'Everything Good About Elijah Is What His Legacy Is Going To Be:' A Conversation with Sheneen McClain
On the night of Aug. 24, 2019, Elijah McClain, a young Black man, was stopped by police while walking home from a convenience store in Aurora.
McClain was not suspected of any crime, but during the encounter, police restrained him with carotid holds, handcuffs and other pain compliance tactics. When paramedics arrived, they injected him with ketamine, a powerful sedative, that caused him to lose consciousness. He never woke up — and died a few days later after being taken off life support.
His story has become part of a national narrative about the dysfunctional relationship between police departments and the communities they are supposed to serve.
On Monday, the city of Aurora released the results of a months-long independent investigation into Elijah McClain’s death. That report found police officers and paramedics acted inappropriately at almost every point of the incident, from the decision to stop him on the street in the first place to how the Major Crime investigation was conducted within the Aurora Police Department.
The report’s findings validate what Elijah McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, has been saying publicly and privately about his death for nearly a year and a half. Ms. McClain joined Colorado Edition to talk about her son, the independent investigation, healing and justice.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Erin O’Toole: Thursday, Feb. 25 would have been Elijah’s 25th birthday. We wanted to give you the space to tell us about your son and what you’re thinking about on this day.
Sheneen McClain: Elijah was just — he was just so intelligent. Having conversations with my son was interesting because it seemed like we were sister and brother sometimes. And then he would always joke that he was like my father.
He would do what he could to make a person feel good. I think that's the reason why he took up massage therapy. He was an artist. The massage therapy was supposed to fund his art school, once he figured out which way he wanted to go with it. But, you know, things happened differently.
He was very intelligent, very intellectual. He was just real understanding of other people, other environments. He didn't like being around negativity — didn't like being around people that argue a lot. He didn't like being around stress or struggle.
He wanted to be free because he was a free spirit. And now he's even freer.
I've seen him described a lot as a very gentle and compassionate soul. He would play violin for shelter animals in his spare time. Are there any special memories of your son that you'd like to share?
Everything was a special memory. I remember whenever I would take him somewhere, like when I was dropping him off at work, he would hop out and he'd walk on his hands. It didn't matter where he was at, he was always doing handstands. He would walk around like that because he said it helped his balance.
He was very health-conscious. He was always looking for healthy reasons to live. He even started pushing some of his ideas off on me, which is the reason why I no longer smoke cigarettes and I no longer eat meat. I hate that I started it after he was killed, but I'm glad that I'm starting it now.
I want to ask about the independent investigation that was commissioned by the city of Aurora. It was released on Monday. What was your reaction to that report? How did you feel when you learned the results?
I cried, but I was relieved. It was hurtful that it took so long for the truth to come out, but I was glad that the truth came out finally, because he never should have been labeled a suspect. My family is happy that it's out. It was really a big relief — now that means we can move forward in some other ways.
Does it give you any sense of closure?
Oh, no, I will never have closure. No matter what happens, I will never have closure.
What does justice for your son look like for you? Is this something that's even possible?
Well, he's already gone. I can't get him back.
But justice for me means everybody that was there, everybody that participated and everybody that did not de-escalate — they need to be fired. There needs to be criminal charges because there is negligence. They have to be able to spend time in jail so that they understand the severity of their crime.
Justice is them being punished for what they did. They took a life. Life in prison would be great. I know that's a long shot with the United States of America — or the Divided States of America — but that's still my hope. That's still what I pray for, honestly, because they tore up my family.
Justice also means having new laws that take out profiling.
I wanted to ask you what role that you think racism played in the way that your son was treated by the police that night.
Honestly, racism was probably the main reason why they stopped him.
We've been fighting over race for so long, so it's hard to get off of it when it's always been there. In my mind, if we could just get to the humanity part of it — if we can just base everything off what human rights are, then we can figure the rest out later.
I wanted to ask about the demonstrations last summer that were taking place all over the country — and certainly here in Colorado — supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. There were some people who began using your son's words and his image for their purpose and their specific cause. At that time, you stated you were very uncomfortable with that. I wondered if you could tell us more about why you felt that way.
I felt that way because they didn't know Elijah. They don't know how to represent Elijah. They don't know how to speak for Elijah.
I don't think there's anything wrong with people coming to support the movement, support humanity's rights. But there were some opportunists out there. A lot of the people were just misrepresenting him.
There are people who have made songs off of his dying words. No mom wants to hear that. But I had to hear it anyway. And for the whole world to think it's just a song… They have no empathy. They have no consideration. They have no respect. It's still a murder investigation. His dying words only came out because those evil men pushed them out of him.
People are insensitive to the murder victim's family. People are still saying he was autistic. He wasn't autistic at all. There is just so much misinformation out there and it drives me crazy.
Is there something you would want people to know about your experience, this experience of a mother trying to grieve privately when so many people want to identify with Elijah's story?
I'm realizing that I have to choose my battles. I had to get off Twitter because Twitter was outrageous. But it's not easy. It really isn't.
There are people selling T-shirts with his name and his dying words. People keep writing me, asking me if I'll agree to a documentary. And I’m like, it's not even over! It's frustrating.
People want to identify with him for different reasons. There's Black people saying, “oh, we relate to him because he was a Black man.” And then there's Caucasians saying, “well, we relate to him because he was a nice person. He was a massage therapist like I was.”
But if we take out all the boxes and categories that we're placed in — we're just human, and humans should care about each other.
Have you found any sense of healing or anything that that gives you comfort?
I have found that if I invest more in my hobbies, I'll cry, but I won't cry so hard.
Because Elijah was a vegetarian, I started farming. I love growing my own food. I drink a lot more water. I'm working on exercise and spending more time with my kids. I love creative arts. I started making t-shirts and things. I'm just finding little ways to keep his memory.
I imagine there are a lot of people who would like to have your voice and your support for different causes. And I'm just wondering what you feel comfortable with.
I don't know what I'm comfortable with. Honestly, I'm still working through the maze with it.
I did start a foundation for Elijah, but it's a private foundation, one that’s not going to accept the donations of other people. We're doing what we can to have it be self-sufficient — generate our own income and donate from that — because I don't want to depend on other people's donations in order to do the things I want to do through his foundation.
I've always been a giver. I just had a limited amount that I could give with. And now I can just give. It feels good. But it hurts at the same time because I'm only able to do this because he was murdered and because people reached out and people wanted to help.
What will you do with the foundation?
Elijah was homeless. He stayed with a family friend because we were all looking for a place. So I was in a hotel and he was with a family friend. So right now the foundation helps with the homeless. It does a lot of donations for homeless shelters.
We want to make some donations to the Boys and Girls Club, too, to the help with the kids that are still growing up. My kids were always at the Boys and Girls Club. I was a single mom and I would take them there while I was working, and they loved it. It helped them grow as individuals in so many ways because it is an enriching environment. To be able to get away from your parents and all the drama at the house and everything else and just go have fun as a kid with other kids. I love the Boys and Girls Club.
What are your thoughts or hopes for Elijah's legacy?
His dying words showed how much respect he had for humanity. He didn't curse out the ones that killed him. He didn't say anything bad about them at all. He still respected the fact that they were human. Elijah's legacy is he was kind, he was compassionate, he was a hard worker, he was intelligent, he was a massage therapist that his clients loved. Everything good about Elijah is what his legacy is going to be.
This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Feb. 24. You can find the full episode here.