Hundreds gather with Elijah McClain’s family to remember him one year after fatal police encounter

Hundreds gathered around Sheneen McClain on Sunday evening as night fell. They told her they loved her. They chanted her son’s name.

“Say his name! Elijah McClain!” the crowd chanted, lovingly surrounding his mom.

For several hours Sunday evening, hundreds gathered outside Denver’s Montbello Recreation Center to remember Elijah McClain as the anniversary of his death neared. Together, hundreds danced the Cupid Shuffle, listened to a violinist and demanded justice for McClain’s family. Families spread out on blankets across a football field and children danced at the base of the platform where a DJ played the Wobble and music from local artists.

Joy mixed with mourning and calls for justice. That was exactly the point, said Candice Bailey, friend of the McClain family and organizer of the event. The event was meant to center on gratitude, music and community.

“We wanted to come together to show each other love,” Bailey said.

Many of those strewn across the lawn came to pay their respects to the McClain family.

“This is a place where you can come to offer respect without having to worry about the possibility of violence,” said Midian Holmes, of Denver. “Tonight is an opportunity to look at each other in a form of peace.”

A small memorial for McClain set up toward the back of the field featured several cardboard signs with pictures of McClain, a few roses on the grass at their base.

“Mourning a rare and beautiful soul,” one sign read. “Rest in paradise.”

The 23-year-old massage therapist never recovered after being choked by Aurora police and injected with the sedative ketamine by paramedics on Aug. 24, 2019. He was taken off of life support in a hospital on Aug. 30 after being declared brain dead.

McClain’s family has been calling for accountability for the police officers and medical responders involved in his death since last August. His name became known across the world during protests of the killing of George Floyd, and increased public pressure has sparked a slew of new investigations into his death and the Aurora Police Department as a whole. His family demands that the officers and paramedics involved in his death be fired and charged. None have been charged and one officer has been fired, though not for how he treated McClain.

“Elijah’s mom has not seen justice,” Holmes said. “Tonight is a night to recognize that, and to recognize that our systems are broken.”

Sheneen McClain didn’t speak at the event, though she did dance for a moment with the crowd.

The gathering at the Montbello Recreation Center replaced a previously planned march that had swelled to an expected attendance of thousands of people. McClain’s family canceled the event when it no longer aligned with how they wanted to mark the day.

Those who came Sunday night said they felt they needed to be present as peaceful proof that people care about McClain and all those killed by law enforcement.

“I’m here because if I don’t come, who will?” sad Sylvia Akol. “I’m here for the generations to come.”

It’s going to take many years for Aurora police to undo the damage they wrought on the community because of how they treated McClain, Carolyn Phillips said. There is no amount of cadet programs or community bike giveaways that can make up for the loss of an innocent life.

Police need to use their common sense more, she said. McClain should’ve never been tackled or choked — he did nothing wrong. People will continue to die at the hands of police until there’s a fundamental shift in how officers think about the community they serve, she said. There will be more names added to an already too-long list, many of which are forgotten over time.

“How many years until we forget this young man?” Phillips said. “Something has to change.”

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