Commentary

McClain protesters face excessive force of the law

Authorities made political prisoners of protest leaders

September 27, 2020 2:29 pm

A temporary mural of Elijah McClain painted on a building in Denver. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Evans)

Community members have long called for criminal charges against the Aurora police officers involved in the August 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, who was walking home from a convenience store when officers confronted him.

But it’s the very people seeking justice for McClain who now face charges.

The message from authorities is that cops will escape meaningful consequences for killing an innocent man while the people who dare protest such a grave injustice will be rounded up and tossed in jail.

Police on Sept. 17 conducted the coordinated arrest of six protest leaders: Lillian House, Joel Northam, Whitney Lucero, Trey Quinn, Terrance Roberts and John Ruch. They all face felony charges related to several incidents in the 17th and 18th judicial districts. House, Northam and Lucero face the most serious, and outrageous, charge — attempt to commit first-degree kidnapping, a class 3 felony. That charge is related to an incident at the District 1 police station in Aurora on July 3, when protesters surrounded the station with officers inside. The action of protesters amounted to an obstreperous sit-in, and leaders stated they had no intention of entering the facility. No officers were injured. But authorities, using the law for retribution, stretched the legal language to characterize protest leaders as would-be kidnappers.

House said she and other protest leaders spent eight days in jail after their arrest. For eight days, the protest leaders were political prisoners.

The demand for justice for McClain goes back to the days after he died, but his case received new scrutiny and national attention as part of the law enforcement reform movement that arose after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. McClain, a massage therapist, was not suspected of any crime at the time of his encounter with police. Officers stopped him because someone had called 911 to report a person who was acting odd. Police said he resisted arrest. Officers applied a carotid control hold, a now-banned form of neck hold that restricts blood to the brain, and firefighters administered a dose of ketamine. McClain died days later in the hospital.

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Protests in Aurora over McClain’s case have been large and sustained. Primary among protesters’ demands was that three officers involved in McClain’s death — Nathan Woodyard, Randy Roedema and Jason Rosenblatt — would at least lose their jobs. Rosenblatt was fired on July 3 — but not because of his interaction with McClain. He was fired because when three fellow officers sent him a picture of themselves reenacting a neck hold at the site of McClain’s arrest he responded with “ha ha.” Woodyard and Roedema remain employed. In November 2019, Dave Young, the attorney for the 17th Judicial District, decided not to bring criminal charges against any of the three officers.

Murder charges for the officers was one of the demands made by protesters on July 3 when they marched on the District 1 station. According to a police affidavit that was filed as part of the arrest of protest leaders, a crowd surrounded the station shortly after 7 p.m. Eighteen officers were inside. The protesters termed the action a “peaceful occupation,” which they threatened to maintain until the “murderers” Woodyard and Roedema were fired. They blockaded exits. Officers said they saw people in the crowd with guns, according to the affidavit, and those inside “felt their lives were at stake.” Police units early the next morning cleared the protesters.

Jukka Pawley, at left playing violin, and others take part in a protest at City Center Park in Aurora on June 27, 2020, in response to the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police. (Photo by John Moore)

A week earlier, in an episode that made national news, Aurora police in riot gear and armed with pepper spray dispersed people attending a memorial at the Aurora Municipal Center, including musicians who were participating in a violin vigil in honor of McClain’s love for the instrument. On July 25, protesters marched onto Interstate 225, where they blocked traffic until the driver of a Jeep accelerated through their path. They had to race to safety on the shoulders, and a woman broke her leg when she leapt from the raised highway in fear.

Last week, George Brauchler, the attorney for the 18th Judicial District, announced that he would not bring charges against the Jeep driver. In fact, Brauchler offered excuses for the driver’s behavior. “I wouldn’t have stopped on that road,” Brauchler said during a news conference. “I don’t know anybody who would have.”

See a pattern?

In nearly every episode of the McClain case the forces of authority overpower the forces for justice, and the imbalance equates to escalating injustice.

Take the case of District 1. Protesters were justly motivated by the senseless killing of a young man and exercised First Amendment rights to make their voice heard. In preventing officers from exiting the police station, they broke laws. But District 1 houses Aurora’s SWAT unit, along with numerous lethal weapons. It was 18 heavily armed and trained police officers up against some rowdy sit-in participants. Who do you suppose was more secure? Compare the officers’ experience to that of McClain. McClain didn’t just fear for his life. He lost it.

Many law enforcement officials themselves acknowledge that institutional bias historically has distorted the application of justice in communities throughout the country. But it’s hard not to suspect that individual bias is at least partly at work in Aurora.

Brauchler has made clear, repeatedly and in public forums, a personal disdain for the law enforcement reform protesters. And Young’s record now is to have relieved from accountability officers who are responsible for the violent death of an innocent young Black man only to bring the excessive force of the law down on members of the community who refuse to shut up about the case. There now exists in the McClain case a pattern of injustice that eventually will lead to a crisis of confidence in law enforcement.

Young and Brauchler are both term-limited, and voters will choose their replacements in November’s election. Among the first tasks that will fall to the new district attorneys will be to inspire faith in the community that justice will be dispensed fairly and equally.

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