Elijah McClain of Aurora, Colorado, was many things. The slight 23-year-old, who looked younger, was a massage therapist one client described as “the sweetest, purest person I have ever met.” He was a vegetarian who taught himself to play the guitar and violin and shared his musical gifts with shelter animals to calm them. Family members said he sometimes wore a ski mask because he was anemic and always cold, and perhaps to create some distance in a world he found overwhelming. (And aren’t we all supposed to be covering our faces these days.) In his final trip to a convenience store, though, he interacted with the clerk and customers, it seemed from video, offering a bow on his way out.
Did he look “sketchy” and “suspicious” to a 911 caller and police because he sang to himself on the walk home and waved his arms, perhaps conducting a symphony only he could hear? McClain told the police who stopped him, “I am an introvert, please respect the boundaries that I am speaking.”
The three officers escalated the confrontation, took him down with a hold that made him utter a too-often-heard refrain: “I just can’t breathe correctly.” One officer threatened to sic a dog on him. If they saw his quirks, his idiosyncrasies, his joy, it did not translate. If they heard his pleas, these enforcers of laws the young man had not broken did not listen. “You are beautiful and I love you,” he told them. He apologized for vomiting as police tossed around his 140-pound body before medics shot it up with strong drugs.
Now, Elijah McClain, who police say committed no crime, is dead.
Well, except for the “crime” he himself knew triggers suspicion if you are Black: “I’m just different.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter protests and a renewed look at past and present crimes of racial injustice, Colorado has reopened the previously closed investigation into his death. Violinists gathered in Aurora for a musical tribute, and were chased off by police in riot gear, playing their part only too well.
A constant toil
African Americans still struggle, as always, to be seen as individuals instead of as stereotypes that allow for criminalization with every slight step outside the norm of what the country’s enforcers require.
Black citizens are no longer judged as three-fifths of a person, but that doesn’t mean we are treated as unique human beings who may not hear a shouted command, who may tense up when we are confronted for going about the business of living.
It’s why Ahmaud Arbery stopping to examine a house under construction, something video revealed many did, was seen as probable cause for three white men to stalk and kill him, instead of as the natural curiosity of someone interested in becoming an electrician, just like his uncles.
It’s why a sleeping Breonna Taylor was not seen at all by police serving a no-knock warrant.
Until the drawn-out killing of Floyd, those who would excuse black death in police custody spent more time examining the pasts of the victims than the records of police officers trailing lists of citizen complaints and settlements paid. Actually, some did try with Floyd.
Even “positive” stereotypes can harm, as Vice President Mike Pence proved when he stubbornly refused to say “Black Lives Matter,” insisting the ghost of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would approve. Pence ignored that the man, not the memory, who was cursed as divisive when he lived, said: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
Starts at the top
President Donald Trump, leaning heavily into racism as his handling of the economy and the coronavirus falls away as a reelection strategy, is less subtle when he pivots back to raw, racist stereotype. The president retweeted a video of a Florida supporter yelling, “White power,” and never truly condemned it, though hours later it disappeared from his social media account. He followed it up by sharing a tweet showing a white St. Louis couple brandishing weapons toward a diverse group of protesters passing by their home.
To Trump, peaceful protesters exercising First Amendment rights are no better than “thugs” and certainly a lot worse than gun-toting demonstrators exercising their Second Amendment rights while demanding governors reopen states in the midst of a COVID-19 surge.
Trump’s Harvard-educated mini-me, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., provided a speech worthy of the president when he argued against a House bill backed by Democrats that would make the District of Columbia the 51st state.
Sure, D.C., with more than 700,000 residents, has a larger population than the state of Wyoming with fewer than 600,000, but Wyoming “has three times as many workers in mining, logging and construction, and 10 times as many workers in manufacturing,” Cotton said, “a well-rounded working-class state,” one that not coincidentally is overwhelmingly white.
It’s just that D.C. needs more loggers? That couldn’t be the only reason Cotton favors tax-paying citizens watching laws they pass overturned on a whim by Congress or isn’t bothered that so many Americans don’t have a voting voice in the House and Senate. Could it be who they are, not what they do?
Everyone got the answer when Cotton asked, “Would you trust Mayor Bowser to keep Washington safe if she were given the powers of a governor? Would you trust Marion Barry?” The only thing the current mayor, Muriel Bowser, has in common with a controversial and complicated one who died in 2014? Being Black and a Democrat.
The thought that two more Black Democrats might join his exclusive Senate club probably gives Cotton a serious case of the vapors, even if that’s what voters want. No worry, since the statehood bill is sure to gather dust on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk, along with one putting teeth into a Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court. After that 2013 ruling, a federal appeals court threw out North Carolina’s quickly enacted laundry list of voting restrictions, saying it targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.”
You can’t get plainer than that, all that effort put into dividing Americans for political gain. It would be far easier for Trump, Cotton, McConnell and company to fight for the votes of African Americans by supporting policies that would alleviate inequities that have long existed. And polls show they might also pick up some votes from folks who are not Black, who now view justice as a priority.
But that would mean admitting there is more than one way to be an American.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.