Protests are unfolding across the country over the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of police in Aurora, Colo. Now, frustration is also building over local law enforcement’s use of force this past weekend at a vigil in Aurora honoring him — frustration that was visible at a city council meeting Tuesday night dedicated to the response.
McClain died after Aurora officers stopped him on the way home from a convenience store, where he bought iced tea. He was unarmed and wore a ski mask. The officers forced him to the ground and put him in a chokehold. A medic later injected him with ketamine. The 23-year-old had a heart attack en route to the hospital and went into a coma. McClain was a violinist and played for animals at a local shelter. Enough violinists and other musicians performed Saturday night that, as a city council member at Tuesday’s meeting put it, the demonstration was more a “pop-up orchestra concert” than it was civil unrest.
But then, as videos posted to social media show, police officers in riot gear moved in to disperse the crowd.
Another video shows officers spraying pepper spray on attendees.
Another shows a violinist insisting on nonviolence – with music.
As police in riot gear were spraying protesters with pepper spray and using batons to push them back at the #ElijahMcClain protest in Aurora today, this man began playing the violin. One of the most surreal scenes I’ve ever seen. Music is powerful. #9News pic.twitter.com/3adLTuBZB7— Marc Sallinger (@MarcSallinger) June 28, 2020
Aurora’s interim police chief Vanessa Wilson told councilmembers that officers were responding to concerns from undercover police, who heard attendees talking about ”rushing” police headquarters and “saw people passing out rocks.”
The department confirmed it used a smoke canister, pepper spray, bean bag shotgun rounds and foam bullets to disperse the crowd.
“This was dictated by what the agitators were doing,” Wilson said. “And then I was going off of history just recently in Denver, of when nightfall hit, that is when really chaos hit. And so I had that in my mind as well, with everything that we saw that was escalating, passing out rocks, those types of things.”
Wilson said she had intelligence, including from Facebook posts, that “people that identified with antifa” were planning “to cause issues” and “indicating that they wanted people to riot.” During the event, the police said they noticed protesters wearing protective gear like helmets and goggles, and that a number of people had weapons, including rocks and a handgun.
Wilson also said windows had been boarded up at the Aurora municipal building in preparation for Molotov cocktails, which were used “in the Denver riots to start fires.” As the Denver Post reported, police dispatch notes show that county officials “believed a person had a Molotov cocktail, though it turned out to actually be a squirt bottle.”
Following Wilson’s presentation, council members questioned why smoke canisters weren’t considered enough of a deterrent, and why pepper spray was necessary, including a direct hit in a protester’s face.
Juan Marcano, a council member, said he was at the vigil site “basically the entire day.” Police kept warning protesters to keep away from a specified boundary, he said, “But no one was beyond the fencing, and every time that order was issued, the crowd got more riled up and angrier…The most effective thing y’all did, earlier in the day, was pull back. That de-escalated people and the agitators got bored and left. So, I need to see more of that.”
Council members also pressed for the release of as much body camera footage as possible.
“Absolutely, it’ll all be given,” said Wilson.
Benjamin Levin, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Law School who has represented plaintiffs suing police officers over misconduct, said the Aurora Police Department’s response highlights exactly what protesters have been fighting to prevent.
"It highlights a lot of the issues that are leading for calls to defund dismantle or abolish the police,” Levin said. “Or, at the very least, to shift away from using police as the solution to so many issues."
Levin said the use of undercover officers at this type of event is “a dangerous thing.”
“First of all, I think it runs the risk of really treading on people’s rights,” he said. “But I think it invites these kinds of situations, where a stray comment here and there — or maybe more than a stray comment here and there — leads to really massive escalation and massive response.”
He said the presence of riot gear can have a similar effect.
“It’s a move that signals that something bad is going to happen,” Levin said. “It tees up and invites the kind of fear and the kind of nervousness that leads to these kinds of overreactions.”
As the city debates the actions of local police during recent demonstrations, multiple state and federal investigations into McClain’s death remain active.
In late June, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis appointed a special prosecutor to probe whether officers should be given criminal charges for how they treated McClain. The move came months after a local investigation determined officers had done nothing wrong. Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman told NPR “there was too much bias, quite frankly, towards law enforcement by the individual doing the independent investigation.”
On Monday the city is expected to vote on moving forward with a new local investigation.
Meanwhile, several Aurora officers are now being investigated by the department after posing for photos, reportedly reenacting the chokehold, at the site where McClain was forced onto the ground. The Denver Division of the FBI said in a statement it continues “reviewing the facts for a potential federal civil rights investigation” and is now also collecting information about the photographs.
This post was updated July 1, 2020 to reorder certain paragraphs and clarify that Benjamin Levin has worked with plaintiffs on use-of-force cases in the past, but does not do so currently.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.