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Elijah McClain Killed by Police After Wearing Ski Mask Due to His Health Condition

Update: On Thursday, Colorado Governor Jared Polis announced he appointed Attorney General Phil Weiser as special prosecutor to re-investigate Elijah McClain’s murder by Aurora, Colorado, police. “Elijah McClain should be alive today, and we owe it to his family to take this step and elevate the pursuit of justice in his name to a statewide concern,” Polis said in a statement.

Elijah McClain, a Black 23-year-old massage therapist, was walking home from a gas station on Aug. 24, 2019. Officers had received a 911 call that someone “suspicious” wearing a ski mask was waving their arms to music. When police arrived and saw McClain, they eventually put McClain in a 15-minute choke hold. McClain died in the hospital three days later.

According to Chaos + Comrades, McClain was wearing a ski mask because he was anemic and protecting himself from the cold. Black people, men especially, have spoken out about the dangers of wearing any mask as a Black person because it puts them at risk of being labelled “suspicious,” increasing the likelihood of a deadly confrontation with police.

“The first assumption wasn’t these are people protecting themselves and others around them from the virus, it was the assumption of stealing or some ill will,” Vickie Mays, a professor of health policy and management at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, told STAT. “There is a quick judgment of what Black men are ‘up to.’”

The police killed more than 1,000 people in the United States in 2019, 23% of whom were Black. Black people with health condition are especially at risk. According to a Ruderman Family Foundation study, up to 50% of those killed by police have a disability or mental illness. In addition to McClain, just a few of the police murders of Black people with health conditions or a disability include:

  • Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail after being arrested for a lane change violation, had epilepsy and depression
  • Eric Garner, who was killed by New York police officers who put him in a choke hold, had asthma, diabetes and a heart condition
  • Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, who had a developmental disability, died after a spinal injury caused by a “rough ride” in a police van
  • Tanisha Anderson, who lived in Ohio, was having a mental health crisis when police restrained her face down outside her home, which killed her
  • George Floyd, murdered by police in Minneapolis, had a heart condition (and tested positive for COVID-19 at the time of his death)

The three Aurora, Colorado, police officers involved in McClain’s murder — identified on social media Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema — reported that McClain resisted “officer contact,” at which point they engaged in a struggle with McClain.

According to Mari Newman, a lawyer for the McClain family, the officers almost immediately used aggressive force, and slammed McClain up against a wall. McClain asked officers to “Please respect my personal space,” but he was tackled to the ground. He was placed in a choke hold for 15 minutes, despite already being restrained, hand-cuffed and vomiting.

“What did they do during that fifteen minutes? They tortured him,” Newman said. “And I don’t use the word ‘torture’ lightly. I wouldn’t say torture unless I mean it, and I do mean it.”

When paramedics arrived, they gave McClain ketamine — a sedative — though he was already unresponsive. McClain had a heart attack on the way to the hospital where he later ended up in a coma before being taken off life support three days later. Newman said McClain was given a high dose of ketamine, which may have also contributed to his death.

The officers’ body cameras allegedly got jostled out of place during the struggle, so much of the video footage of their actions against McClain is lost. However, the audio from the cameras, which has not been publicly released, is clearly audible. McClain can be heard saying, “I can’t breathe,” while an officer can be heard telling his colleague to move his camera.

McClain’s case has also garnered renewed calls for justice. McClain’s sister, Naomi, posted a TikTok about her brother’s death, bringing the case to the public’s attention in the wake of renewed Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

All three officers involved in McClain’s murder were cleared without repercussions by the police board in February. Naomi shared on social media that the officers were transferred to the Denver police force after McClain’s case received renewed national attention. A spokesperson for the Denver Police Department, however, told The Mighty the officers have not been transferred to Denver.

The Aurora Police Department told the Colorado Sentinel that all three officers perform their normal duties “in the northeast corner of the city.” The coroner has yet to release an official cause of death in McClain’s murder, and now his family is planning to file a civil rights lawsuit.

A Change.org petition for #JusticeforElijahMcClain has amassed more than 2 million signatures, demanding the police officers involved in his murder are removed from the force. In addition, the petition calls for a new, in-depth investigation into McClain’s death.

Advocates also honored McClain’s life, who Newman said was “a kind, loving person who made friends everywhere he went.”

“He was a person who, immediately before this whole event, was in a convenience store making friends with strangers,” Newman added. “You see the video from the surveillance in the convenience store with him joking around and making friends, because that’s what he did, and that’s who he was.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the three officers involved in McClain’s murder were transferred to the Denver Police Department.

Header image via Naomi McClain/TikTok