Protesters debate paths to justice for Elijah McClain

By Cassandra Ballard

Jun 29, 2020 | News | 0 comments

//After being pushed away from the lawns around the municipal buildings, protesters gathered around violinists playing on the parking lot of the Aurora Municipal Center on June 27. Photos by Esteban Fernandez | sovereign73811b@gmail.com

*Editor’s note: On Monday, the Aurora Police Department tweeted that reports of officers using tear gas on protesters at Saturday’s protest were false. The department stated that only pepper spray was used “on a small number of people.”


Demonstrators gathered near the Aurora police Department headquarters on June 27 to voice outrage over the killing of Elijah McClain by Aurora police officers in August 2019.

“Even if we get justice, we will never forget what they did to Elijah McClain,” said one of the speakers for the Denver branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

In recent weeks public outrage regarding McClain’s death was reignited by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Although there was one message of justice for McClain, there were conflicting ideas of what that meant. Two major factions of protesters emerged, sowing the seeds of chaos. The night ended with the soft music of violins and pepper spray.

The Party for Socialism and Liberation set up their stage in front of the entryway to the Aurora police headquarters to demonstrate their anger with the police. Meanwhile, a more peaceful assembly took place next door in front of the Aurora Municipal Center with McClain’s family, State Rep. Leslie Herod, Denver School Board Director Tay Anderson and community activist Candice Bailey.

Those in the crowd at the municipal center informed the other group they were drowning out the voices of the grieving family. When Elijah’s mother Sheneen McClain spoke on stage, few were able to hear what she was saying.

“They are chanting the wrong [slogan],” Sheneen said while demonstrators chanted “Black Lives Matter” in front of the police headquarters.

Although Shaneen has been photographed wearing a Black Lives Matter facemask, her lawyer Mari Newmark clarified that the bereaved mother prefers to focus on the idea that humanity matters and wants peace in the community.

Newmark also said Shereen was happy Gov. Jared Polis announced on June 25 that he would reopen her son’s case for an independent investigation.

Sheneen McClain talks to her lawyer Mari Newmark at the protest over her son Elijah’s killing by Aurora Police on June 27, 2020.

“It shows how much this issue highlights the need to reimagine the role of police in the community,” Newmark said.

The lawyer said most 911 calls do not require the police, like a boy walking home in his own neighborhood, a situation that can be handled by the community.

Other groups, including Black Hammer along with a few of Elijah’s cousins, wanted more than police reform and a new investigation. They wanted the involved officers arrested immediately.

“We will not stop until the police who murdered Elijah McClain are behind bars by midnight tonight,” said a speaker for the Party of Socialism and Liberation.

Black Hammer called Colorado a white power state and demanded more long term solutions to abolish racism. More aggressive protesters demanded to abolish the police altogether.

Police were visibly present, guarding the police headquarters while a few in riot gear stood around the corner. Once protesters spotted police wearing riot gear, outrage followed.

“Why do you need to wear riot gear for a peaceful protest?” one female protester yelled at the line of police.

While many ran to where Sheneen spoke, some stayed to continue protesting the police. Demonstrators Kiara Alvarez and Gianny Lovada said police were charging at the crowd and warning that they would use flash-bangs.

The march eventually moved to the streets, while a small group of protesters stayed behind to confront police who were still blocking the headquarters, who by then were all in full riot gear.

“We want to get our voice across while we are facing them,” Alvarez said.

Lovada said that marching can only do so much and nothing would change unless they confronted them.

“Right now we are facing the cops so we can yell at them and get in their face so they can understand,” Lovada said.

A Scattered Vigil

As the marchers returned to the area surrounding the headquarters, Aurora police announced that the gathering was an unlawful assembly. Over a megaphone, protesters were ordered to leave because the event was considered a threat to the safety of government property. Those still in front of the headquarters were warned they would be arrested if they crossed the fence.

A “violin vigil” was planned for 8:30 p.m. at Aurora City Center Park, with world-renowned violinists traveling from across the country to perform. In recent weeks, photos of Eljiah McClain playing the violin for shelter cats have circulated online. Grammy-nominated violinist Ashanti Floyd, who flew in from Atlanta, and renowned New York violinist Lee England, Jr. were among those who were scheduled to play.

An hour before the official performance was slated to begin, some musicians began playing in front of the municipal center for the peaceful demonstrators who began congregating in the grass outside the building. Few protesters continued to chant at the police outside the headquarters.

After a sizeable crowd gathered around to watch the violins, the Aurora police again announced that the event was an unlawful gathering and warned people to leave. Many in the peaceful crowd stood shocked, unsure whether the announcement included them.

Shortly after, police used pepper spray to push the remaining protesters in front of the headquarters toward those at the musical vigil. Some organizers told the violinists to keep playing as the crowd formed a circle to protect the musicians and children from the pepper spray and the officers moving in their direction. As the soft music from the violins played out, police blocked protesters from entering Aurora City Center Park and eventually pushed them into the headquarters’ parking lot.

According to the police department’s Twitter, the crowd was dispersed because a gathering in any location beyond the parking lot is considered unlawful.

Floyd and England were expected to play in the park, but moved their performances west, away from the police building.

The group remaining in the parking lot broke into factions with those at the north-east end arguing with, and at times pushing against, the police and those at the south-west end listening to the musicians.

Demonstrators Michael and Janelle sat a few yards away from the performers. They brought lawn chairs in the hopes of participating in a peaceful vigil and hearing the violins, Michael said.

“You know he would play for cats [violins] would be a very lovely tribute. Let someone play for him,” Janelle said.

The vigil was the first protest event the two had attended. They both work during the day and have been unable to attend any of the protests in the name of George Floyd, but were pleased by the allyship they have seen.

“It warms my heart to see everybody. We live in a different time, everything is out there in your face, for everybody. We just want it to be fair, we’ve been dealing with unfairness for a long time,” Michael said.

Many families with small children and others who felt out of place at the larger Denver protests thought they would be safer at the vigil. Autumn Pepper, a freelance violin teacher, took the opportunity to join what they thought would be a more tame protest.

“I have violin students and musicians are my community so it brings it closer to my heart,” Pepper said.

When it was clear the vigil had moved locations, the crowd began to disperse while the police continued to hold their line at the edge of the parking lot.

Those who remained stood in pockets around officers, often shouting and on occasion discussing the complicated juncture of policing and race in Aurora and America.


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