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Elijah McClain's Community Marks Anniversary Of His Death With Music, Dancing

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Matt Bloom / KUNC
Candace Bailey (right) helped organize the community event in Denver held on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Elijah McClain's death.

Candice Bailey just wanted her community to breathe.

The activist took a sip of water and looked out at more than 100 people who had gathered on the football field at the Montbello Recreation Center in Denver Sunday night. They came to dance, listen to music and mark one year since Elijah McClain’s fatal interaction with Aurora police.

“We haven’t had healing space and today we do,” said Bailey, who helped organize the event. “Today we will heal.”

On Aug. 24, 2019, three police officers from the Aurora Police Department stopped McClain while responding to a call about a “sketchy” person wearing a ski mask. Officers subdued the 23-year-old Black man by putting him into a carotid chokehold.

During the struggle, a medic then injected McClain with the sedative ketamine. In the ambulance, he went into cardiac arrest. Three days later, he was pronounced brain dead.

In the year since, McClain’s story has come under national scrutiny as public outrage over the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers ignited weeks of protests.

The increased attention on McClain’s case has spurred action at several levels of government. This summer, the FBI confirmed they were investigating McClain’s death. Gov. Jared Polis also launched a state-level criminal investigation. The Aurora City Council followed suit with a local review of its policing policies. All are still ongoing.

None were mentioned at Sunday night’s event, which organizers called “Gathering for Gratitude.” It featured performances from violinists from around the country.

McClain played the violin when he was alive. Photos and videos of him making music have since gone viral online, drawing even more attention to his case.

Attendees also danced the Cupid Shuffle and the Wobble. Some drove from as far away from Louisville, Kentucky to take part in the community event.

Apryl Alexander, a Denver professor and local Black Lives Matter organizer, stood nearby and watched. She said the most important thing to her is holding Aurora police officers accountable for McClains’ death.

“At this point I just hope we get justice,” Alexander said. “Justice for his family. Justice for his community. Not just his case, but so many more that are happening throughout this country.”

Across the football field, Tara De La Fuente helped her daughter, Ashley Marie, sell homemade t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Cats not Cops.” The 8-year-old came up with the charity project during recent protests in Denver

“I hope there’s no more violence,” she said.

“That’s right,” her mom echoed.

Elijah McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, attended Sunday’s event, but did not speak to reporters or the crowd. She’s pledged to a “media blackout” until the three officers involved in her son are charged with murder.

Near the end of the night, an emcee grabbed the microphone and told the crowd to surround her. Many lifted their cellphones, flashlights on, and cheered.

“We love you and we’re going to be right there by you,” someone yelled.

Music played as the sun went down.

Organizer Candice Bailey said it felt great to be together with her community and feel something positive after an “ugly” year.

“We have a lot of work to do, but it starts with ourselves,” she said. “Gratitude is a great place to start. Stick with it. Stay with us. Be happy. Love each other.”

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