Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

I can’t stop thinking about the beauty of Elijah McClain, and the banal evil of the cops who killed him | Will Bunch

The killing of the violin-playing introvert by three Aurora, Colo., cops shows why we must end American policing as we know it.

A makeshift memorial stands at a site across the street from where Elijah McClain was stopped by Aurora, Colo., Police Department officers while walking home before family members hold a news conference July 3.
A makeshift memorial stands at a site across the street from where Elijah McClain was stopped by Aurora, Colo., Police Department officers while walking home before family members hold a news conference July 3.Read moreDavid Zalubowski / AP

If you want to last more than a year or two in journalism, you’re supposed to have some kind of switch that doesn’t fully block the flow of human emotions — that’s simply not possible — but dampens your deepest feelings to the level where you can function, to sit at a keyboard and tell a story of unspeakable tragedy or unfathomable evil and somehow survive until the last paragraph.

The year 2020 has been the toughest test of that valve I could imagine. The subway workers and the truck drivers who walked into the wrong place at the wrong time to meet their invisible killer, the grandfathers who survived World War II or Korea but could not outlive the coronavirus — and then the suffocating racism of a system that keeps killing Black men and women who are simply jogging through a neighborhood, or even just trying to sleep in their own bed.

As a newspaper columnist, I’ve tried to write about the sorrow and the outrage of 2020 the way that my high school football coach Rob Pickert tried to teach me to play defensive end, with reckless abandon but under control. And I thought I was doing OK until I learned about the death last August of a 23-year-old Black man named Elijah McClain, who bought an iced tea at a convenience store, encountered three Aurora, Colo., police officers, and was inexplicably killed in the span of about 15 minutes. Now I can’t stop the tides of sorrow that such a beautiful young man no longer exists, or bury my unvarnished rage at the police department that killed him. That valve that’s supposed to control my emotions is hopelessly broken.

» READ MORE: SIGN UP: The Will Bunch Newsletter

Elijah McClain no longer walks the Earth for three reasons: He was Black. He was “different.” And he was trying to do both in a suburb of Denver with an out-of-control police department that all too often views those things as a criminal offense.

I would challenge anyone to listen to Elijah’s last words — “I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m different. I’m just different, that’s all. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry.” — and not feel both oppressive sadness and a numb befuddlement that three grown men in blue could be so devoid of a soul to continue to choke him, even as he vomited and struggled to get out those all too familiar words, “I can’t breathe correctly.”

I want to be clear. It’s not that McClain’s life is more or less valuable than George Floyd, suffocated while handcuffed and calling out for his mother, or Breonna Taylor, a lifesaving EMT who was shot eight times in a botched no-knock drug raid, or Ahmaud Arbery, murdered for jogging through a mostly white neighborhood. Each is a senseless victim of systemic racism in the United States of America, and yet there is also a special poignancy in the way that the introverted McClain knew that he was a different kind of soul — and how he was embracing that and making his difference something truly special.

“He was the sweetest, purest person I have ever met,” a client at the massage therapy business where the 23-year-old worked — in what he hoped was a pit stop on the road to art school — told a Colorado newspaper. His mother, Sheneen McClain, described her son to Yahoo News as “a lightworker,” constantly focused on helping others. Elijah taught himself guitar and violin, and he would even go on his lunch break to a nearby animal shelter and serenade the stray cats there. He was a vegetarian. When those three Aurora cops confronted McClain on the night of Aug. 24, 2019, he told them, “I don’t even kill flies.”

It was just one of the many ways that McClain died as he lived. He was helping someone else — his brother, dashing out late at night to get him that iced tea from a nearby convenience store. Elijah was skinny, and he reported he suffered from both asthma and anemia. It was the latter condition that could make him cold enough, even on an August night, to head out in a coat and a ski mask. An unnamed resident along the busy highway near the Aurora-Denver border called 911 because of the ski mask and because the youth was “waving his arms.”

He was being Elijah. He was being different. But “different” doesn’t go over too well in a suburb like Aurora, a place that, according to a deeply reported piece by Yahoo’s Alexander Nazaryan, bills itself as “the Safest Large City in Colorado.” That’s partly a dig at Denver next door, but also to erase the memory that in 2012, a white madman with crazy red hair walked into the multiplex showing the new Batman flick and fatally gunned down 12 people. The Aurora police calmly arrested James Holmes — who’d had a shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle, and a Glock — in the parking lot without incident that night.

Elijah McClain, the unarmed Black violinist, would not be so lucky.

The 911 caller who described him as “sketchy” added: “He might be a good person or a bad person.” But the three officers who showed up — Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt, and Randy Roedema — never stopped assuming that McClain was “a bad person.” McClain, for his part, could not control his introvert’s unrelenting panic over the encounter, telling the officers, “I have a right to go where I am going,” and struggling to contain himself as the officers sought to search and then restrain him. “Please respect my boundaries,” he insisted.

The situation had no direction to go but south. The three cops and their “bad person” bias saw panic and resistance, and a shopping bag with iced tea as a potential weapon. Or so they say. None of McClain’s plaintive cries for mercy, nor the fact that he was indeed unarmed, seemed to register at all with three men who were morally deaf, who applied a chokehold called a carotid hold that restricts blood to the brain and can render its subject unconscious and then watched responders inject McClain with a dose of the tranquilizer ketamine that was too much for his tiny body. The 23-year-old was already unresponsive when he was loaded in the ambulance, although he wouldn’t be pronounced dead until hours later.

In the 1960s, trying to make sense of a seemingly bland Nazi bureaucrat standing trial for his role in murdering Jews in the Holocaust, the writer Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” She was trying to describe how an ingrained system, devoid of empathy or compassion, entices thoughtless “joiners” to sign up for its amorality. Such ugly conformity is the exact opposite of the beautiful way that Elijah McClain lived, celebrating his “difference.” In American policing, the George Floyd protests have been an overdue wake-up call to the banal evil of this system that caused Woodyard, Rosenblatt, and Roedema to almost robotically choke the life out of a vibrant human being.

Everything that’s happened from the second McClain’s limp body was placed in that ambulance — the fact that all three officers’ body cameras were somehow “dislodged” during the encounter and failed to record key evidence, the cops’ bizarre claim that this 140-pound man who happened to be Black had superhuman strength, or that the panicked introvert had reached for their gun, the medical examiner who somehow concluded that the case of a man who was healthy before his fatal meeting with Woodyard, Rosenblatt, and Roedema was somehow “inconclusive” and not a homicide, the elected DA who declined to charge them, and the “outside investigator” who routinely testifies on behalf of cops — is all so damn banal and numbingly predictable that I want to scream.

The Aurora Police Department is both emblematic of the inherent racism in America’s criminal justice system and yet also much worse — overwhelmingly white (only 4% of its 700 officers are Black) in an increasingly diverse suburb, more reflecting Colorado’s history as a bastion for the KKK and other hate groups than either the new stereotype of the state as a refuge for liberal potheads or the reality of a vibrantly diverse metropolitan Denver.

» READ MORE: No end in sight, can George Floyd protests become a peaceful American revolution? | Will Bunch

That may sound harsh, but I’m not sure how else to explain a department that felt so unthreatened by the white mass murderer James Holmes, yet also where over the last five years, its officers — as chronicled by Yahoo’s Nazaryanviolently arrested a 60-year-old disabled Black man in the dead of night, made a Black man leave a coffee shop where he was merely trying to eat a muffin, beat up a Latino man working on a car in his garage after a “loud noise” complaint, and tried to fire a lieutenant caught on his body cam calling the crowd who’d gathered at a police shooting “Alabama porch monkeys.” That lieutenant was reinstated by an arbitrator. So familiar. So banal. So evil.

The Aurora Police Department is so comfortable in its skin of racist white supremacy that it feels no pressure to clean up its act now that the national media is paying attention. When the George Floyd uprising brought renewed focus on the McClain case and the lack of charges, a June 27 protest at the township building brought out a spirited but peaceful crowd, including musicians who played their violins in Elijah’s memory. Their soothing music attracted Aurora cops in full riot gear, who busted up the gathering and even turned pepper spray on demonstrators and the stunned violinists.

This weekend brought a fresh outrage when it was revealed that three different Aurora officers, smiling and laughing, were fired after taking a picture reenacting the fatal chokehold not far from where McClain was killed. I know I should be shocked, saddened, angered, whatever ... but the fundamental inhumanity of the Aurora police has already been established, and my outrage dial is already turned up to 11. The photo is less of a shock than simply more confirmation.

Look, I support any and all police reforms, and this journey of 1,000 miles to end American policing as we know it needs to start with the baby steps. You want a law to ban chokeholds (Aurora ostensibly enacted such a rule after McClain died)? That’s great. Training around implicit bias? I guess it couldn’t hurt. But does anyone honestly believe that a lukewarm new law or two and a couple of days of training can break through an entrenched culture of white supremacy? It can’t. The only real reform that makes any sense is to end the Aurora Police Department as we know it, fire its other 697 officers, and replace them not just with a new system, but with new people, so that conditioned white supremacists like Woodyard, Rosenblatt, and Roedema aren’t responding every time a privileged white suburbanite dials 911.

In the meantime, I want to see Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt, and Randy Roedema arrested, tried for murder, convicted, and forced to spend life sentences in a tiny cell, with the violin music of Elijah McClain piped in all day, to ensure that every agonizing minute of their remaining time on Earth is spent in contemplation of the time they stole from such a beautiful — and different — soul.

Then I want a peaceful civic army of bulldozers to pulverize every atom of the Aurora Police Department, and a lush green park to rise in its place — with vegetable gardens and a big lawn for rescued dogs to frolic, and a tuition-free art college and a gazebo where violinists will play day and night. And if you think my vision is hopelessly naive, it’s because I’m doing everything I can to keep my journalist-emotion valve from completely washing away in this flood, so I don’t write what flows in the darker hours.

» READ MORE: SIGN UP: The Will Bunch Newsletter