Peaceful violin vigil for Elijah McClain dispersed by riot police with pepper spray
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Police unleashed pepper spray after protesters gathered to listen to a violin vigil in memory of Elijah McClain, who died after US officers put him in a chokehold last year.
Videos on social media showed thousands of demonstrators gathered outside a Denver police building on Saturday.
The musical tribute was organised by the Party for Socialism and Liberation as Mr McClain, who was 23 when he died, was known for playing music to abandoned pets in animal homes to cheer them up.
As the event progressed police accused people of throwing bottles and announced that the protest was now an “illegal gathering”, the Denver Post reported.
Officers threatened to use pepper spray and demonstrators formed a ring to protect the musicians while they played.
In videos captured by bystanders, the sound of violin strings was soon silenced by screams from protestors chanting “Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see no riot here.”
Aurora police confirmed pepper spray was used on demonstrators and said it was in response to people in the crowd seen gathering rocks and not moving back.
Valerie Reives plays the viola while protesters shine their mobile phone lights to honour Elijah McClain (REUTERS)
Before the protest was held the force released a statement about the event and said it supported a peaceful protest but warned about “outsiders” with destructive goals joining the day.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation replied in a Facebook statement and said: “The Aurora Police Department has responded by circulating rumours of a ‘violent threat’ in order to intimidate organisers and attendees and to justify mobilising a militarized police response to crackdown on protesters.”
A protester plays the violin to honor Elijah McClain, who, when alive, would play his violin at animal shelters because he thought the kittens were lonely. (REUTERS)
Mr McClain’s death last year prompted a handful of small protests over the last 10 months, but his case garnered renewed attention amid a global outcry sparked when George Floyd died in police custody in May.
On August 24, 2019, police in Aurora responded to a call of a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms as he walked down a street.
Aurora police officers, dressed in riot gear, line up outside the Aurora Police Department Headquarters (REUTERS)
Officers said Mr McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when confronted.
One law enforcement officer said: “I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious,” body camera footage later showed.
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The encounter happened as the 23-year-old, who was a certified massage therapist and self-taught violin player, was running an errand.
To subdue Mr McClain, officers used a chokehold that cuts off blood to the brain — a tactic recently banned in several places in the wake of Mr Floyd’s death.
Paramedics arrived soon after and administered a sedative to calm Mr McClain down but he suffered a cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and later declared brain dead. He was taken off life support less than a week later.
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Three officers were placed on leave but returned to the force after District Attorney Dave Young said there was insufficient evidence to support charging them.
Governor Jared Polis on Thursday ordered prosecutors to reopen the investigation.