Policing in the US: Imagining a Better Future for Elijah McClain

Welcome to the second part of our blog series on policing in the US, and our dreams for what community safety can look like.

In Memory of Elijah McClain

Twenty-three-year-old Elijah McClain, a Black massage therapist from Aurora, CO, was killed in August 2019 after being arrested by cops who used excessive force and drugs to restrain him. The officers’ aggression, despite McClain’s lack of a weapon and lack of doing anything illegal, speaks to a larger issue of violence, anger, and perhaps even sadistic patterns in police departments across the country.

Officers were responding to a call about a “suspicious person” wearing a mask and showed up with the clear intention not to listen or investigate, but harm and arrest. It’s hard to imagine that the caller would have had the same fear or complaints about someone who wasn’t a Black man. And it’s hard to imagine the police would have responded the same way to someone else. There was no need for aggression or escalation — in fact, on bodycam footage, McClain is heard begging with officers to stop, saying that he will do what they want, and clearly unable to handle their physical mistreatment of him. During the arrest, in which officers placed a carotid control hold (or chokehold) on McClain, emergency medical personnel arrived with a “therapeutic” dose of ketamine to calm McClain down. That excessive dose of ketamine, far too much for McClain’s body, likely caused the heart attack that led to irreversible brain damage and eventually, his death.

Gentleness, Aggression, and Why It Matters

The media’s coverage of McClain as a peaceful and gentle person makes the situation even more heartbreaking. He was an anemic introvert, often wearing lots of layers even in summer to stay warm. The face mask he wore on the night of his arrest was likely used to help with warmth and social anxiety. Elijah McClain was listening to music, something he loved a lot — he would often visit an animal shelter during his lunch breaks and play violin for the animals there.

But certainly, no person should be treated as McClain was — whether they play music for shelter animals or are introverts, or if they’re far off from that. The issue is not that McClain was treated inhumanely for someone so sweet and gentle… the issue is that police treat people inhumanely.

The culture we are living in — that allows police officers to use excessive force on unarmed individuals, to respond to questionable calls with the intent of arrest, to use carotid control holds, to arrest first and ask questions later, and to feel indifferent towards or gleeful about injuring and murdering individuals they are charged with protecting and serving — that culture is what must be changed.

Cover Up and Authority’s Responses

Last month, Colorado governor Jared Polis demanded that the state attorney general investigate McClain’s death — an unprecedented move, according to the Colorado Sun. But what took so long? Some news outlets are reporting that McClain’s family is accusing the police department of a cover-up, and in any case, the length of time between his death and the current outrage about it should be explained and accounted for. There were some actions taken to fight for justice for McClain before George Floyd’s death, but that Memorial Day killing and all the protests and outrage that followed elevated McClain’s case into public consciousness.

Imagining a Better Future

Imagine a future where police officers have open minds when responding to calls, take the time to investigate whether a person is truly dangerous or whether the call has been made in error, and explain and stick to their intentions to keep the community safe and peaceful. Imagine a future where there could have been conversation and perhaps raised awareness in those responding officers about racist profiling among citizens, revealed by the person who called them in the first place. Imagine officers trained in de-escalation who maintain peace and reduce anxiety instead of using aggression and dehumanizing, violent tactics to “solve” an issue.

None of these things are the present — but they can be the future. For more info about how to get involved, check out Campaign Zero, whose dream is to end police violence in America.

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