What happened to Elijah McClain?
Hendrik Sybrandy

In Colorado last weekend, protesters gathered outside Aurora Police Department to express their frustration, their anger about the death of Elijah McClain.

"We all should be treated the same and what happened to him was injustice," said one woman.

He died last August 30th, days after a run-in with police. Among his last words: "I can't breathe."

"It's a kid, an innocent kid who had so much going for him, who could go so far," said another woman.

By all accounts, 23-year-old McClain was a gentle young man, and a bit different. He was seen wearing a ski mask inside a convenience store shortly before someone called police.

"I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious," one officer told him.

He struggled and pleaded with officers.

"I'm an introvert, I'm going home," McClain said.

He was put in a stranglehold, and after several minutes, injected with a strong sedative and loaded into an ambulance where he went into cardiac arrest. He died later at the hospital.

"It actually brought me to tears watching that video," said Devon Wright, who teaches Africana studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

He said McClain’s slight stature and mild-mannered nature run counter to the police and public stereotype of black men as physically powerful.

"Appearing awkward is ultimately what got him killed by police," Wright said. "That's the particular thing, in this particular case, that is really really moving people emotionally."

He said the recent series of black deaths at the hands of police, an explosion of social media and even the layoffs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have fueled protesters.

"They have time to think about how angry they are at things, to reflect on these recent incidents and go out and protest so I think that’s really what’s going on in this moment that we're experiencing," Wright said.

A petition to reopen the investigation into Elijah McClain's death now has three million signatures. Three officers were cleared of wrong-doing but federal authorities, among others, have reopened the case.

"The minute Elijah's last breath left his body, they got away with it," McClain's mother said during an interview with the U.S. entertainment network TMZ.

"There have to be repercussions, otherwise police officers don't learn," said Andrea Borrego, who teaches criminology at MSU Denver. She said McClain's death could be a​nother turning point, helping change how policing is done.

"I hope so because otherwise we're going to continue to get these types of demonstrations over and over again if we don't learn from our mistakes," Borrego said.

These demonstrations have featured violins. McClain ​often played the instrument at animal shelters. In an echo of other protests, they've also turned violent at times. More rallies are planned.

"If I'm going to give a prediction, perhaps we're just getting started," Wright said.

A young man the country never knew before is now another face of racial injustice bringing so many out into the streets.