There are still separate justice systems in America, as has been evidenced by the continuing dearth of criminal consequences for police officers who’ve caused the death of numerous Americans—even in light of last year’s uprisings against high-profile cases of police violence.
One such high profile case was that of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died in 2019 after being apprehended by police officers in Aurora, Colorado, who put McClain in a carotid hold on no other justification than a 911 call that said McClain “looked sketchy” while he was walking home from a convenience store. Paramedics who arrived on the scene after McClain had lost consciousness from the cops’ brutal restraining then injected him with a massively outsized dose of ketamine, according to a recent independent investigation, after which the young man went into cardiac arrest and then died a few days later.
The officers involved in McClain’s fatal arrest—Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema—are still employed with the Aurora Police Department, after former Adams County District Attorney Dave Young said they did not break the law in their use of force against McClain. Protests against the lack of accountability for the cops went into overdrive in Aurora last summer amidst the nationwide outrage against police brutality, especially when it came to light that police officers there had taken mocking selfies outside of a memorial to McClain.
Now several of the organizers who led those protests are potentially facing decades in prison on a suite of charges filed by Young before he left office. Joel Northam and Lillian House spoke with The Root about the felony charges they now have to answer to—which include engaging in a riot without a weapon, attempting to influence a public servant, conspiring to commit theft and attempted kidnapping of police officers, according to a report by Denver’s Westword.
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“What’s really perverse here is that this was a really massive movement, thousands of people in this community took part in it and it was entirely justified,” said House, who described the demonstrations outside the Aurora police station last summer as peaceful sit-ins where she and others non-violently demanded accountability for McClain’s killers. “No act there constituted an attempted kidnapping.”
The DA who brought the charges against them said they prevented officers from being able to leave their precinct by barricading doors. House stridently denies the characterization of their actions.
“It’s really a very dangerous attack on the right to protest,” she said. “The violence of the police here is just so immense. To try and smear and criminalize the movement that’s challenging that, that is a movement against violence is just perverse.”
House faces nearly 50 years in prison if convicted on the charges.
Northam, who is facing over 40 years in prison if convicted, said a SWAT team pulled up at his home in September in a tank and with automatic weapons to arrest him.
At the time, “I’m thinking about historic raids on Black activists and what happened to them,” Northam said. “They literally could just walk up and execute me and just say I did something—that’s going through my mind.”
He and House, who was arrested on the same day, then spent eight days in jail, as did another organizer, Eliza Lucero.
“I think about the fact that we’ve done more jail time and have faced more consequences just for asking for justice for a man who we saw murdered on video, than any of the cops,” said Northam.
He also pointed out what he said is a double standard between how they are being treated for protesting against racist policing, as compared to the handling of the Capitol insurrectionists—the majority of whom have not been charged with felonies. “A lot of the people involved in that were treated with velvet gloves, while we didn’t do anything and they’re throwing the book at us.”
Amelia Power, an attorney representing Northam, House, and their fellow organizers Terrence Roberts and Eliza Lucero who are also facing charges, said she hopes the newly elected DAs in the jurisdictions where they are being charged will recognize that the cases do not serve the interests of justice.
Calls about the case to the office of Colorado’s 17th Judicial District DA Brian Mason, who replaced DA Young after running on a platform of addressing injustices in the criminal justice system, were not answered. The office of DA John Keller of the 18th Judicial District declined to comment on the cases but confirmed they have open cases against three of the organizers.
Northam and House have preliminary hearings in court on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Colorado’s State Attorney General Phil Weiser is currently re-examining the Elijah McClain case and has opened a grand jury investigation into his death.