Elijah McClain should be listening to music right now. He should be leaving his job as a massage therapist and on his way to play his violin for kittens in hopes of soothing them. He should be bundled up in his coat and open-face ski mask because winter is coming, and the cold air and his anemia would be giving him the chills.
That’s all three Aurora, Colorado, police officers had the day they encountered the 23-year-old.
On Aug. 24, 2019, McClain was leaving a convenience store when someone called police to note that the unarmed young man looked “sketchy.” Didn’t matter that McClain was at the store getting tea for his cousin, whom he lived with. Or that he was dancing to the music in his headphones before three Aurora officers stopped him, pouncing on his back and using a chokehold that is now banned. They tortured McClain. For 15 minutes. They kept him restrained. McClain vomited several times, but he was such a kind soul that he apologized to the officers for doing it.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to do that,” he said. “I can’t breathe correctly.”
The police never let up. They kept him cuffed. Despite McClain’s crying. They choked him to the point he passed out, with one officer saying in body camera footage that he “put him out” at least twice. They threatened him with their dogs and eventually called paramedics, who shot up the 5-foot-6-inch, 140-pound man with ketamine. His whole body went limp.
A peaceful death should be awarded to those kinder than the rest of us, but McClain didn’t get the death he’d earned. He went into cardiac arrest on his way to the hospital and was in a coma for four days after the beating, until finally his spirit was set free. A recently released amended autopsy found that McClain died as a result of being given the powerful sedative after being forcibly restrained.
That’s all it took for officers to hold McClain down until a paramedic injected him with ketamine. The autopsy found that the dosage of ketamine given to McClain was too high for someone his size. Despite this, McClain’s cause of death is still listed as undetermined. It doesn’t matter now, because McClain shouldn’t be dead. He should be home with his cousin, or on his way to work vibing to whatever music makes the time pass. He should be teaching himself a new instrument (he’d taught himself guitar and violin). He should be here.
Because Elijah McClain was different. Somehow it seems like he’d found the peace that many of us look for. He was content in being himself. He led with love. He was quiet and introverted but left a positive impression on all he met. He loved animals.
“He was so peaceful, you couldn’t stay mad at him. He was just an angel, an earthly angel. He would do anything to help out anybody and he would do anything to better his life. He was constantly trying to learn and grow his knowledge. He was inspired by everything and that inspired me,” James Vigil, a massage therapist who worked with McClain for three years, told The Guardian.
McClain wouldn’t harm a fly, and that’s not hyperbole, Vigil noted: “He trapped it in the cup real quick and he released it outside. He came back in and said, ‘You know, every life matters.’”
And McClain’s death haunts me now just as much as it did then. Somehow McClain had found a way to become the man I was embarrassed to be. I was an all-too-sensitive Black boy. I was teased mercilessly for feeling deeply. My sisters never let me live down that I once cried during “Muppets Take Manhattan” (a movie that I would still argue is way too morose for children, as Kermit loses his memory and forgets who he used to be). Maybe the movie was foreshadowing my life. Maybe I was crying for the kid that would start hiding his love for science and math because learning wasn’t cool in his neighborhood. Neither was the gentleness that comes with loving animals. We could only destroy. We could break things. We could kill. But we could not under any circumstances cry.
I am fascinated by the early days of Mike Tyson. Before he would earn a reputation as and ultimately become the scariest man on the planet, he was a lover of pigeons. When Tyson was 10, some neighborhood kids found out that he’d been caring for a pigeon, and they planned to steal it. The neighborhood bully stole the bird and Tyson chased after him. The boy ripped the head off the bird and threw the body at Tyson, who lost it. In that moment he began punching from an empathetic place of deep caring. In short, Tyson won. He wouldn’t lose many fights after that. The takeaway of this well-told story has always been about the birth of the heavyweight boxer, but for me it’s always been about the death of an ornithologist. Because sensitive Black boys are not a rare breed ― they exist in droves ― but the world does its best to beat it out of them.
Whether it’s through the absurdity of masculinity and the borders by which maleness is defined, or on the unforgiving asphalt of grade-school blacktop where the bullying leads to violence, Black boys’ sensitivity goes missing daily.
Which is why McClain’s pure Black boy joy, described by everyone who knew him, is bigger than his physical death. What was killed off that day was also the belief that there is some perfect person who could have stopped his own death by just being something that he wasn’t. By allowing cops to violate his rights. By not wearing a ski mask despite it being used for its intended purpose. This has never been true, of course, as premature death isn’t earned because someone is poor, or sags their jeans, or runs from a police stop, or has a legal firearm, or carries a fake firearm in a legal-carry state, and this kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking is just as dangerous as the calls to the police… because Black people.
That’s it. McClain wasn’t killed because he was dangerous or threatening or violent. He was killed because he was Black, and there is no explanation that will make that make sense.
“Elijah danced to the beat of his own drum. He was a unique human being who brought light and joy everywhere he went, according to everybody who interacted with him,” the civil rights attorney Mari Newman, who is representing McClain’s family, told The Guardian.
She added: “One of his signatures is he would give a gratitude bow when he came into a room and when he left a room, and we can see a couple of videos of that, including the video from the convenience store where he bought the iced tea very shortly before he was killed.”
Everyone who knew McClain notes that he wanted to change the world. McClain’s mother believes that his death is having that impact.
In the coming months, there will be more talk about McClain as the three officers and two paramedics involved in his death have their arraignment hearing in November, more than three years since his death.
What will never leave me for the rest of my life are McClain’s final words to police:
“I’m an introvert. I’m just different, that’s all. I’m so sorry. I don’t have a gun. I don’t do that stuff.
“All I was trying to do was become better. I’ll do it. … You all are phenomenal.”
“You are beautiful. And I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m sorry.”
May we all live as free as Elijah McClain.