Ed. note: This column was guest-written by Barry’s wife, Louisa Rogers.
Ever heard of Elijah McClain? I hadn’t, until I happened to read an article in the New York Times on November 7, “Second Officer Acquitted in Elijah McClain’s Death.” I normally wouldn’t have glanced past the title, but something spurred me to keep reading.
The fact that I hadn’t heard of McClain is not surprising, since I’m a white woman, protected by my white bubble 99% of the time, blithely going about living my life, not even aware of my insulation. This is known as privilege. And I’m not alone. The nature of privilege is that you forget you have it – except, if you’re lucky, on one of those occasions when the bubble gets punctured, as it did for me the morning I read the article.
The story felt so surreal, I reread it to be sure I had it right. One summer evening in 2019, around 10:30 pm, as a 23-year-old African American massage therapist was walking down the street in Aurora, a Denver suburb, a cop stopped him. A caller had phoned 911 saying the guy looked “sketchy” because he was wearing a ski mask and flailing his arms. The caller added that he didn’t think the man was armed or dangerous.
The cop, Nathan Woodyard, put his hands on McClain without explaining why. Then he and two other officers on the scene moved McClain by force to the grass, placing him in a carotid neck restraint. McClain can be heard pleading with officers in police body camera footage, saying he couldn’t breathe. When the two paramedics arrived, they gave him 500 milligrams of the powerful sedative ketamine — twice as much as appropriate, according to one anesthesiologist — and then sent him by ambulance to a hospital.
Three days later, he died of cardiac arrest, still in hospital.
During the trial a forensic psychologist said that the neck restraint, now banned in Colorado due to this incident, along with the powerful dose of ketamine, caused McClain’s death. In his testimony, Mr. Woodyard himself admitted he violated policy by failing to de-escalate, and would have done things differently based on what he learned later.
Despite the forensic psychologist’s statement and Woodyard’s admission, the mostly white, female jury found him not guilty. Earlier, a jury tried two other officers involved in the incident. One was found guilty of homicide and the other acquitted. The two paramedics will be tried later this month.
His mother later said McClain wore a ski mask because of a blood circulation disorder that caused him to chill easily. Friends said he was probably moving his arms dancing while he listened to music. They described him as a “spiritual seeker, pacifist, oddball, vegetarian, athlete, and peacemaker who was exceedingly gentle.”
While a teenager, McClain had taught himself to play violin and guitar. During lunch breaks, he went to animal shelters and played for the abandoned animals, believing that music put them at ease. Friends said that he was just as gentle with humans.
I think of all the sketchy-looking people in Old Town, where I live. As anyone in Humboldt knows, there are a lot of them.
Here’s what I know for certain: if I were walking down the street in Aurora wearing a ski mask and flailing my arms I wouldn’t be killed by a cop. What is wrong with this country that a person can call 911, describing a young African American massage therapist as “sketchy,” and three days later, he’s dead?