AURORA, Colo. — Thousands of people gathered for hours over the weekend, demanding justice in the Elijah McClain case after Colorado's governor appointed a special prosecutor to review the case earlier this week. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, but police used pepper spray on the crowd Friday evening after declaring protesters were unlawfully assembled and after what the police chief called a small group of people throwing sticks and rocks at officers.
Around 1 p.m., thousands began gathering at the Aurora Municipal Center for a planned protest organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
About an hour later, the group marched onto Interstate 225. However, police shut the interstate down before protesters arrived. The interstate was closed in both directions from Mississippi Avenue to 6th Avenue as protesters continued to block traffic on the highway before marching onto 6th Avenue.
Police said the demonstrations remained peaceful and there were no arrests or injuries reported.
However, around 4:30 p.m., Aurora police tweeted, "There is a small group of agitators who have put on helmets and gloves moving into the peaceful crowd. Please continue to encourage peacefulness."
A second rally, organized by Students for Elijah McClain, took place around 4 p.m. at the same location, the Aurora Municipal Center. The student-led rally followed the first demonstration, and moved to the streets, where the group of peaceful protesters took a knee at the intersection of Alameda and Chambers.
After the second rally completed their march, tensions between the police and protesters intensified. Police said protesters removed a barrier near police headquarters and tore down some plywood that was protecting windows on the municipal building.
Just before 8:20 p.m., Aurora police said that they had declared an unlawful assembly and said “a small contingent” of protesters were “arming themselves with rocks & sticks and continue to ignore orders to move back.” Minutes later, the department said rocks and bottles were being thrown. It was unclear when speaking to protesters exactly what led to police using pepper spray, though KMGH spoke to at least two people who had been hit who were not among the agitators.
The department said that officers had deployed pepper spray and asked “all peaceful protesters and community members” to move to the parking lot near the library.
One man who was sprayed said that he had been shoved in the stomach with a baton prior to being sprayed.
— Denver7 News (@DenverChannel) June 28, 2020
Naomi McClain, who is Elijah's sister, said she felt like police were “just trying to shut us down from continuing our protest” after the department declared an unlawful assembly.
“It’s the police trying to shut us down,” she said, adding she was “disappointed completely.”
“We’re trying to honor my brother. We’re going to be here. We’re going to stay. Until this is over, we’re going to stay.”
She said that she was glad to have so many people show up to support her brother and his case, albeit 10 months after his death.
“Even though it’s late, I’m still grateful that they’re here,” McClain said. “I’m proud to be a part of this group that’s here celebrating my brother right now.”
Meanwhile nearby, several violinists played to remember McClain, who was fond of playing violin.
By 9:10 p.m., the police department said that “unruly protestors” had stopped throwing objects at offers and that “tensions have calmed.”
“We thank the peaceful protestors for your part in helping us keep this event safe,” the department tweeted.
Just before 9:30 p.m., Aurora police said three people were taken into custody “for violating lawful orders after warnings were given.” At the time, most of the people in the area silently watched the makeshift orchestra perform.
— Denver7 News (@DenverChannel) June 28, 2020
Aurora Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said in an interview with KMGH that she appreciated the peaceful protesters and thought that “this community did a great job.” But said that the pepper spray was deployed because of a small group who she said were wearing helmets, carrying sticks and rocks. She also claimed that some people were carrying firearms.
“All they were trying to do was turn this into a violent encounter,” she said of that small group.
By 10:15 p.m., most demonstrators were sitting quietly, many with candles lit, listening to speakers.
Wilson released a statement earlier Saturday before the planned rally, urging a peaceful demonstration.
"We not only recognize a person’s right to freedom of speech and expression; we support and protect their right to do so in a peaceful manner," Wilson wrote in the statement.
A peaceful demonstration, like the one planned here today, allows their very important voices to be heard. It promotes meaningful conversations and brings about purposeful change. Our community is reeling from the tragic loss of Elijah McClain who was not only a beloved son, brother and friend, but also a valued member of our community.
Today, the men and women of the Aurora Police Department are here merely to ensure peace is maintained. Unfortunately, we know outsiders may be in attendance to hijack the intended message today by being destructive and wreaking havoc upon a community they do not live nor work in.
I have heard from our community, and I am listening today. Their voices and concerns are not falling on deaf ears. I am devoted to meaningful reform, just as every good officer out here today is.
I want to again encourage everyone to remain peaceful. When you come across one of our police officers today consider saying hello. They not only love serving our community, many live here, and want to see many of the same positive changes. Together, we can make it happen.
McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, died following an interaction with Aurora police last August. McClain suffered a heart attack on the way to a hospital after a responding officer requested that a paramedic give McClain a dose of ketamine "due to the level of physical force applied while restraining the subject and his agitated mental state," officials said.
The officers involved in his death did not face criminal charges and were found not to have violated department policies. The city has since changed department policies directly in the wake of McClain's death after calls for further investigation.
Aurora police said Friday that the officers involved in the death of McClain were reassigned "because of threats and harassment," a police spokesperson said in a statement.
On Friday, Gov. Jared Polis appointed Attorney General Phil Weiser to re-investigate and possibly prosecute the officers involved in McClain’s death.
Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman on Wednesday afternoon called for a special City Council meeting on July 6 to vote on whether or not to authorize an independent investigation in the case, with a second vote on who will conduct the investigation.
This story was originally published by Robert Garrison and Blair Miller at KMGH.