A day of events to honor a man killed after a violent encounter with Aurora police ended with music and a police barricade Saturday night. Officers in riot gear marched shoulder to shoulder to push protesters and musicians out of a park in Aurora's Municipal Center.
They launched tear gas and pepper spray as they cleared demonstrators away from police headquarters. All the while, protesters screamed a warning that children were present.
It was a strange mix of sounds — joyful music from the violins, cellos and other instruments, protesters chanting at police who in turned shouted orders through a bull horn to vacate the park. Police threatened arrests and more tear gas if people didn't get off the lawn and into the parking lot. Musicians continued to play as people edged tensely off the lawn.
Aurora Police tweeted warnings in the afternoon that some protesters had knocked down barriers and removed plywood protecting windows on city buildings. They also tweeted "Please remain peaceful, and do not hijack the messages being heard today." Shortly after 8, they tweeted that some protesters had thrown rocks and bottles at the police. By 8:30 they said rock-throwing had continued and ordered people to disperse.
Meanwhile, Grammy-nominated Ashanti Floyd, who flew in from Atlanta, played uninterrupted to thousands of people in a separate vigil about a quarter-mile west. He was joined by another renowned violinist, Lee England, Jr. who is from New York.
Floyd invited people to bring their violins and other bowed instruments to honor McClain, 23, who used to play his violin at an animal shelter. Dozens of people showed up and played together.
"When I saw Elijah McClain I saw myself," Floyd, who is Black, wrote in his Facebook post announcing the vigil. The video of the police encounter "was the most terrifying thing I have seen in my life."
England said he felt moved to do his part after he learned of McClain's death.
"We want justice for #ELIJAHMCCLAIN and the countless other black people murdered by the soul-less police officers," England posted on Facebook.
Floyd and England, who wore shirts that read "Elijah McClain Matters," ended their set with a version of the song "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World."
The day of protest began when thousands gathered at the Aurora Municipal Center at 1 p.m. to hear from family members and activists who demanded that police who were involved in the death of McClain be fired and face criminal charges.
They marched onto I-225, where police had blocked traffic in advance. Activists spoke through a bullhorn and then the group returned to the municipal grounds where a rally organized by youth activists had begun. Some protesters on the highway urged others to join the youth rally to "hear from our future" as one person said.
Keisha Mosley, McClain’s cousin, told the crowd it’s a blessing and also overwhelming to have the support.
“At the end of the day, Elijah is not here anymore and as I have said before, I have Black sons and so it’s necessary. We need to be out here. They have got to be stopped," Mosley said.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation organized the first rally of the day in front of the Aurora Police Department. The group is calling for the officers and first responders involved in McClain's case to be fired and to face criminal charges and they want restitution for McClain's family.
Eliza Lucero, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation noted that just a few people began pushing for justice after McClain's death last year. But now the case has international attention, with celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres calling for officers to be held accountable. Nearly 4 million people have signed a petition on Change.org for further investigation into the incident.
"There was a small group of activists that tried to press to get the cops off the streets, to get murder charges put on them however there wasn't enough public attention brought to it to make real change," Lucero said. "In the current state of police brutality being on the forefront of many Americans' minds, what better time to bring back up Elijah McClain and the atrocity of his murder by the Aurora Police Department."
The three officers involved were not criminally charged. According to reports the Aurora Police Department reassigned the officers in the last two weeks to non-enforcement roles. According to 9News, the change was "in an effort to protect those officers."
At the rally, dozens of officers stood shoulder to shoulder in black riot gear to block off the police station, but Interim Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson released a statement Saturday, saying the demonstrators' voices deserve to be heard.
"We not only recognize a person’s right to freedom of speech and expression; we support and protect their right to do so in a peaceful manner," Wilson wrote.
While McClain's death did not result in charges at the time, it has gained renewed attention in recent weeks as part of the ongoing protests over police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis in May. On Thursday Gov. Jared Polis named a special prosecutor to investigate the case.
McClain was apprehended by Aurora police as he was walking from a convenience store. Someone called 9-1-1 to report a man acting suspiciously, though they said he did not appear dangerous. McClain was wearing a ski mask and dressed warmly on a summer day and waving his hands in the air, apparently to the music he was listening to. Police say the situation escalated because McClain resisted commands and attempted to grab an officer's gun when he was being held down.
McClain told police he didn’t have a gun and that he preferred personal space, according to a tape of the incident. Officers eventually placed McClain in a carotid chokehold, now banned in Colorado. He said he couldn't breathe, briefly passed out and also vomited a couple of times. He can be heard on police tape apologizing for vomiting. Paramedics injected him with ketamine and he went into cardiac arrest while transported to the hospital. He died several days later after he was declared brain dead.
McClain, who was a massage therapist in Greenwood Village, was not suspected of committing any crime.