The Anything-But-Race Movement

When the main problem is never the problem.

Painting of Elijah McClain by Matty Miller.

Last year in Colorado, police approached 23-year-old Elijah McClain, who was on his way back home after picking up an iced tea for his brother. Three officers approached McClain, and African American man, for “being a suspicious person.”

What exactly constitutes a “suspicious person?” Police will say it was because McClain was wearing a ski mask, but McClain would often get cold — a side effect of his anemia.

McClain was a massage therapist and an animal lover, as well as an auto-didactic guitar and violin player. He would often play his violin for the neighborhood cats. He thought it soothed them.

Officers approached McClain, who was unarmed. “I have a right to stop you because you’re being suspicious,” one officer is heard saying.

“I am an introvert, please respect the boundaries that I am speaking,” McClain responded. Then, without questioning McClain, the officer immediately subdued him.

All three officers had body cameras, but they conveniently fell off during their interaction with McClain. At one point, 15 and a half minutes into the raw footage, an officer picks a fallen camera off the ground to point at McClain before another officer instructs him to “leave your camera there.”

The officers attempted two carotid holds on McClain with one being successful. A carotid hold entails applying pressure to a person’s neck with the goal of cutting off blood flow to the brain, rendering the person unconscious.

Before losing consciousness, the introverted, violin playing young man can be heard begging for his life. Sobbing and vomiting, the 140 pound McClain is crushed by the weight of three officers on top of him.

Paramedics arrived onto the scene and injected the unconscious McClain with ketamine, a sedative. (Why an unconscious person would need a sedative is unclear to me, but I’m not a trained medical professional.) McClain’s body immediately became limp, and he went into cardiac arrest soon after the injection. A few days days later, McClain died in the hospital after being declared brain dead.

It took three months for the body camera footage to be released to the public. The official autopsy report noted that the cause of death was “undetermined.” The police report stated that “it was unclear if the officer’s actions contributed (to Elijah McClain’s death).” Later in the police report, McClain’s asthma is offered as a possible explanation for his death.

Walking home, McClain had an asthma attack and died. This is the police’s account.

Since McClain’s death, two pictures have gone viral. One is McClain playing violin for cats at an animal shelter because he thought they were lonely. The other is a smiling selfie of three police officers near McClain’s memorial. One officer is mockingly reenacting the chokehold that most likely contributed to McClain’s death.

Top, Elijah McClain plays the violin for cats at an animal shelter. Bottom, three Aurora police officers smile and pose in a chokehold position across from Elijah McClain’s memorial.

Elijah McClain is an example of a larger problem with policing. After discovering that the FBI undercounted citizen deaths at the hands of police, the Washington Post began a database of every police involved death in 2015. In those five years, police have killed over 5,000 civilians.

Last year, United Kingdom police killed three of its citizens. American police kill around three citizens per day. Black Americans account for 13 percent of the population but a quarter of all police shooting victims.

In the last five years alone, 2,500 different police departments have shot and killed an American citizen. Since Iceland became an independent republic in 1944, there has been only one shooting death by police, which occurred in 2013.

And when police kill in America, they do so with impunity. Over the last 15 years, only 42 nonfederal police officers were convicted of a crime following a shooting. Statistically, they are more likely to be convicted of lesser chargers like manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter than murder. Assuming the rate of 1,009 deaths by police per year has been relatively constant over the last 15 years, a police officer who kills an American citizen will be convicted at a rate of about 0.003%. Certainly, there are times when killing citizens by police is justifiable — but is it justifiable in 99.997% of cases?

Back to Colorado for a moment. Following the tragic death of Elijah McClain, politicians seemed uninterested in solving these systemic problems. Instead, they elected to go the easier route, like slapping a band-aid on a gushing wound. Carotid holds were banned, and the protocol for administering ketamine is under review.

The police officers were cleared of any wrongdoing and resumed their work.

Banning carotid holds and re-examining protocols are certainly important victories. But it misses the point. Too often, in the aftermath of yet another young, unarmed black man dying from the police, white America is quick to blame something besides race for the tragedy. Anything else.

For McClain, it was carotid holds and ketamine injections. For Eric Garner, the problem was chokeholds. For Michael Brown, the problem was police militarization.

There are problems, this group contends, but the problems never involve race. In a country with a documented history of racism and oppression, a similar trait among all these cases is just a coincidence. A random fact. Unimportant. Meet the group of Americans I call the Anything-But-Racers.

The president of the A.B.R. is Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky.

The Eric Garner’s tragedy wasn’t about policing or racism, according to the A.B.R. Garner, who was accused of selling loose cigarettes at the time of his death, was the victim of a far more menacing problem — regulations.

“It’s important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes, so that’s driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive. But then some politician also had to direct the police ‘hey, we want you arresting people for selling a loose cigarette,’” Senator Paul told MSNBC.

Breonna Taylor, an African American constituent of Senator Paul, was killed in her own apartment after police executed a no-knock warrant. This type of warrant allows the police to forcibly enter private property without announcing their purpose.

“After talking with Breonna Taylor’s family, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s long past time to get rid of no-knock warrants,” Senator Paul said. He sponsored a bill to end the practice in the United States.

Once again, eliminating no-knock warrants, such as banning chokeholds, is an important victory. Senator Paul deserves credit for helping end this injustice.

But once again, in another case of an unarmed African American citizen dying from police, race wasn’t relevant. Not to the A.B.R. movement.

Tomorrow, a police officer can fire their gun from a moving car at an unarmed black man, and the first solution would be to ban police discharging weapons from moving vehicles.

Solutions can only exist when the problem is clearly defined. Otherwise, solutions can only nibble along the edges, allowing the root problem to fester. Since many Americans don’t wish to identify the problem, I will.

Racism is the problem.

political science researcher. former valedictorian. reader/writer. host of “Politics Mostly” podcast.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store