April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication which affects one out of every 54 US children. Autism affects each person differently and poses challenges respective to the individual. Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is considered an “invisible disorder” since there is no physical indication of the condition.
Elijah McClain was a 23-year-old Black man who, at about 140 pounds, was slight of build. He was a musician and a massage therapist. He lived an unassuming, relatively conventional life on the Autism Spectrum. On Aug. 25, 2019, he was walking home from a convenience store, bringing his brother an iced tea, and, because of anemia, wearing an open-faced ski mask to keep his face warm.
Three Aurora, Colo., police officers decided that Elijah’s appearance and conduct was “suspicious.” As they called to him, Elijah was listening to music on his headphones and “ignored” their calls. The police restrained Elijah, wrestled him to the ground and placed him in a chokehold.
Elijah can be heard pleading with the police, saying he had done nothing wrong and, “I’m an introvert, please respect my boundaries that I am speaking.” And, while being choked, he uttered the all-too-familiar phrase “I can’t breathe.” Before losing consciousness, his last words were, “I am different.”
Paramedics were called. They administered Elijah an overdose of the sedative ketamine, and he was transported to the hospital. In the ambulance, it was observed that Elijah was not breathing. He was declared brain-dead on Aug. 27. An independent report commissioned by the Aurora City Council said the encounter “didn’t appear to be supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”
Listening to audio of this encounter was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences of my life. Unfortunately, that event and others like it are far too common in communities of color! Each day during Holy Week, we listened to eyewitness accounts of the brutal murder of George Floyd. We have seen what, by all appearances, was an execution without regard for the humanity of a man. This, too, is all too familiar.
I have always believed in keeping explanations simple. Most will understand you and few will be able to twist your words into self-serving utterances. I challenge anyone who viewed videos of the incident to explain how the crime he committed would justify the imposition of the death penalty. Chauvin’s use of extrajudicial authority cannot be justified. And his smug, “can’t touch this” arrogance as he knelt astride George Floyd’s neck made the episode more intolerable.
I am not afraid to speak the obvious truth to power. Derek Chauvin’s defense team cannot throw enough mud to satisfy the dehumanization of George Floyd. Any hypocrite willing to minimize the value of George Floyd’s life because of drug use must first publicly berate and diminish the life of the drug-addled Rush Limbaugh in a similar manner.
Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Rayshard Brooks, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor — the list goes on. They are not just names — they are men and women who anticipated full and complete lives. None suspected that some rogue, maniacal descendant of a 19th-century slave catcher would choose to intervene in their lives with deadly consequence.
We cannot condemn all police for rogue activities, but we must not accept further repetition of this gross injustice. We must be vigilant in the protection of our community and we must support the police reform bill that is now in the Senate.
It is said that the past is prologue to the future. If so, we must make the present a past that is acceptable to our future.
Williams is president of the National Congress of Black Women.