Thousands of people gathered outside Aurora’s police department and marched through the streets Saturday afternoon to call for justice for Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old who died after an encounter with officers last August.
Protesters marched down Alameda Avenue and then onto Interstate 225 after police donned riot gear during the rally.
Both directions of the highway were shut down around 3 p.m. and marchers were heading north, according to a tweet from Aurora police. The initial highway closure was between 6th and Mississippi avenues, CDOT said.
Prior to the march, the afternoon rally appeared to splinter into multiple groups, with different people giving speeches at the same time. One featured McClain’s mother, Denver School Board member Tay Anderson and Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod.
Naomi McClain, Elijah’s sister, stood under a tree listening to speakers. She said it was
good to see so many people out to remember Elijah. “I’m here for my brother. He was special. He was gentle. He walked away from arguments,” she said. Her hope is that those responsible for his death are arrested.
Yasmeen Hernandez, 27, said it was “pretty alarming” to see cops don riot gear. She added that it was disappointing to see two separate rallies chanting over each other. McClain’s family member tried to say a poem but it was drowned out by other nearby group.
Just before 4 p.m. Aurora police tweeted that there had been no reported injuries or arrests and thanked the demonstrators for remaining peaceful.
Chants of “Say his name, Elijah McClain” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” emanated from the crowd.
“Only way anything will happen for Elijah and his family is if we stay out here!” one unidentified speaker told a cheering crowd during the rally.
One of the protester said he came out to show support and make sure the fervor continues before the rally.
“This shouldn’t be a moment,” Franklin Williams, 25, said. “This should be a movement.”
Before the protest began, Aurora police issued a statement in support of peaceful protest and warned of “outsiders” whose goal, police say, is to be destructive. Both the nearby library and City Hall were boarded up before the gathering.
The day of demonstrations, organized by the Denver chapter of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, began with a 1 p.m. rally and march. A 4 p.m. youth-led protest at the Municipal Center and an 8:30 p.m. violin vigil at Aurora City Center Park were to follow.
McClain’s death prompted a handful of small protests over the past 10 months but he has recently become known across the country in the wake of massive protests following the death of George Floyd.
The renewed attention and relentless activism prompted Gov. Jared Polis this week to appoint Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser as a special prosecutor to investigate McClain’s death, and, potentially, file charges.
Dave Young, the 17th Judicial District Attorney, declined to bring charges against the three officers involved in McClain’s encounter, which was prompted by a call for a suspicious person. Young defended his decision this week, saying, “Ultimately, while I may share the vast public opinion that Elijah McClain’s death could have been avoided, it is not my role to file criminal charges based on opinion, but, rather, on the evidence revealed from the investigation and applicable Colorado law.”
The three officers — Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema — were taken off street duty this month for their own safety, an Aurora spokesperson confirmed.
As celebrities have tweeted their outrage about her son’s death and national media outlets report on his story, Sheneen McClain wonders what took so long.
Protest organizers have already expressed concern at the police response to Saturday’s events, accusing the department of trying to intimidate protesters.
“The Aurora Police Department has responded by circulating rumors of a ‘violent threat’ in order to intimidate organizers and attendees and to justify mobilizing a militarized police response to crack down on protesters,” the Party for Socialism and Liberation said in a statement posted to Facebook. “APD has zeroed in particularly on the student protest leaders; perhaps the cops believe that, because of their youth, these organizers can be most easily intimidated. APD tracked down the identities of the student organizers, found their parents’ phone numbers, and called them to insinuate that they would be personally liable if injury or damage is caused at the protests.”
Faith Goodrich, an Aurora police spokeswoman, said in an email that police “reached out to one student protestor and voiced concerns that the protest scheduled before theirs may become unfriendly and spill over into their event. APD did not communicate to them that they would be held liable for damage or injuries.”