Friends and family of Elijah McClain, a 23-year old Black man who died after being put in a chokehold by police and injected with ketamine by paramedics, have described how he was loved by “everybody who met him” and wanted to “change the world”.
McClain was a massage therapist, a keen musician and a runner. He went into a coma after he was stopped by police in Aurora, Colorado, in August as he walked home from a convenience store where he was buying iced teas.
Nearly a year after the fatal incident, none of the officers involved have been fired and are yet to face any criminal charges. Following public outcry – especially after the police killing of George Floyd in May – the Colorado governor, Jared Polis, announced last week that the appointment of the state attorney general, Phil Weiser, to investigate.
The move came after over 3 million people signed a petition calling for justice for McClain.
On Saturday, thousands of people attended a peaceful protest in Aurora that included a violin vigil in memory of McClain, who taught himself to play the instrument. It was dispersed by police in riot gear who deployed pepper spray against the demonstrators.
“He wanted to change the world,” his mother, Sheneen McClain, told Sentinel Colorado in October. “And it’s crazy, because he ended up doing it anyway.”
The civil rights attorney Mari Newman, who is representing the McClain family, told the Guardian McClain was loved by “everybody who met him”.
She said the family want to see “criminal charges and ultimately prosecution of those who were involved in killing Elijah”.
Since his death, Newman has been inundated with emails and calls from people who knew him – ranging from a client with a debilitating back injury to a bus driver with whom he was on a first name basis.
“Elijah danced to the beat of his own drum. He was a unique human being who brought light and joy everywhere he went, according to everybody who interacted with him,” she said.
She added: “One of his signatures is he would give a gratitude bow when he came into a room and when he left a room, and we can see a couple of videos of that, including the video from the convenience store where he bought the iced tea very shortly before he was killed.”
McClain, who had five siblings and was raised by his mother in Aurora, lived in an apartment with his cousin near where he was killed.
His mother, who homeschooled him for a period of time, noticed he was smart, studious and independent from an early age. “He didn’t want to be subjected to the poverty that I experienced as a single mother,” she told the Sentinel.
As a teenager he taught himself guitar and violin and, after graduating technical college in Denver, got a job as a massage therapist.
His sister Samara said he was planning to go to college and get a degree.
He was a vegetarian and known as a peaceful person. “He was a really good person,” she told the Denver Post. “He didn’t argue with anybody. If you tried to argue with him he would just say ‘I love you’ and walk away.”
Friends and colleagues this week told the Guardian that McClain – who was also known as Eli – changed their lives on a daily basis.
His colleagues at Massage Envy said he followed the motto “always with gratitude” and would often draw pictures for colleagues, perform headstands in the corridors and would always wear barefoot running-style “toe shoes” so he could feel closer to the ground.
As well as being a talented masseur, he was also known for the kind way he treated colleagues, regularly singing and dancing, and for regular trips to a local pet shop where he would play a violin for kittens who did not have homes.
Madison Freeman, 24, a receptionist at Massage Envy, who worked with McClain for just over a year, said: “It was almost like he walked with a gold orb around him.
“He just wanted to be better every day. And when he wasn’t down playing guitar or violin for the baby kittens, he was running, exercising outside … He was always fully booked and it was a massage that you couldn’t get again. Just his energy and his spirit, it just put you in a better mood. He truly was just a healer.”
Freeman, who said he inspired her to also become a vegetarian, said she once found him running through the lobby “like a cheetah”.
“He was just a funny guy. He was always just trying to make people laugh and always just trying to help people see the good in life.”
James Vigil, 33, a massage therapist who worked with McClain for three years, said he was “the kind of person that you could be having a bad day, look at them smile and change your day around”.
He added: “He was so peaceful, you couldn’t stay mad at him. He was just an angel, an earthly angel. He would do anything to help out anybody and he would do anything to better his life. He was constantly trying to learn and grow his knowledge. He was inspired by everything and that inspired me.”
He described how once he insisted on rescuing a fly after colleagues tried to kill it. “He trapped it in the cup real quick and he released it outside. He came back in and said, ‘You know, every life matters.’”
Eric Behrens, 32, who became friends with McClain after working with him said they talked about music together and played Playstation.
“I know it sounds weird, but even his gamer tag was a perfect example of who he was. A gamer tag … was ‘Purposely guided’. I felt like he lived like that.”
He said his music tastes were eclectic. “We talked a lot about jazz and blues and metal – although he wasn’t necessarily fond of some of the heavier stuff that I was into. But again, he was generally an open-minded kid.”
The former massage therapist Emerald Bixby, 31, who used to work with McClain at Massage Envy, said he was a “one-of-a-kind eccentric”. She added that he “so naturally marched to his own drum that he didn’t even really understand how unique he was for doing it, because he didn’t have to try”.
A spokesman for the City of Aurora said the mayor, city council and city manager are “considering a team of experts from across the country” to start a new independent, external investigation after a previous attempt was cancelled when it emerged that a former police officer had been hired to do the job.
It also said that it had brought in a changes including a community police task force that will “review current police operations and procedures”, banning police officers from using a carotid hold a new “duty to intervene” for police officers.