Justice for Elijah McClain was hard won, not handed down

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Say their names; public art in Shaw, D.C. Image: Geoff Livingston/Flickr

"I can't breathe. I can't breathe please. I can't breathe, please." These words were recorded by the body cameras of Aurora, Colorado police as they assaulted a slight, 23-year-old African American man who was on the short walk home from his corner store after buying iced tea. It was 10:43 p.m. on August 24th, 2019. Aurora dispatchers had received a 911 call "describing a suspicious black male wearing a ski mask, 'acting weird.'" An officer approached McClain, saying, "Stop, I have a right to stop you since you're being suspicious." Within ten seconds officers tackle him to the ground. "My name is Elijah McClain…I'm an introvert and I'm different. [Sobbing] I'm just different, that's all."

Elijah continued, "Why were you attacking me? I don't do guns. I don't even kill flies. I don't eat meat...I am a vegetarian. I don't judge people for anything…I respect all life."

The violent arrest continued, with two successive carotid choke holds and an "armbar hammerlock" that caused pain and injury to Elijah's shoulder. Emergency Medical Technicians arrived and, after misdiagnosing McClain with "excited delirium," injected him with a massive overdose of the sedative Ketamine. "I can't sense myself. Ow! Ah! Ow! Stop please!…I'm trying... Please help me." Those words were the last ever uttered by Elijah McClain.

Within 18 minutes of being targeted and tackled by police, Elijah McClain, the young massage therapist and talented violinist, handcuffed and brutalized, aspirating his own vomit, suffered a cardiac arrest. After a delayed resuscitation that left him brain dead, McClain spent several days in the hospital, unconscious, on life support. He died on August 30th.

Just over two years later, long after officials in Aurora pronounced no wrongdoing by the police and paramedics, a grand jury convened by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser handed down a 32-count indictment. Three police officers, Randy Roedema, Nathan Woodyard and Jason Rosenblatt, and two paramedics, Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec, were charged Wednesday with manslaughter, negligent homicide, and related assaults. Rosenblatt was fired last year for replying "ha ha" to a photo of other Aurora officers mockingly reenacting the choke hold used on McClain; the other four were suspended without pay after the charges were announced.

"I'm thankful, I'm grateful that they saw what I saw," Sheneen McClain, Elijah's mother, told a Denver reporter. "He never should've been stopped, he never should've been brutalized, he never should've been handcuffed, and he never should have been given Ketamine."

The police killing of Elijah McClain gained national attention during the mass protests that erupted after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police on Memorial Day, 2020, nine months after Elijah's death. Mass marches shut down highways in Aurora, where protesters were rammed by a car and shot at. In one of the most moving images to emerge from the global protests during the summer of 2020, a violin vigil was held outside the Aurora Municipal Center, honoring Elijah McClain's memory with classical music. Elijah loved music, and played violin for stray cats at a local animal shelter. Aurora riot police attacked the vigil.

The McClain family's commitment to justice for Elijah, propelled by the sustained, mass protests, created the environment that led Colorado Governor Jared Polis to issue an executive order empowering the state Attorney General to investigate. Wednesday's indictment was the result.

Over the past two legislative sessions, State Representative Leslie Herod pushed three sweeping police accountability bills, which Gov. Polis signed into law.

"It was Sheneen's voice and her work that led to Colorado passing the largest and most impactful police accountability laws in the country," Herod said on the Democracy Now! news hour. These laws, Herod said, "called ketamine a use of force by law enforcement, ensure that we can have Special Investigations when someone dies at the hands of or at the direction of law enforcement. We banned chokeholds, and we ended qualified immunity."

Leslie Herod explained how she learned of Elijah's death, during a protest in June, 2020 that followed George Floyd's murder:

"This small, quiet woman stepped up from the crowds. I handed her the megaphone. She said, 'Why are you here for someone who died states away, but when I called you for support for my son, no one showed up?' The crowd turned to me and the emcee asked, 'Do you want us to take the microphone back?' And I said, 'No, I want to have this conversation.' I asked who her son was, and she said Elijah McClain. I knew right then that her voice needed to be centered in this conversation…So from that moment on, we worked lockstep to pass police accountability."

It's not just that movements make a difference. They make all the difference.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!

Image: Geoff Livingston/Flickr

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.