Aurora Police Murder Elijah McClain

On August 24, 2019, Aurora police brutally murdered 23-year-old massage therapist and musician Elijah McClain. He had been dancing to music while walking home from the convenience store, where he’d gone to pick up tea for his cousin. He was wearing a ski mask, as he frequently did because he suffered from a chronic illness causing poor blood circulation, making it difficult to keep warm. Someone called 9-1-1 to report a person who looked suspicious, explicitly stating to the operator that he did not appear dangerous. Three Aurora Police Department officers approached Elijah and, within seconds of making contact, grabbed him and forced him onto the ground using a now-banned carotid chokehold. The three officers, Randy Roedema, Nathan Woodyard, and Jason Rosenblatt, knelt on Elijah’s 140-lb, handcuffed body and tortured him for nearly fifteen minutes, even threatening to have a police dog attack him, while he cried, vomited, and begged for his life, pleading “I can’t breathe.” Paramedics assisting the officers then administered a dose of ketamine large enough to sedate a man twice Elijah’s size. As they loaded Elijah’s apparently unconscious body into an ambulance, he went into cardiac arrest; he died in the hospital six days later.

A Mass, Peaceful Protest Movement Demands Justice

In the months following Elijah’s death, Aurora officials and the Aurora Police Department shielded the killers from all consequences. Adams County District Attorney Dave Young declined to file any charges against Elijah’s killers; they weren’t even taken off the job. Elijah’s family and community members including the Party for Socialism and Liberation and organizers who would later form the Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action held vigils and protests, and spoke out at city council meetings, demanding accountability and justice for the McClain family. But Elijah’s case only began to receive the widespread attention it deserved when the focus of the entire country shifted onto racist police violence with the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protest movement. Elijah’s name suddenly became known—not just throughout Colorado, but nationally and internationally.

On June 27, the Party for Socialism and Liberation called a march in Aurora demanding justice for Elijah McClain. An unprecedented 5,000 people convened outside of the Aurora Police Department Headquarters, then in an incredible demonstration of protest, marched peacefully onto the nearby I-225 highway, shutting down traffic in both directions. This protest was the largest in Aurora history. The protest marched down approximately one mile of highway then exited and marched back to the police headquarters, where violinists from around the world gathered to perform an evening violin vigil in Elijah’s memory, himself a violinist. As the violin vigil played, Aurora Police declared the gathering unlawful and descended on the crowd in riot gear. Observers recording the violinists captured footage of police unloading pepper spray and tear gas canisters and officers beating protesters with batons as demonstrators locked arms in a circle around the musicians who played on. The incident went viral and spurred violin vigils for Elijah around the world.

Just three days after the mass demonstration and violent repression, photos were leaked from inside the Aurora Police Department, showing three uniformed officers taking selfies at the site of Elijah’s murder mocking his death. The photos had been circulated inside the department and one of Elijah’s killers, Jason Rosenblatt, was caught on record laughing about them. Organizers with the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and the Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action (FPRA) called a march demanding then-interim Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson immediately fire the officers involved in the photos and in Elijah’s death. Before the date of the action, the chief fired only those officers involved in the photo scandal, including Jason Rosenblatt, but refused to fire the other two killers. Organizers led a march to the APD District 1 Station, just over a mile from the site of Elijah’s death. Hundreds of people stayed into the early hours of the next morning in a peaceful protest calling for the remaining killers of Elijah McClain to be fired from APD’s force.

Mass protests continued throughout the summer, continuing to demand justice for Elijah. On July 12, a car protest of some 400 cars led a massive caravan through Aurora, drawing expressions of support from hundreds of cars and people in their yards and porches. On July 25, protesters once again marched onto the highway and were attacked by a right-wing vigilante who attempted to drive his Jeep at full speed through the crowd. He narrowly failed to plow through the crowd of hundreds, thanks to the heroic act of a man who intercepted and slowed the Jeep with his truck. Even after the terrifying incident, protests continued. On August 30, some 1500 people, both in their cars and on foot, marched nearly five miles from Aurora to Denver against the racist police brutality of both cities’ police departments.

The mass, peaceful, unrelenting protest movement brought unprecedented attention to the criminal conduct of the Aurora Police Department and the Aurora officials that protect them. A petition for “Justice for Elijah McClain” has received over 5 million signatures from people across the country and around the world. District Attorney Dave Young’s office has received a flood of letters condemning the failure to bring charges against the killers. A number of celebrities including Janelle Monáe, Meagan Good and Jonathan Van Ness spoke out in a video calling out city and state officials for ignoring the calls for justice for Elijah. Professional athletes have donned Elijah’s name on the field; Elijah is even the subject of a recent NFL video highlighting the movement for Black lives.  

Police Crack Down on Protest Leaders

On September 17, multiple Denver-area police forces carried out a coordinated series of arrests of lead organizers of the peaceful protests for Elijah McClain. The arrests began at 6:30am, when Russell Ruch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation was arrested while driving his work vehicle in a Home Depot parking lot. Soon after, Lillian House, also of the PSL, was surrounded and arrested by several squad cars while driving just blocks from her home. Joel Northam, another PSL member, was arrested at his home. Police arrived at his apartment building with multiple SWAT teams, an armored vehicle, and dozens of officers. A team pounded on his door and demanded entry, repeatedly refusing to show a warrant. Joel, on the phone with a lawyer while police continued to pound on his door so hard they shredded the wood, decided to give himself up rather than risk the dangers of further escalation. Shortly after, PSL member Eliza Lucero was arrested at her home by a team of several police officers. Terrance Roberts of the Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action was arrested while jogging at a park. 

The arrested organizers were taken to jail where they learned they were being charged with a series of serious felonies and misdemeanors. Lillian, Joel, and Eliza received particularly extreme charges, including the ludicrous charge of attempted “kidnapping” for protesting outside of an APD station. If convicted of that charge alone, they would face a mandatory minimum of 8 years in prison, and could face as many as 24 years. Their total sentences could be much greater, potentially many decades in prison.

The charges against the protest leaders span several months and two counties, all related to peaceful protests calling for justice for Elijah McClain. The most extreme charges were filed by the same District Attorney, Dave Young, who cleared Elijah McClain’s killers of all wrongdoing. Additional charges are being brought by Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, who declined to file charges against the Jeep driver who attacked the July 25 protest.

Who are the targeted protest leaders 

Lillian House, 26, grew up in central Pennsylvania. She entered the anti-racist struggle after seeing the police murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and others in 2014. Some of the first protests she attended were Black Lives Matter protests on the East coast where she grew up. She moved to Colorado in 2015 and has been involved in many local struggles, including around housing justice, immigrant rights, and police brutality. She has been involved in the struggle for justice for Elijah McClain since the first vigil on the day after his death, and has been one of the foremost organizers in the mass peaceful protests against police brutality in both Denver and Aurora in the summer of 2020.

Terrance Roberts, 44, grew up in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver. He is a father of five and a grandfather of one. At a young age, he got involved with a local gang, which landed him in prison for ten years. While inside, he spent two years in solitary confinement and began reading about the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Once released, he became deeply involved in community work and founded several youth-oriented social justice projects including the Prodigal Son Initiative, Heal The Hood Movement, and the Colorado CAMO Movement. He founded the Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action (FPRA) which worked alongside PSL to lead the peaceful protest movement for justice for Elijah McClain.

Joel Northam, 33, grew up in Colorado Springs. He was first moved to activism by the execution of prisoner Troy Davis by the Georgia Department of Corrections in 2011. He participated in the Occupy movement, as well as the first Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 in response to the police murder of Mike Brown. While living in Brooklyn, he organized for justice with many families of victims of police murder. He also was involved in international solidarity work, political prisoner advocacy, and anti-gentrification struggles. He moved back to Colorado in the summer of 2020 and helped to build the spontaneous anti-racist struggle into a sustained, mass movement in Denver.

Eliza Lucero, 23, grew up in a rural town in eastern Pennsylvania. She was encouraged to stand up against injustice from a young age. Her mom took her to her first protest at age 8, a march against mass incarceration. Rampant poverty, racism, and anti-LGBTQ discrimination drove her deeper into activism. Eliza moved to Colorado in 2018 and quickly became involved in local community organizing, including for housing justice, women’s and LGBTQ rights, and immigrant rights; and against police brutality. She has been part of the struggle for Elijah McClain since the early months following his death, helping to put on protests, speaking out at city council meetings, and bringing public awareness to his case.

The political nature of the attacks against these organizers was underscored by the prolonged detention of Lillian, Joel, and Eliza. Authorities grossly violated the three activists’ legal rights by refusing to bring them up for a bond hearing so they could be released.  

With the three activists still in jail, fellow organizers called an emergency demonstration less than 48 hours after the arrests. They led a crowd a thousand-strong that marched to the jail where Joel, Lillian, and Eliza were detained, while solidarity demonstrations were held across the country. Local, national, and international organizations and community leaders quickly signed on to a statement demanding all charges be dropped. The Denver Area Labor Foundation, representing some 90,000 workers and their families unanimously endorsed a resolution calling on District Attorneys Dave Young and George Brauchler to drop the charges against the anti-racist protesters and urging their affiliates and partner organizations to adopt similar resolutions. Following their statement, several leading trade unionists in the Denver area launched Trade Unionists for Justice in Denver, which has now received the endorsement of more than 150 trade union organizations and leaders.

Lillian, Joel, and Eliza were held in jail for eight days under 23-hour lockdown in COVID-exposed units, before they finally were brought before a judge and were released on bond. The Colorado and US constitutions both typically require a bond to be set within 48 hours absent truly remarkable circumstances. No explanation was given for why this norm was violated to such an extreme degree in the three activists’ cases.

The Battle Ahead

Instead of cowering, the arrested organizers came out declaring their determination not to be silenced. Just two days after their release, Lillian and Eliza spoke at a demonstration, emphasizing the need to stand together in the face of repression and to continue fighting for justice.

The attack against these leaders can only be understood as an attempt to strike fear in the movement as a whole, demonstrating the state’s power to arbitrarily abduct, imprison, and charge activists who engage in protests against them. If successful, this attack will not only put innocent anti-racist organizers behind bars, but it will also strike a devastating blow to the Movement for Black Lives, the fight for justice for Elijah McClain, and to the fundamental democratic rights which underpin all movements for justice. All progressive people must come together in defense of free speech rights in the Denver area and in opposition to the dangerous campaign to criminalize dissent by attempting to send leaders of peaceful protests to prison for decades. We must rally public support throughout the nation to demand that the political prosecution of all the anti-racist protesters be dropped. Justice requires nothing less!

Case updates

On January 7, Russell Ruch’s charges were dropped in their entirety. This is the first right action and all charges against all the arrested protest leaders must be dropped.

On January 12, both district attorneys who launched this case left office on term limits. 17th Judicial District Attorney Dave Young is succeeded by Brian Mason. 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler is succeeded by John Kellner. We call on the new district attorneys to do what is right, end the dragging of these peaceful protest leaders through an unjust legal process, and drop this political prosecution in its entirety.