapist. His family and friends described him as a gentle and kind introvert who volunteered to play his violin to comfort cats at an animal shelter.
After his death, no action was taken against the police or paramedics. They walked away, as most police officers do after killing a Black man.
McClain’s mother Sheneen cried outrage and called on local officials to act for justice. She held a vigil near the spot where the cops had stopped her son, in the dirt and dust alongside a highway. She bought solar lights and plastic flowers to decorate it. Over time others joined her.
Her efforts and the support from others finally pressured the city and police to release the body camera footage, three months after her son’s death.
All five cops and paramedics are charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, while some also face additional charges.
Facing pressure during nationwide BLM protests last year, Democratic state governor Jared Polis ordered the opening of a new criminal investigation.
A district attorney had said in 2019 that he could not charge the officers because an autopsy could not determine how McClain died. But, in January, the state attorney general opened a grand jury investigation, with the power to compel testimony and documents.
After the earlier decision not to charge the officers, McClain’s mother pushed lawmakers to adopt reforms to police conduct. As the case garnered more attention in the weeks after Floyd’s murder, the police department announced a ban on carotid holds, such as the one that had been used on McClain.
Police are now required to report uses of excessive force by other police officers and to announce their intention to use deadly force before doing so.
The city also conducted a comprehensive review of the police department.
The state attorney general's office conducted a civil rights investigation, the first under a new state police accountability law.
The New York Times reported that the independent panel investigating McClain’s death “issued a highly critical report” in February, “faulting officers for stopping [McClain] without justification and for escalating their use of force, including the two applications of the carotid hold”.
The report also said: “Fire Department paramedics were slow to help Mr McClain before injecting him with enough ketamine to sedate a person weighing 190 pounds [86 kilograms].” McClain weighed about 63.5 kilograms.
The police body camera footage shows an officer getting out of his car, approaching McClain on the footpath and saying: "Stop right there. Stop. Stop ... I have a right to stop you because you're being suspicious."
In the video, the cop puts his hand on McClain's shoulder and turns him around and repeats: "Stop tensing up." As McClain verbally protests, the officer says, "Relax, or I'm going to have to change this situation."
As other police officers join in to restrain McClain, he asks them to let go and says, "You guys started to arrest me and I was stopping my music to listen."
What happens next isn't clear because all of the officers' body cameras come off as they move McClain to the grass. However, the officers and McClain can still be heard.
An officer says McClain grabbed one of their guns.
McClain can be heard trying to explain himself and at times crying out or sobbing. He says he can't breathe and was just on his way home.
"I'm just different. I'm just different, that's all. That's all I was doing. I'm so sorry. I have no gun. I don't do that stuff. I don't do any fighting. Why were you attacking me? I don't do guns. I don't even kill flies. I don't eat meat ... I am a vegetarian", he says.
One police officer eventually retrieves his camera, which shows McClain handcuffed, laying on his side and periodically vomiting as another cop leans on him. An officer who arrived later threatens to get his police dog to bite McClain.
When fire department paramedics arrive, they inject McClain with 500 milligrams of the powerful sedative ketamine.
The fire department is allowed to use the drug to sedate combative or aggressive people. However, there is a lack of police training, conflicting medical standards and nonexistent protocols that have resulted in hospitalisations and even deaths when ketamine is used during police encounters.
Within five minutes, McClain stopped breathing, according to the family’s law suit. He died six days later, after being taken off life support.
McClain’s family filed a civil lawsuit in August 2020 against the city, the police officers involved, and the fire department paramedics and medical director. The complaint, filed in the US District Court for the District of Colorado, seeks damages for the family.
“In a span of 18 minutes, defendants subjected Elijah to a procession of needless and brutal force techniques and unnecessary, recklessly administered medication, the combined effects of which he could not survive”, the lawsuit said.
A crowd-funding page created by Sheneen McClain has raised more than US$2 million, and more than 5 million people have signed an online petition demanding the officers involved be taken off duty and an in-depth investigation.
Response of the police association
The response of the so-called police “union” was to blast the grand jury and charges. Following McClain’s death, the Aurora Police Association (APA) wrote: “Mr McClain was not murdered by Aurora Police Department officers. Nothing has changed. Our officers did nothing wrong.”
Like all police “unions”, the APA functions as a racist and anti-working class cartel that defends police violence and the murder of those it is supposed to “protect and serve”.
The primary purpose of a union is as a collective bargaining agent for its members. Its role is to improve wages and working conditions, and to challenge management when it attacks or undermines members’ rights.
No union, however, should protect racist brutality and murder, as occurred in the cases of Floyd and McClain.
If a member has been accused of a crime, a union should only protect that member’s job until the case is settled legally. The workplace contract determines if the member is put on leave with or without pay. But for a union to defend murder and violence, especially aimed at Black people and other minorities, is unacceptable.
Police are also not neutral in labour disputes and follow the orders of private employers to break strikes. That is why police “unions” should be excluded from the AFL-CIO.
McClain’s murder is not unusual, nor is it exceptional for a police union to defend “bad” cops who murder unarmed Black men.
What the case shows
What happens in the McClain case is extremely important. Its ultimate success will depend on public pressure. The power of the BLM and racial justice movement is why the McClain indictments happened.
It further shows the role of a victim’s family. If Elijah’s mother, family and friends had not pressured the city and state to investigate and act, it is unlikely others in the racial justice movement would have seen the importance of his case.
Even though there has been a slowdown in protests with a Democratic president and the first Black female vice-president, cop killings and violence against innocent African Americans has not let up.
In another victory, all remaining charges against the leaders of the protests in the city of Aurora that demanded justice for McClain were dropped. The charges against Joel Northam, Lillian House and Terrance Roberts arose from a massive political prosecution case.
The racial justice movement will continue to respond — through street protests and other actions — to legal and extralegal violence by police and the unjust criminal legal system.