Tears well up whenever state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet hears Elijah McClain utter his last words. His pleading with police that he was doing nothing wrong, his confusion over their aggression, his labored breathing when they placed him in a chokehold and, finally, his silence as he lost consciousness, all captured on Aurora Police Department body cameras in August 2019.
“I do consider this a murder,” she told CPR’s Colorado Matters. “Absolutely.”
Michaelson Jenet represents the House district where McClain lived and died. Almost a year after the incident, no charges have been filed. Michaelson Jenet vehemently disagrees with the district attorney’s decision not to prosecute the officers involved.
The case has stirred national outrage against police brutality and racial profiling. Over the last three weeks, Michaelson Jenet has received a deluge of emails, more than 83,000, that demand justice for McClain and the firing of the officers involved in restraining him.
“It’s this incredible eyes wide open moment, this outcrying for help, this outcrying for an end to police brutality,” she said, “It is breathtaking to see so many people taking their time to reach out.”
The emails pour in every 10 to 15 seconds from all over the world. Many are form letters, the main message cut and pasted.
They demand that the police officers and Aurora Fire Department medics involved be fired immediately and charged with murder.
They call for the district attorney, Dave Young, to resign and demand an apology from the City of Aurora.
But some emails, particularly those written by constituents in Aurora, are personalized. Writers might describe the neighborhood where they live or the businesses they own, but it is McClain’s death, in their hometown, at the hands of their police department, that has energized them to write.
Susan wrote to lament the “loss of a better and gentle soul.”
Lena wrote that a friend joined the Aurora Police Department a few years ago.
“I was so happy for them,” she wrote. “I understand that there are good individuals in APD, but unfortunately the entire system has made it difficult for cops who make grave mistakes to face punishment.”
Sarah simply demanded justice.
“Justice needs to be served,” she wrote. “Justice for his life. Justice for his family. Justice for his wrongful death that has been swept underneath the rug for a year. This is enough. This is unacceptable and action is needed.”
While none of the email demands have been met, there has been some action. After vocal protests in June, Gov. Jared Polis appointed state Attorney General Phil Weiser to reinvestigate the case, and the U.S. Justice Department revealed a federal civil rights probe is underway. Aurora has also recently announced it will launch its own independent investigation.
Community outrage over McClain's death has only grown, especially when rumors started to swirl that Aurora Police Department officers had posed for a photo mocking McClain’s death.
The rumors were proven true.
Aurora’s interim police chief Vanessa Wilson fired two officers over their participation in the selfie photo and a third for texting a laugh in response to it.
Officers Erica Marrero and Kyle Dittrich were terminated for posing in the photo. Their lawyer on Monday told CBS4 they will appeal their firing.
Officer Jason Rosenblatt, who was one of the officers involved in the encounter with McClain, was fired for texting “HaHa” when he was sent the image. Officer Jaron Jones, who posed in the photo, resigned before he could be disciplined.
Michaelson Jenet called the firings “warranted and called for.”
As a state lawmaker, Michaelson Jenet has no legislative power to compel the actions insisted upon in the emails. That authority lies with the Aurora City Council, DA Young and the attorney general.
Still, that has not stopped Michaelson Jenet from poring over the trove of emails. To her, she has a civic duty to act on them as a citizen.
Eleven interns, mostly high school and college students, have volunteered to help sort, collate and respond to as many messages as they can.
They describe the work as their mission.
“When I read all these emails and receive all these voicemails,” said Loveleen Kaur, a 16-year-old intern who attends Standley Lake High School in Arvada, “it pushes me further to drive more for justice, to do more, even no matter what it is, no matter what I can do. And as a person of color, it brings me a lot of hope.”
But the task is daunting. Thousands of emails arrive each day, and most deviate from standard spelling or punctuation, which slows their processing.
Michaelson Jenet believes writers employ this type of coding because they worry their messages will be automatically filtered into spam or suspicious mail folders.
She wants writers to understand that she is not filtering out any messages.
“I don't believe this outpouring will stop until there is an acceptable answer,” she said. “I think this outpouring is bigger than Elijah. We look at Elijah and we see this beautiful soul, a young man named after a prophet. If we had to lose him, who won't we lose?”
She said legislators on Capitol Hill have heard protestors’ calls to end police brutality, and the sentiment is reflected in SB20-217, known as Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity, which was passed and signed by the governor in June.
“The reforms that were in that bill had been worked on for five, six, some 10 years,” she said. “There wasn't an appetite to address them [before the protests]. The community has come together and stood up and said, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Michaelson Jenet is heartbroken and angry that the color of McClain’s skin offered him no protection from police, but expressed satisfaction that the new law will prohibit chokeholds, among other reforms, when it takes effect in July 2023.
She said McClain’s death makes her think of her son, who is on the autism spectrum.
“My own son is different,” she said. “I often wonder if he were in a similar situation, would he have a similar end? The difference between Elijah and my son is, my son was born white.”
Michaelson Jenet hesitates to compare her son to McClain, but she said her son might be dead at the hands of police if not for white privilege.
“He attempted suicide at school when he was just nine years old,” she said. “I picked him up from the school at the time, and he was sitting with two Denver police officers. They were sitting there chatting, joking and laughing. It occurs to me, had my son not been white, that interaction may not have been as it was.”
She said her son, who is now a young adult, is less likely to keep his cool or know how to interact with police officers, even though he has been taught how.
“I don't know that I could train him to say the right words,” she said. “His skin color alone is what would potentially protect him from an outcome similar to Elijah's, and that's not OK.”