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Opinion: Remembering The Life And Spirit Of Elijah McClain

String players perform during a violin vigil for Elijah McClain in Washington Square Park on June 29, 2020, in New York City.
Byron Smith
Getty Images
String players perform during a violin vigil for Elijah McClain in Washington Square Park on June 29, 2020, in New York City.

Elijah McClain taught himself how to play the violin, and played it to comfort kittens in need of homes.

This week a grand jury in Colorado indicted two police officers, a former officer and two paramedics for manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the death of Elijah McClain.

He was a 23 year-old Black man who was walking home in Aurora, Colo., on the night of Aug. 24, 2019. He had on headphones, to hear music, and wore a ski mask, as his family said he often did - he was anemic and got cold easily.

But someone said he "looked sketchy" and called 911.

He committed no crime; and wasn't arrested. But police officers placed Elijah McClain him in a carotid hold, which stops blood to the brain, and injected him with ketamine, a strong sedative. He went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, and died a few days later.

It is hard to hear on the body-cam video what he told police. "I am an introvert. ... Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking. ...Leave me alone."

What was all at once heart-rending and warming to recall this week was what family and friends said about this young man who seemed an incandescent spirit, who danced at work and played music for animals.

As his story gained attention last summer, violinists all over the country played vigils — like this one organized by Sean Bennett in New York's Washington Square Park.

Elijah McClain's sister Samara told The Denver Post, "He was a really good person. He didn't argue with anybody. If you tried to argue with him, he would just say 'I love you' and walk away."

Madison Freeman, a receptionist at Massage Envy, where Elijah McClain was a massage therapist, told The Guardian, "It was almost like he walked with a gold orb around him."

James Vigil, another massage therapist, remembered when someone tried to kill a fly, and Elijah McClain saved it.

"He trapped it in the cup real quick and he released it outside," he told the Guardian. "He came back in and said, 'You know, every life matters.'"

Sheneen McClain, his mother, toldColorado Public Radio this year that the wrenching death of her son has helped alert the public to police reforms that have been needed for a long time.

"They unleashed him," she said of her son. "Now he's touching the world."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.