Did Denver host the world’s largest Soul Train line on Sunday night?
It seems possible, at least by first glance. Because if you looked outside the Montbello Recreation Center in the city’s far northeast on Sunday night, you would have seen close to 300 people gathered on the football field, dancing and gyrating next to the hash marks, moving in one direction in unison while music blasted from massive speakers.
The song selection included OutKast’s “Hey Ya!,” Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” and, of course, the “Cupid Shuffle.”
The folks who turned out were there to celebrate Elijah McClain, who died nearly a year ago. They were joined by his family and other local advocates.
McClain died on August 27, 2019, after Aurora police tried to detain him and responding paramedics used ketamine to sedate him. He had committed no crime. His death sparked multiple investigations into police and paramedic’s actions, though the officers involved have not been charged.
The event on Sunday was billed as a musical celebration for people to recognize the value of life, and, in turn, the value of McClain’s. His death has galvanized people across the country who are calling for police accountability and justice for his death following demonstrations that erupted this summer after the death of George Floyd.
Candice Bailey, one of the event organizers, called the event a celebration for all who have lost their lives to police brutality and systematic injustice.
“We keep talking about the police, we keep talking about what happened, what was done,” Bailey said. “But we’re not talking about the fact that you should wake up and feel more gratitude for life.”
The event came together on short notice. It was the only event to receive the blessing of McClain’s mother, Sheneen, who asked her attorney Mari Newman to speak on her behalf on Sunday. Newman said the original plan was to have an event where people would walk the path from the corner store McClain had visited before his encounter with the police to his home in Aurora.
Newman criticized the city of Aurora for trying to “co-opt” the event. The city issued a notice to businesses, warning them of possible looting due to expected demonstrators in the city marking McClain’s death.
“Elijah’s life was never about violence, was never about anything close to that,” Newman said. “As you see here, this celebration of Elijah’s life is the exact opposite of what Aurora tried to portray.”
While the dancing was constant, there were some somber moments. A string ensemble finished playing a rendition of Pachelbel’s “Canon” they said had been interpreted during a vigil for McClain in June after police got involved. And Denver school board member Tay Anderson led the crowd with a call-and-response for McClain and Breonna Taylor’s names and attendees held their cell phone flashlights in the air.
MiDian Holmes was one of the first people at the event. She was there to call on justice for McClain and for his mother, whom Holmes said faces a wound that cannot heal until there’s justice.
For Holmes, justice for McClain means “arresting, convicting and sentencing” the officers involved in his death.
“That’s what we have to do,” Holmes said. “To continue to show up until she can get justice and until she can get a sense of peace after losing her son.”