Aurora police department defends its actions saying a small group of people started arming themselves with rocks and sticks and repeatedly ignored orders to stay on the other side of the fence.
A peaceful musical vigil for Elijah McClain devolved into chaos on Saturday when police dressed in full riot gear descended on the crowd with pepper spray. Thousands of protesters came together in Aurora, Colorado, over the weekend to demand justice for the 23-year-old certified massage therapist and self-taught violin player who went into a coma and died after being placed in a carotid hold by officers last year.
Photos and videos from the vigil posted on social media show local musicians playing violin in honor of McClain when the Aurora police department suddenly began storming the gathering amid cries of "No!" from protesters.
Violin vigil in Aurora for Elijah McClain, who was a violinist. pic.twitter.com/Z5DozHPooz— Alex Burness (@alex_burness) June 28, 2020
According to The Denver Post, Saturday's events began in City Center Park to honor McClain, who studied the violin for much of his life and is known to have played the instrument to soothe stray cats. However, as evening fell, police began warning demonstrators that they had to leave the "illegal gathering."
Mark Sallinger, a reporter with 9News, captured the upsetting scene in a series of tweets, one of which reads: "Riot police have advanced on protesters. I’ve seen pepper spray used on several people, including a camera crew. Lots of families were just arriving for the violin vigil. Police say protesters threw something at them which caused them to advance and clear the area."
Riot police have advanced on protesters. I’ve seen pepper spray used on several people, including a camera crew. Lots of families were just arriving for the violin vigil. Police say protesters threw something at them which caused them to advance and clear the area #9News pic.twitter.com/A0xgboj2NX— Marc Sallinger (@MarcSallinger) June 28, 2020
An absolutely surreal scene at the #ElijahMcClain protest in Aurora. Police in riot gear pushed everyone out of the park using batons and pepper spray. Then a violinist started playing and stopped the police from pushing people any further, Sallinger wrote in another tweet featuring a Black violinist playing an electric violin mere feet away from the police.
An absolutely surreal scene at the #ElijahMcClain protest in Aurora. Police in riot gear pushed everyone out of the park using batons and pepper spray. Then a violinist started playing and stopped the police from pushing people any further #9News pic.twitter.com/zWNeZcTSvS— Marc Sallinger (@MarcSallinger) June 28, 2020
As police in riot gear were spraying protesters with pepper spray and using batons to push them back at the #ElijahMcClain protest in Aurora today, this man began playing the violin. One of the most surreal scenes I’ve ever seen. Music is powerful. #9News pic.twitter.com/3adLTuBZB7— Marc Sallinger (@MarcSallinger) June 28, 2020
"Families are there and then two minutes later it’s chaos and terrifying," protester Lindsey Zapalac told The Denver Channel. "It was just super disrespectful to the people that were there peacefully just wanting to pay our respects."
Defending its actions, the Aurora Police Department said that a small group of people pushed down a fence, started removing the plywood protecting windows, throwing water bottles at the officers, and arming themselves with rocks and sticks, and repeatedly ignoring orders to stay on the other side of the fence.
Here’s the moment @AuroraPD decided to bash and pepper spray protesters who were peacefully protesting the murder of #ElijahMclain. No rocks. No sticks. No water bottles. This was instigated by the police.#blm #Auroraprotest #denverprotest pic.twitter.com/no5eo93M44— blm | adam (@adamjtru) June 28, 2020
As #Aurora municipal security forces lost patience with how long it was taking to illegally evict us from the #ElijahMcClain violin vigil, they began deploying chemical agents directly into protesters faces and at protesters that were fleeing while attempting to make arrests pic.twitter.com/ElDeu8Q4LD— dula lipa (@dulapalooza) June 28, 2020
"These actions endangered the peaceful protestors and the officers," said an Aurora Police Department spokesperson. They added that this behavior caused the gathering to be unlawful and that announcements were made over a PA notifying protesters that pepper spray would be used. The announcement was made multiple times before the officers advanced on the crowd, the spokesperson said. As police advanced, protesters locked arms to form a human chain around the violinists to protect them from the officers while many questioned why the cops were in riot gear, reports The Guardian.
I have 21+ minutes of footage. Proof of violence incited by aurora pd pic.twitter.com/p1WIENWGOu— mark noonan (@wisenoons) June 28, 2020
After 4.5 hours of peacefully protesting, the Aurora PD claimed that “protestors were seen with rocks”, giving them “reason” to attack the people. As the police walked over the barricade, all of us protestors linked arms, and walked backwards... here’s what follows pic.twitter.com/D9uGrzBsnn— ev (@ekbates4) June 28, 2020
Snipers on Elijah’s mother while she spoke. Riot gear to dismantle a violin vigil with children in a park. Tear gas & pepper spray on children barely in their teens. How can you look away?— auntie kat (@awahihte) June 28, 2020
“Protest peacefully”— auntie kat (@awahihte) June 28, 2020
You mean like a violin vigil in the afternoon attended by literal children?
“No not like that”
Peace isn’t even an option. All they will accept is compliance with oppression.
"Pepper spray was used after a small group of people gathered rocks [and] sticks, knocked over a fence, & ignored orders to move back," the Aurora police department said in a statement. It added that "tear gas was not used" while authorities confirmed that "three people were taken into custody for violating lawful orders after warnings were given."
Saturday's vigil followed an online petition signed by almost four million people demanding that the officers involved in McClain's death be taken off duty and justice be served by "a more in-depth investigation."
Aurora Police are terrorists who tear gassed children and other protesters as they mourned the murder of Elijah McClain yesterday.— GothBotAlice (@GothBotAlice) June 29, 2020
Today they are trying to say they didn’t. They killed Elijah and they continue to terrorize the Aurora residents.
23-year-old Black man Elijah McClain died in police custody in Aurora, CO, last year. His family’s quest for justice has gone viral after millions signed a petition demanding answers pic.twitter.com/qeufF85ifK— NowThis (@nowthisnews) June 29, 2020
As of now, the officers involved remain on the force after the county district attorney, Dave Young, concluded last November that there was "no reasonable likelihood of success of proving any state crimes beyond a reasonable doubt at trial."
However, the state attorney general, Phil Weiser, recently promised that his office would investigate the incident stating that "whenever someone dies after an encounter with law enforcement, the community deserves a thorough investigation."