Mike Littwin: It was Aurora, but it could have been anywhere

Mike Littwin
Colorado Sun

When you heard the news that the cops had the wrong car, that the cops had the right license number but the wrong state, that the car they stopped was an SUV with Colorado plates while the stolen vehicle in question was a Montana motorcycle, did you immediately think this must be Aurora?

When you heard that the cops approached the wrong car with guns drawn, that the people in the car — the driver, her sister, daughters and nieces — were going to get their nails done, that if guns actually needed to have been drawn, the children, ranging in ages from 6 to 17, could have been caught in a crossfire, that the 6-year-old and others were made to lie face down on the pavement, that some of the people in the car were handcuffed (fortunately, not the 6-year-old; it’s not like these cops were the Denver school police), that some of the children were scared and screaming, that onlookers tried to intervene on behalf of the kids, did you think, yeah, this has got to be Aurora?

When you heard that the cops, upon realizing their mistake, had to apologize because they had screwed up in every possible way, that a lieutenant had to come to the scene to ask if anyone wanted to file an official complaint, that the chief of police had to call the family to offer assistance to the family and the traumatized children, did you think, yeah, I know this must be Aurora?

I know I did, but I also know that, in real life, it could have been anywhere. I don’t know what’s going on in Aurora. What’s clear is that every mistake they’ve made — from a show of force near the site of a violin vigil and no force when the municipal building was trashed — since the Elijah McClain story was resurrected has been compounded by the next. And then they all go national. Speaking of which, does anyone know what is happening in the case of the driver of the Jeep who sped through the crowd on I-225?

I’m not saying that Aurora’s cops are worse than anyone else’s, although there are obviously serious problems there. In fact, the point of the George Floyd protests is that systemic racism in police forces is found nationwide. Certainly, we’ve seen a Denver sheriff’s department out of control, and the needless deaths there, and the lack of punishment. And we know the names of the stories that have gone national, and we don’t know the names of the many, many more victims’ stories that haven’t. If not for the George Floyd protests, there would never have been all this attention on Elijah McClain‘s death.

What’s clear in Aurora is that they’ve named a new police chief, Vanessa Wilson, who had the interim job, and even as she got promoted, there was this new story to go national. The people in the car were Black. It turned out that their car had previously been stolen, and maybe that had something to do with the mix-up.

Twitter exploded. Would a white 6-year-old, many asked, have been made to lie face down on the pavement?

Of course people would ask. In the heat of Black Lives Matter, who wouldn’t ask?

Chief Wilson explained the protocol for the stop: “We have been training our officers that when they contact a suspected stolen car, they should do what is called a high-risk stop. This involves drawing their weapons and ordering all occupants to exit the car and lie prone on the ground. But we must allow our officers to have discretion and to deviate from this process when different scenarios present themselves. I have already directed my team to look at new practices and training.”

Yes, it seems like there should have been some discretion. It seems like the younger kids could have been removed from the scene. It seems that risking a gunfight with children in the mix can’t possibly be the right call. It’s a stolen car, right? Which turned out, of course, not to be a stolen car. Is there more to the story? Not that we’ve been told.

At this point, the Aurora PD is being investigated, at last count, by four entities looking into the McClain case, in which, as everyone knows by now, a young man who had done nothing wrong was arrested after a 911 call said that someone was wearing a mask on the street while swinging his hands. And in the hands of a police, an apparently healthy young person died. In the audio of a terrifying 18 minutes, we hear McClain say in distress to the cops who had applied a carotid choke hold on him, “I can’t breathe correctly.” The “I can’t breathe” brought us right back to George Floyd.

Three cops were fired — not for anything that had been done to McClain but for taking a photo mocking McClain’s death. No one has been charged in the death, which has led to the outrage.

If you want the best article I’ve seen on the case, check out Alan Prendergast’s cover story in this week’s Westword, with the headline “Did Officials Ignore the Obvious in Elijah McClain’s Death?” It is a good thing, an important thing, that people are paying attention. Who’d have thought that turning on an NBA game in an Orlando bubble would turn into a nightly lesson on racial injustice? Who’d have thought that polls would show a healthy majority of Americans approving of Black Lives Matter? Who’d have thought that so many white protesters would join Black protesters in the streets?

We have seen police chiefs regularly fired over the years, and that hasn’t changed systemic racism. We loudly decry police unions defending indefensible officers, and that hasn’t worked. We have some — I won’t mention any names, but I’m thinking of the guy who likes to call protesters anarchists and Antifa thugs — who would try to turn a story of racial injustice into a racialized political issue. And I hope that hasn’t worked.

And I’m still trying to get out of my mind the image of the crying 6-year-old face down on the pavement. I can’t seem to make that work, either. We have to do better than this, in Aurora and in all the Auroras out there. It is long past time.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.