It happened almost a year ago in Aurora, Colo. But like an echo growing paradoxically louder over time, the story of Elijah McClain and his horrific death has spread across the country.
Next week it lands in Philadelphia. A group of local string players is planning two candlelight vigils in his memory — one Wednesday at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia, and another July 19 on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The aim is to “lift up voices of Black artists and musicians, and to hold the space for victims of systemic racism and police brutality,” says instrumentalist Veronica Jurkiewicz, one of the organizers, who will play viola at the vigils.
“Music has always found a way to bring peace and bring a calm to people when there is so much tragedy in their lives,” says Alberta Douglas, a Philadelphia violinist who is another one of the planners. “It has a way of conveying emotion that words can’t always do.”
McClain, a Black 23-year-old massage therapist, was walking home from a corner store last August when he was approached by three white Aurora police officers after a 911 call reporting someone who “looked sketchy.”
Police said McClain was “uncooperative,” according to a district attorney report. They struggled to handcuff him. A police body camera reveals McClain saying: “I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking. Leave me alone.”
Police placed him in a carotid hold, and paramedics injected him with the sedative ketamine. He suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died three days later, according to news reports.
After an initial investigation, no charges in his death were filed.
The case has received renewed attention with the recent visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement. A change.org petition calling for justice has drawn millions of signatures. And late last month, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis ordered an investigation by the state attorney general.
McClain’s fate has especially drawn the attention of musicians, who see him as one of their own. He was also a violinist, and a photograph of him playing music for stray cats has been widely circulated.
The killing of an innocent person is tragic under any circumstances, says Douglas. “But to see one of our fellow musicians just being murdered definitely hits different,” she says.
Jurkiewicz, a teaching artist as well as performer, says she has thought about McClain through the lens of the 5- and 6-year-old violinists she taught this past year at Play On Philly. “I had a lot of Black and brown boys in my studio and I was thinking about them and their paths as violinists. And then hearing about Elijah McClain hit me really hard, as I know it did a lot of other string players and just humans. There is definitely a connection there.”
The music chosen for the candlelight vigils has significance. Lyric for Strings is by George Walker, whose 1996 Pulitzer Prize for music was the first to be awarded to a Black composer. The work was premiered in 1946 on a radio concert by the orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music, just after Walker graduated from the Philadelphia school. It was originally titled Lament.
“He wrote it after someone in his life [his grandmother] passed away,” says Douglas. “In the piece, you can hear it goes in and out of happiness as if to remember all the sweet memories of the person and the sadness and longing for the person who you can no longer walk beside. It seems to me it has the gentleness of Elijah’s soul and the spirit and sweetness of his smile. But also the sadness of this tragedy.”
The string ensemble for the vigils, which includes Philadelphia Orchestra cellist John Koen as well as area teachers and emerging artists, is expected to attract one or two dozen players. Other works are being considered, like “We Shall Overcome” and “Amazing Grace,” and members of the community are invited to bring their instruments for an improv session.
“It’s so heartbreaking,” says Douglas. “This keeps happening. A Black person just going about their day, a random person sees something they say is suspicious, and the police react with as much force as possible. And an innocent person is killed at the end of the day. Police reform is just so necessary. There really needs to be an end to police brutality.”
The two vigils are also intended to honor Mouhamed Cisse, an 18-year-old Philadelphia cellist and drummer fatally shot by an unknown assailant June 1 in West Philadelphia in a case that’s under investigation by homicide detectives.
“Both of these two young men seemed to be very sensitive and were people who made the world a better place,” said Koen.