//Protesters stand with their fists raised during a moment of silence at the Protect Black Men event at Manual High School on Aug. 24. Photo by Esteban Fernandez |Este.Fdez20B@gmail.com
One year ago, Elijah McClain was approached by Aurora police officers in an exchange that culminated in his killing. His family is still fighting for justice.
The 23-year-old’s death sparked five investigations at the Federal, state and city levels. Nationwide, countless protests and vigils have taken place in his name. Three Aurora police officers have since been fired for taking a photo mocking and reenacting McClain’s death.
“It hasn’t been enough because we don’t have a conviction and incarceration. We have a firing as a result of a picture and a ‘haha,’ said Candice Bailey, an Aurora activist who has helped organize several protests in McClain’s name. “That does not equate to justice. It is not the thing that we need.”
One year later, it appears on the surface that progress on the issue of police brutality has been made. Police brutality took a prominent place in the general public’s view. The Black Lives Matter movement saw a resurgence this summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. Activists across the country called for defunding police departments or abolishing them altogether. Some municipalities took action and passed laws limiting police powers and banning actions like chokeholds. On Juneteenth, Gov. Jared Polis signed the sweeping Police Accountability Bill into law, legislation that Bailey herself co-wrote.
But as protesters and community organizers gathered at Manual High School in Denver on Aug. 24, they reflected on what that progress actually means.
“We’re just so lost and it’s time to stop the division,” Bailey said. “We had a great celebration yesterday, gathering in gratitude for Elijah McClain and we couldn’t even make it through that without [an incident in another state].”
Bailey said the police brutality problem can be summed up by the very fact that while so many families are still waiting for justice for one death, there are more just around the corner. “It’s tiring,” she said.
Several high-profile cases of police brutality have happened in the year since McClain was killed. At the same time as the McClain gathering on Aug. 23 in Denver, police in Kenosha, Wis. shot Jacob Blake at least seven times as he was walking back to his car after breaking up an altercation. The shooting happened while his three children were waiting in the car. Blake is currently in critical condition.
The Kenosha shooting was a large focus at the Manual High School event. One speaker said she couldn’t imagine how Blake’s children feel, and that he should have been at the first day of school with them like other parents. She went on to say that she doesn’t want to have kids because of the inevitable heartbreaking conversation she would have to have with them.
A report published earlier this month by The Denver Post found that 47% of those who Aurora police officers struck, tackled, pepper-sprayed, tased or shot in 2019 were Black, even though Black people only make up 16% of the city’s population. The Post found that white citizens, who make up 45% of the population, comprised only 35% of the total use of force incidents.
Denver saw similar bleak numbers. Black individuals accounted for 27% of the 1,191 people who Denver police used force against. Only 10% of the population in Denver is Black.
Tay Anderson, the at-large director of Denver Public Schools who has become a major fixture throughout the summer protests in Denver, said the event was focused on police violence against Black people so there isn’t another Jacob Blake.
“It was a rapid response. We said we need to address this as a community and talk about next steps. As you heard, people are tired,” Anderson said. “The next step is to no longer continue to gather like this, it’s justice for those that continue to hurt us.”
Despite the surface-level progress, more work remains to be done. One summer of continual protests isn’t enough for real change to happen.
“I’m reminded of the words of the great Malcolm X, we can’t move a knife that’s in us 9 inches and move it out 6 inches and call it progress,” said Hashim Coates, the interim chair of the Colorado Democrats African American Initiative.
Although he admitted that things are better for him than they were for his grandfather, he also pointed out that systemic injustice has adapted to navigate societal norms in order to continue.
“That’s how the mistreatment of black people has always occurred.”