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Will justice for Elijah McClain lead to justice for the Black community?

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Photo by Kevin Mohatt / Reuters
Photo by Kevin Mohatt / Reuters

Phrases like "driving while Black" and "walking while Black" have been used to describe the racial profiling of motorists and pedestrians, respectively. These expressions became popularized in the '90s, when it became clear police officers were intentionally targeting racial minorities in an effort to stop drug trafficking. Police training memos from New Jersey that have been released instruct officers to make racial judgments such as "occupant identifiers for a possible drug courier."

While many like to pretend racism and prejudice ended many years ago and that we as Americans have overcome so many racial hurdles, violence and murder at the hands of racist cops has been a persistent problem. Moreover, those responsible for the violence against and injuries and murders of these innocents have not been held accountable.

While the lack of value the American justice system places on Black lives has been made clear by centuries of injustice, a precedent was set much more recently. On December 31, 2008, Robbie Tolan (son of MLB player Bobby Tolan) was shot and seriously injured in the driveway of his own home by police sergeant Jeffrey Cotton.

Cotton was investigating a stolen vehicle, but the vehicle he arrived with questions about belonged to Tolan. Unfortunately, that fact wasn't enough, and that night Tolan still ended up in a hospital with a bullet in his liver.

Cotton was found not guilty, and the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed the ruling in Tolan v. Cotton, because Cotton was not "objectively unreasonable in using deadly force against Tolan."

A similar case is that of Elijah McClain. On August 24, 2019, McClain was "walking while Black" from a convenience store Aurora, Colorado, when someone called 911 (another problematic issue in our society), saying he "looked sketchy" and was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms. Upon arrival, the police placed the 23-year-old massage therapist into a carotid hold (which has since been banned), which restricts blood to the brain and renders the person unconscious.

The body camera footage shows officers "put him out" with the carotid hold twice. When paramedics arrived, they gave him a "therapeutic" dose of ketamine that the camera footage shows made his body go limp.
An autopsy report by the Adams County coroner said that the cause of death was "undetermined," and that it could have been a result of natural causes. Despite the evidence proving otherwise, Adams County District Attorney Dave Young wouldn't bring criminal charges because "prosecutors lacked evidence to prove the officers caused McClain's death or that their force was unjustified" — a frighteningly familiar statement.

Since Tolan v. Cotton, countless Black men, women, and children have been murdered by racist cops and civilians: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many others. None of them received justice... until this year.

On April 20, 2021, in a historic and beautiful turn of events, Derek Chauvin, one the cops primarily responsible for George Floyd's death, was convicted on two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter. Then on June 25, he was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.

The horrid circumstances behind George Floyd's and Breonna Taylor's murders brought Elijah McClain's case back to the limelight and prompted Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to reexamine the case last year. Atty. Gen. Phil Weiser was appointed as special prosecutor and opened a grand jury investigation. In his report, he stated that "at the time of the ketamine injection, Mr. McClain had not moved or made any sounds for about one minute... In addition, EMS administered a ketamine dosage based on a grossly inaccurate and inflated estimate of Mr. McClain's size."

Now, two years after his death, a Colorado grand jury has indicted three police officers and two paramedics on charges including manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. While we wait to see if the verdict and sentencing will reflect the grave injustice suffered by this young Black man and his family, we also hope it will have a lasting impression on how future injustices of "driving while Black" or "walking while Black" are handled.