Aurora’s interim police chief said it was necessary to use lines of riot police to clear out a Saturday protest from the city’s municipal grounds because some members of the crowd threw rocks and water bottles at police, or tried to fight officers.
Undercover police officers mixed with the crowd of demonstrators — who were protesting the death last year of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police — heard people talking about rushing the department’s headquarters and saw people in the crowd passing out rocks, interim Chief Vanessa Wilson said Monday in an interview with The Denver Post.
Wilson blamed the escalation on a small group of agitators inside the larger, widely peaceful crowd. One man legally armed with a handgun also climbed up a wall and gained high ground on the officers and protesters, making officers nervous, Wilson said.
“We were attacked with rocks and we had to defend our officers,” she said, adding that some tried to take the officers’ batons and hit them with a flag. “My officers aren’t sacrificial lambs.”
The department’s narrative clashes with what protesters have said for two days — that Aurora police escalated tensions after hours of peaceful protest Saturday and that officers hit, shoved and pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters. People who were at the protests said police aggressively advanced toward the crowd multiple times for no apparent reason.
“Even if there was a protester who threw a rock or a stick, if that’s the response on a crowd full of families to one or two protesters throwing a rock or a stick, I think they should do some serious thinking about their response,” said Jolene Fisher, an assistant professor at University of Colorado Boulder who attended the demonstration.
As the department’s actions continued to draw local and national attention, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman on Monday called a special meeting of the City Council at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday so police can discuss their response and answer city leadership’s questions. The meeting will be broadcast live online at AuroraTV.org.
“We are hearing many questions and concerns from the community about the tactics used by the Aurora Police Department during Saturday’s protests, and council needs to hear first-hand specifically what happened,” Coffman said. “The tragic death of Elijah McClain brought out many peaceful people over the weekend who want their voices heard, and unfortunately there were disruptions that overshadowed the broader message. I look forward to working with City Council to understand more and make sure we are upfront and transparent with our residents.”
Andy Cross, The Denver Post
Elijah McClain protesters in a cloud of gas from Aurora police officers at the Aurora Police Department’s headquarters at the Aurora Municipal Center June 27, 2020. Elijah McClain died Aug. 30, 2019 several days after a struggle with Aurora police.
Footage of officers’ actions
Videos from Saturday evening show lines of dozens of officers using 42-inch batons to shove and push groups. Other videos show the officers hitting protesters with batons and spraying them with pepper spray — including one woman as she ran from them. Another shows multiple officers in full riot gear surround a kneeling girl holding a sign.
And another shows officers beating a protester as he sat on the ground in front of their advancing line, holding a sign with one hand and his phone in the other.
A short montage of body camera footage released Monday by Aurora police shows an officer being hit with something and protesters pushing down a barricade.
Police dispatch notes from the protest provided to news outlets show officers saw people climbing over and dismantling barricades as well as picking up sticks and rocks. One entry shows that Arapahoe County deputies believed a person had a Molotov cocktail, though it turned out to actually be a squirt bottle. Officer reports provided to news outlets show police saw people in the crowd throw water bottles, rocks and traffic cones.
The only damage to the city buildings were letters ripped off the front of the history museum and a single act of graffiti, according to a statement from Coffman.
Law enforcement on scene used a smoke canister, pepper spray, beanbag shotgun rounds and foam bullets, said Wilson, who repeated the department’s assurance that officers did not use tear gas. She said the less-lethal projectiles were only used on people actively fighting with police.
Three outside agencies — the sheriff’s offices of Jefferson, Arapahoe and Adams counties — also responded to the protests as back-up. The deputies from those agencies adhered to Aurora’s use-of-force policy, Aurora police spokeswoman Faith Goodrich said.
All law enforcement officers who had been issued body cameras were instructed to wear them and have them turned on, Goodrich said. But not all officers — like Aurora’s detectives — are issued body cameras, and therefore might not have been wearing them during the protest.
The violence by police was especially disheartening because protesters were using the city’s main public square designed for citizens to have their voices heard, said state Sen. Jeff Bridges, whose district includes part of Aurora.
“It is injustice heaped upon injustice,” Bridges said. “These were people protesting the killing of Elijah McClain and then Aurora police come out and violate their First Amendment rights.”
Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post
Community members and “white allies” shield violinists and young children who were attending a concert in honor of Elijah McClain as things begin to get violent outside the Aurora Police Department Headquarters on Saturday, June 27, 2020.
A peaceful crowd confronted
Fisher and her husband arrived at the municipal center about 4:30 p.m. Saturday, she said. They marched with a youth-led group before returning to the grassy lawn. Later, about 8 p.m., she sat and listened to violinists play at a vigil for the 23-year-old McClain, who played the violin.
“It was beautiful, we’re looking around and several times said, ‘Wow look at all the families,’ ” Fisher said.
But the peace was soon interrupted by the pops of gas cans and less-lethal projectiles that scattered and frightened the crowd of hundreds.
“I’m looking around at kids crying in the parking lot, moms are trying to gather their scattered children,” Fisher said.
A video recorded by Aurora City Councilman Juan Marcano shows the moments police confronted the crowd and divided it in two. As the violinists played, a line of officers dressed in all-black riot gear marched down the sidewalk lining the large grassy area.
“Keep playing!” people in the crowd, some seated on the lawn, implored the musicians. The violinists resumed their music after a pause and continued, even as dozens of police marched onto the lawn, pushing protesters back, and a plume of smoke rose into the air.
The music soon mixed with protesters’ chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the officers, golden evening light glinting off their face visors.
“This is America, folks,” Marcano said.
Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post
A man stands up close to Aurora Police dressed in riot gear during a protest for Elijah McClain outside the Aurora Police Department Headquarters on Saturday, June 27, 2020.
“He saved us”
Fisher, who was in the crowd of people being pushed back, said the police moved everyone to the edge of the park, where a violinist jumped in the back of a truck and started to play again. The music diffused the situation and protesters began to sing and dance to the musician’s rendition of an Alicia Keys song.
“It was like he saved us from this moment that was about to get so volatile,” Fisher said of the violinist.
Wilson acknowledged that people peacefully listening to the violin players would be frightened by lines of riot police marching down the lawn. She said the department’s intent was to separate those peacefully listening to the musicians from those causing problems.
To the peaceful people caught in the crowd that was pushed across the lawn, Wilson said she wished they would have listened to the orders to disperse.
The two people arrested during the protest were from Westminster and Glenwood Springs, Wilson said.
Officers were bruised and scraped due to the protests, but none were hospitalized due to those injuries, Wilson said.