Elijah McClain was a 23-year-old African-American who died after a brutal encounter with Colorado police in August 2019; the reason behind the officers’ violent behaviour is still unknown. He was just walking down the street when someone called 911 claiming that he “looked sketchy”. According to police, he was in an “agitated mental state” – we now know he suffered from an anxiety disorder – and after struggling to handcuff him, the police used a carotid hold which restricts blood flow to the brain, with the objective of rendering him unconscious. He was later on injected ketamine by paramedics, a potent sedative. Elijah went into cardiac arrest in the ambulance and died in hospital a few days later.
Elijah was, without a doubt, an amazing man. According to his friends and family, he taught himself to play the guitar and the violin. He even played his instruments to stray cats during his lunch breaks, as he believed it soothed them. People close to Elijah say he was a “spiritual seeker”, a “pacifist” and “exceedingly gentle”. A friend of his described him as a healer, and then said: “now, that healer is missing, no longer here… It’s definitely a void. It’s the worst possible nightmare”. Elijah’s murder was a hard blow for his community.
Although Elijah’s death in the hands of police did not spark too much interest at the time, his case has now taken centre stage thanks to the BLM Movement following George Floyd’s murder. Swathes of protesters flooded the streets all over the world, demanding justice for him and many others who have died as a consequence of police encounters – Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Tamir Rice, to name just a few.
McClain’s case, however, is receiving an enormous amount of support today in comparison to others, and has had a huge impact on many. This is mainly because of the media’s portrayal of him; by highlighting his good qualities, they have helped to increase empathy felt for Elijah and his family, causing feelings of despair and anger at police misconduct to be multiplied. Although this may not seem like a problem at first, it may subliminally encourage the idea that he should not have died after an encounter with police purely because he was a good man. This naive way of approaching his case and creating empathy may, in fact, be extremely harmful to the BLM movement as a whole.
By saying that Elijah’s murder is unfair because he was such a nice person, or that he was really young and had his whole wonderful life in front of him, the press is actually undermining the message of the BLM movement. Does it really matter that he was a great person when it comes to police abuse? Does anyone, whatever their qualities, deserve to die and be abused unfairly in the hands of the police? In fact, George Floyd did have a criminal record (mainly theft cases). The day he was murdered, he was arrested when a grocery store employee called 911, believing the $20 bill Floyd tried to use to pay at the store was fake. His encounter with police was brutal and, after a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, this encounter became deadly. His last words were “I can’t breathe”. Is police brutality ever justifiable, even if someone has effectively broken the law?
Not surprisingly, some of Elijah McClain’s last words were also “I can’t breathe correctly”. Floyd and McClain’s last words now sound all too familiar to us, and it helps us to demonstrate a pattern. It is precisely on that pattern that attention should be focused. Both Floyd and McClain were Black people, who were detained by police who acted violently upon them, and they both died as a consequence of police officers’ actions.
Only recently, in June 2020, has effective action been taken in connection to Elijah McClain’s murderers. However, they have been merely reassigned to working in a non-enforcement capacity, reportedly in an attempt to protect them. This is a far cry from the justice that Elijah’s family and friends deserve. This episode is illustrative of how police officers are implicitly allowed to get away with their abusive behaviour. Due to the Qualified Immunity law, these officers have their impunity practically guaranteed.
Now that names like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile and Elijah McClain have become household, it is important to remember the pattern. All of the victims of police’s rampaging behaviour and their families deserve justice and respect, and all of their cases are devastating. Elijah McClain was incredibly kind and sweet, and the sole fact of being Black got him killed. Instead of thinking that his death is extremely sad because he was such a nice person, we should be looking at how no amount of kindness or respectability can keep a Black person safe from the unfounded wrath and violence of the police.
Words by Valentina Ferraro
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