DENVER — Dozens of people from all walks of life gathered Sunday to honor Elijah McClain, about one year after his fatal encounter with Aurora police.
The event, called Gathering in Gratitude, was not a rally. There were no political signs or speeches. Rather, it was an opportunity for people to sit on the turf of the Denver’s Montbello Recreation Center and listen to music, converse, or even dance.
McClain's mother, Sheneen McClain, attended the event but didn't address the media.
Her attorney, Mari Newman, told Denver7 on Saturday that she won't speak to the media about the case until she obtains justice for her son.
Many of those attending Sunday's gathering said they had both Elijah and his mom in their thoughts.
"I hope Sheneen McClain and so many others in the movement are embracing this love that this community has at this moment," said Apryl Alexander, a forensic psychologist and associate professor, who has been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. "We can't even feel her pain at this time, but so many people here are trying to find accountability and justice for her son, and so many other sons of the mothers who are showing up here today."
Rebecca Vera was among those attending the anniversary gathering.
"I'm embarrassed to say I only learned of his passing in the last couple of months," she said.
While she didn't know Elijah, Vera said she almost felt a kinship toward him.
"I feel like he could have been a friend of mine," she said. "We shared a lot of the same interests. I'm a cello player and musician. I work with animals for a living."
Elijah was on his way home from a convenience store on Aug. 24, 2019, when someone called police and reported a man acting suspicious. McClain was wearing a lower half face mask and listening to music. Police stopped him, forcefully detained him, used a choke hold and then asked EMT's to administer ketamine. The young man suffered a heart attack and later died.
Former Arapahoe County Commissioner John Brackney made it a point to attend the event.
"It's very important that we treat each other as humans, better than we're treating each other," he said.
Brackney told Denver7 his mother called just as he was getting ready to drive to Montbello for the gathering.
"I said, 'I'm going to go over to the ceremony, or to the event' and she goes, 'Oh my gosh, that was horrible,'" he said. "She's an 88-year-old Republican grandmother and mom."
When asked if he thinks there needs to be change, the former commissioner said no singular person or group should be the jury, judge and executioner.
"We as a society have to slow down and do what can we do," he said.
Brackney said he understands the need for officers to protect their own lives and go home after work.
He said some officers have to make better decisions as to when their life is actually in danger.
"If you're not going to die yourself, we have to have better training across the board. ... Both law enforcement and civilian," he said. "Do we want to take another life and live with that as a potential mistake? The answer is, of course, we don't, and we don't want to do it the other way either, where somebody's spouse doesn't come home because they're a cop. So it is crazy complex, but right now, we don't have the right mixture."
He said we all have to stand up as a community and think through this, together.
A contingent of activists from Kentucky also attended the event. It was an effort to return the favor to Colorado activists who went to Kentucky to attend a rally for justice for Breonna Taylor, back in July. Taylor was fatally shot by Kentucky police while sleeping in her bedroom in March 2020.
One of the Kentuckians, Carmen Jones, said she doesn't refer to herself as an activist, but rather an actionist.
"It means I'm about my action. About that action. About your action. About whatever action needs to be taken when it comes to the liberation of black and brown lives," she said.
Jones said it's important to show solidarity.
"Whether or not we see actual justice for Breonna, or Elijah, it's heartbreaking that we might not, but if we're not going to, then it's important that we work toward systemic change to insure that tragedies like Elijah's and Breonna's never happen again," she said.
Donte Louie also attended the gathering.
He said there has been a long history of atrocities against non-whites in the U.S.
He said that includes slaves, Latino farm workers, Chinese railroad workers and people of color swept up by the war on drugs.
"Are there people who violate laws? Absolutely, but violating them doesn't mean you need to lose your life," he said.
He said in order to end the systemic prejudice against Black people and Hispanics, more people need to get involved.
He said we currently have a system where "if it's not our kid, it's not our problem." He said that needs to change.