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Elijah McClain Pleaded “I Can’t Breathe” Before His 2019 Death. Now 3 Police, 2 Paramedics Charged

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Three police officers and two paramedics in Colorado have been criminally charged in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was tackled by police, placed in a chokehold and later injected with a large amount of the powerful sedative ketamine. McClain, who was not suspected of any crime, suffered a cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died several days later. His death sparked nationwide protests and led to new police accountability legislation being passed in Colorado. “This case has made sweeping changes,” says Colorado state Representative Leslie Herod. “But I’ve got to tell you: It would not have happened if it weren’t for the protests.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We look now at a major development in the movement for police accountability. In Colorado, three police officers and two paramedics have been criminally charged in the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain that prompted nationwide protests.

Elijah McClain was a young Black man walking home from a store in the Denver suburb of Aurora in August 2019 — he had bought some iced tea — when someone called 911 to report a person looking weird. Although he was not suspected of a crime, the three Aurora police officers who answered the call tackled McClain to the ground and placed him in a chokehold as he pleaded for his life. A warning to our viewers and listeners: This footage is extremely graphic.

ELIJAH McCLAIN: I can’t breathe! Please stop.

POLICE OFFICER: Stop fighting us on the ground.

ELIJAH McCLAIN: My name is Elijah McClain! Ask me what I was doing. I was just going home! Come on, I can’t — I’m an introvert, and I’m different. I just don’t like going home. I’m just different. I’m just different! That’s all! That’s all I was doing! I’m so sorry! I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why were you taking me? I don’t [inaudible] guns. I don’t even kill flies. I don’t eat meat. I am not — I’m a vegetarian. I don’t judge people for anything.

AMY GOODMAN: “I don’t eat [sic] flies. I don’t eat meat. I’m a vegetarian.” — “I don’t kill flies,” he said. And before that, if you could hear Elijah saying, “I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m different. I was just going home. I’m different. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. why are you taking me?” he said. That’s police body-camera footage of officers tackling and arresting Elijah as he walked home, August 2019.

Medical responders who arrived then injected Elijah with a large amount of the powerful sedative ketamine, enough to sedate a large 200-pound man, even though Elijah was just 5’6” and under 140 pounds. He suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died several days later.

This is Colorado Attorney General Philip Weiser speaking Wednesday after announcing the charges against those involved in Elijah’s death.

ATTORNEY GENERAL PHILIP WEISER: Late last Thursday, after careful and thoughtful deliberation, the grand jury returned a 32-count indictment against Aurora police officers Randy Roedema and Nathan Woodyard, former Aurora police officer Jason Rosenblatt and Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics Jeremy Cooper and Peter Cichuniec for their alleged conduct on the night of August 24th, 2019, that resulted in the death of Mr. McClain.

AMY GOODMAN: The charges come after the local district attorney decided earlier not to file criminal charges, citing lack of evidence. But protests and an online petition that gathered more than 5 million signatures — this all happening after, in Minneapolis, what happened there with the murder of George Floyd, those protests prompted the Colorado Governor Jared Polis to reexamine the case. This is how Elijah McClain’s mother, Sheneen McClain, responded to news of the 32-count criminal indictment.

SHENEEN McCLAIN: I am thankful. I’m grateful that they saw what I saw, that he never should have been stopped, that he never should have been brutalized, he never should have been handcuffed, and he never should have been given ketamine. … I expect prison for my son’s murderers and their accomplices, because that’s exactly what they did. They’re accessories to a crime. And I don’t think it should be anything less than that. They need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in Denver by Colorado state Representative Leslie Herod. She spoke with Elijah McClain’s mother, played a key role in criminal justice reform since his tragic death, including spearheading a bill to ban police use of ketamine. Leslie Herod is also the first LGBTQ+ African American to hold office in the Colorado General Assembly.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you start off by responding to the indictments, two years after Elijah McClain was killed by police and paramedics?

REP. LESLIE HEROD: Yeah. Well, good morning, and thanks for having me.

What I would say, one, is that I echo Ms. McClain’s sentiments of being grateful that these indictments have come down. I think that they are a true statement that Colorado believes in police accountability and reform and that we will hold officers and first responders accountable when they harm someone in our communities.

But it was Sheneen’s voice and her work that led to Colorado passing the largest and most impactful police accountability law in the country, and really working on three bills that allowed this day to happen, that called ketamine a use of force by law enforcement, that ensured that we could have special investigations when someone dies at the hand of or at the direction of law enforcement. We banned chokeholds, and we ended qualified immunity. And Sheneen, in her work, was central to all of that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are the next steps for the Attorney General’s Office, after this 32-count indictment?

REP. LESLIE HEROD: Yeah, the attorney general will now take his fight to district court, where he will have to plead the case that Elijah McClain was murdered unjustly and that the officers and the first responders used their authority in a way that was deadly. And so, he will have to prove this case. It won’t be easy. And so, it’s important that people who are engaged now continue to be engaged, continue to call for justice, because this is just one step. We have not reached justice yet, not for Elijah.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s amazing, the progress of these indictments, what this means. After Elijah McClain was killed by the police — I mean, he’s walking home, sort of dancing, wearing headphones, listening to music — a violinist who played violin for cats and dogs at a local animal shelter. As he said, “I’m different.” He said, “I don’t kill flies. I’m a vegetarian.” He kept apologizing, saying, “I’m so sorry.” He said, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” After this happened, even local reporters said they did not pay attention to this until George Floyd was killed. That’s when the mass protests happened. Can you talk about that, Leslie Herod?

REP. LESLIE HEROD: Absolutely. Well, you know, Colorado, and Denver specifically, was at the center of the protests, just like many other cities were across the country. And I remember introducing a bill, the first day we got back, around police accountability, and from — I’m sorry, from the COVID session. And when we gave our first rally and talked about the police accountability bill, this small, quiet woman stepped up from the crowd. I handed her the megaphone. And she looked at me and looked at the crowd and said, “Why weren’t you here for my son? Why are you here for someone who died states way, but when I called you for support, people of Colorado for support for my son, no one showed up?” And it was interesting, because the crowd kind of turned to me, and the emcee, like, “Do you want us to take the microphone back?” And I said, “No, I want to have this conversation.” You know, I asked who her son was. When she said, “Elijah McClain,” I knew — right? — that her voice needed to be center in this conversation and that people needed to know who Elijah was.

And so, from that moment on, we worked lockstep to pass police accountability, again, on three bills over the course of a year and a half, to make sure that what happened to her son never happened again. But we also raised the profile around her case in a way that gained it international attention and put pressure on the governor of Colorado to act, to tell the attorney general to act. And we put provisions in our bill that specifically related to Elijah McClain’s case, so that we could get things like the complete body-camera footage, so that we could prosecute the case. All of these things were related to Elijah and the other Black and Brown men, women and gender nonbinary people in Colorado that have been murdered by the police.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the response by the Colorado police to the protests once they actually happened, after George Floyd was killed, as you pointed out, then talking about Elijah McClain? One of the most moving scenes was the violin vigil, people playing violins in honor of Elijah the violinist, and then beaten by police. How has this changed the way the Aurora police behave, Leslie Herod?

REP. LESLIE HEROD: Well, let me tell you, one thing that we put in our bill was a pattern and practice investigation. And Attorney General Weiser mentioned this in his press conference yesterday, that they are now under investigation by the state because of the bill that we passed. And if they don’t change their practices, they will be sued by the state of Colorado. They are under deep investigation not only for the treatment of Elijah McClain, but their treatment of so many of Colorado citizens and visitors, and the harm they’ve caused people at the hands of Aurora PD.

The Aurora Police Department, quite frankly, under previous leadership, is a deadly department. If you look at the cases in Aurora, they have far more excessive use of force cases than even, say, Denver, and they’re a suburb of Denver. And quite frankly, they need drastic change. And what’s happening now is that change is happening. They’ve got a new chief already. But there is a lot more work to be done.

And I will note, folks might not remember this, but because of the police accountability bill, when you have excessive use of force or misconduct, and as a law enforcement officer now in Colorado, you actually lose your post certification. You can never be a law enforcement officer again in the state. And so, that is happening to not only these officers, but the officers that mocked the death of Elijah McClain. There were Aurora PD officers that went and took pictures at his death site and mocked it. And those officers are no longer on the force, either, and won’t be able to be law enforcement officers in the state of Colorado again.

And so, this case has made sweeping changes. But I’ve got to tell you: It would not have happened if it weren’t for the protest, specifically Sheneen McClain stepping up and asking Colorado and the rest of the country to speak out, and they did. Initially, Ms. McClain was told that Elijah’s murder was justified and that there was no evidence to even do a grand jury or to bring indictments or to do a special investigation. It wasn’t until those protests that we were able to make that change. And she is a soldier for continuing to fight and stand up for justice.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Colorado state representative for the 8th District, also the first LGBTQ+ African American to hold office in the Colorado General Assembly.

Next up, Afghanistan. The Taliban say women may not be able to hold senior positions in the new government. We’ll go to Kabul to speak to Mahbouba Seraj, president of the Afghan Women’s Network. Stay with us.

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