Such an overwhelming pattern of lethal violence against African Americans at the hands of police unskilled in nonviolent conflict resolution has emerged over the past decade that I was less stunned by news of what happened to 23-year-old Elijah Jovan McClain in Denver, Colorado, last August 24, than I was by the words attributed to him as he was being detained and slowly robbed of his life. I have not been able to access a single video or recording on which everything Mr. McClain said can be heard clearly but according to the fact-checking website Snopes.com this is an accurate transcription:
“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people, I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You are all very strong. Teamwork makes the dream work. Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”
These are not words to cry over and then forget. They were uttered as McClain (wearing earbuds and carrying a shopping bag) was stopped, forced to the ground with a carotid (choke) hold, injected with a chemical called Ketamine to make him more docile, and then transported to a hospital where he died a few days later.
“Try to Forgive Me”
There is a mixture of awe, admiration, and fear in the demeanor of people sharing McClain’s last utterances across the internet. They are amazed by the clarity of his spiritual intention to put the officers at ease although he is the one, at some 140 pounds, who is clearly outnumbered and overpowered. In short, he demonstrates compassion towards them while his freedom and life are being taken from him. He tells them, “You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me.”
Imagine if even half the compassion which Mr. McClain exercised towards the law enforcement officials in Denver had been shown by different police or citizens anxiously out to make arrests in the cases of: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, my adolescent brother Robert Lee, and the numerous others who did not become subjects of intensified media scrutiny or campaigns calling for justice.
Compassion might have led officer Timothy Loehmann to see Tamir Rice as a 12-year-old child instead of as a deadly threat and coaxed him to drop the toy gun he was holding before unloading actual gunfire on him. It might have decreased the toxic rush of “fear” Trooper Brian Encinia claimed he feared for his life when forcing an unarmed Sandra Bland out of her car reportedly for failing to signal a lane change. Whereas compassion might possibly have won him a new friend or admirer, his brutally aggressive treatment and arrest of Bland ended in what was ruled as a suicide by hanging in her jail cell.
Considering the Golden Rule: Who among us know of anyone who would wish to have done to them the gun violence so many, and the loved ones left behind, have experienced just this year alone?
Recent reforms in police training and procedures combined with legislation to support them provide reason to believe the kind of unjustified killings we have seen can and will end. Chances of that happening increase greatly with a mindful cultivation of compassion as an essential tool for addressing volatile situations within communities as a whole before life-threatening conflicts occur.
The Violinist and the Kittens
Only those closest to him can speak with any kind of authority about who or what Elijah McClain was but there are videos and public documentation which support claims he was an exceptionally sensitive and empathetic human being. Some might find the description of him as “an angel walking among people” a bit much. Speaking for himself he declared: “I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all.” That wasn’t exactly all because being a massage therapist did make him a kind of healer in the mode of an angel. In fact, his fateful encounter with police occurred after reportedly purchasing tea for a cousin.
And then there is this: he was so concerned about the loneliness from which he believed kittens in shelters might suffer that on his lunchbreaks he played the violin for them. That practice of musical compassion prompted world-class musicians to gather in Aurora on June 27, 2020 and play their hearts out as crowds peacefully chanted and called out #Justice4ElijahMcClain.
Read McClain’s final words again and note the degree to which he is holding himself accountable, not his uniformed assailants, for the transgression against him: “Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.” And this amazing plea: “Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better.” There are certain phrases or words we use––like beautiful soul, altruistic, sublime spirit, courageous, and saintly––to characterize someone who places above their own well-being that of people causing them harm. They are not phrases restricted to any single color, gender, nationality, or demographic classification. If anything, by their nature they confirm the presence of someone whose life example seemingly transcends sociological categorization.
The appropriate application of such words is determined by going beyond simply advocating for love- and compassion-based social change in our world to taking the radical dangerous step of embodying that change and living it. We know it is a radical and even, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., a “marvelously militant” thing to do because historically committing to it has cost a lot of beautiful souls their physical existence. We also know Elijah Jovan McClain had taken that sublimely revolutionary step and made the heroic commitment because even in the face of voracious death he did not refrain from proclaiming and living it.
28 June, 2020
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
Since the publication of "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" special feature story in ESSENCE Magazine, November 1997, perspectives on men of African descent in the United States of America have evolved to cover a lot of ideological territory. That observation rings as true for everyday citizens of the country as it does for mainstream media, in which we have seen a gamut of extreme images, sometimes horrifying bloody, sometimes wonderfully inspiring.
The atmosphere of combativeness generated when the country's President-Elect, Donald Trump, chose to castigate civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) for exercising his right (some might say duty) to voice concerns over political legitimacy, removed any doubt that a lot of work still needs to be done where race relations are concerned. In light of the increasingly disturbing violent deaths of African-American men, women, and children over the past few years, prompting me to wonder if their names inexplicably would soon join the others, and in light of unconcealed attempts at disenfranchisement, an industrial prison complex that gorges itself on Black men's lives, and other irrefutable factors, "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" takes on new and powerful significance in this year marking the 20th anniversary of its publication.
Among other things, it is also, as Black History Month approaches, one more reason to think back with gratitude for the leadership which Susan L. Taylor, now founder/director of National Cares Mentoring Movement, provided as editor-in-chief of the magazine for some 20 years. In the noted classic issue, she reminded readers of this: "Whatever parcels of power we claim today were not surrendered to us willingly or without long and painful struggle. That struggle continues because our oppression continues..."
Nevertheless, the dominant theme for the occasion was more one of celebration than protestation. As such, the following description of the African-American man is from the magazine's contents synopsis and introduction to the original feature:
"From sexual icon to warrior to caretaker--he is our black man. In this annual men's issue, we explore how he handles power, privilege and pain... He is many things to many people: husband and lover, father and son, brother, friend, sex symbol and political nightmare, crossover icon and business mogul..."
Those bright powerful noble words make a poignant contrast to the vivid horror of Black men's and boys' bodies falling in American streets to the repeated blasts of gunfire. That does not mean they are no longer relevant.
On Timelines and Parallel Conditions
We know in 2017 that how Black Men are perceived, perceived, or guerrilla decontextualized, is extremely important because of the various circumstances and events that have led to their deaths, or incarceration, in more instances than anyone can accurately count.
Alleged perceptions of unarmed black males as immediate threats to armed policeman's lives (or a would-be policeman in the case of George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin) has resulted in numerous deaths declared "justifiable" under Stand Your Ground laws. Stunningly, Edward Lewis, who in 1997 was publisher of ESSENCE and CEO of Essence Communications, Inc., wrote in the November issue:
"Some victims of police brutality don't live to tell about it. They die from bullets and blows and choke holds that are found--upon review by higher authorities--to fall roughly within acceptable guidelines. Others, who seek redress, often find their paths blocked."
Could not Lewis's words written 20 years ago have been penned just as easily in 2017? Think Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray,Terence Crutcher, Walter L. Scott, Sandra Bland and, sadly, many more.
A Few Thoughts from Trevor Noah
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.