Two days ago, I attended a violin vigil in honor of Elijah McClain at City Center Park in Aurora, CO. Or at least, I tried to. The day before, a social media call for all violinists and bowed instruments to gather at a vigil came across my newsfeed. Elijah McClain was a 23-year-old, black man who was murdered last August after being confronted by Aurora police while walking home from a convenience store. He was autistic, a massage therapist, and played the violin for shelter kittens. I didn’t know him personally, but I know people who were close friends of his.
Up to this point in the last month or so of protests for Black Lives Matter and against police brutality my activism has been primarily digital. I felt that as a violist, attending a violin vigil was absolutely something I needed to do—and since the protests had calmed down in Denver there was no reason for me to fear my own safety in attending such an event.
I was running late for the 8:30p start time. The parking lot entrances were blocked, and I ended up parking about a quarter of a mile away and hiking through a field to get to the park. I saw several other musicians carrying instrument cases on their way in. As I got across the street from the park, a girl that was leaving said to me in warning, “Just so you know, they started using tear-gas. Be careful.” I was incredulous at first, because I just couldn’t believe that a vigil would begin with police using tear gas. I knew there had been several different protest events scheduled throughout the afternoon, but this was supposed to be a peaceful gathering. I then also realized that while I was wearing an N95 mask, the only eye protection I had were my sunglasses and that I was not prepared for walking into a situation where tear gas was being used.
As I was crossing the street and entering the parking lot to get into the park, the shouts and energy of the crowd confirmed that there was in fact a high amount of tension. I realized that there was no way to get in the park because there was a line of police in full riot gear pushing everyone out into the parking lot. At 8:35p I took a couple pictures/videos of the scene on my phone as I arrived and felt the sting of pepper spray on the air while I was recording. There were screams. Someone threw a rock towards the police line.
The only thought in my mind was that I had come to play some music, and that was what I needed to do. It was the idea that being who I am and doing what I was there to do was the only thing that would protect me from getting caught up in a wave of violence. I was looking around me for a place to set up, when an electric violin played from the back of a pickup about 20 feet away from me filled the air. I had one of those moments. The kind of moment where your body reacts before your mind has even had the thought. I looked down and realized that I was running . . . towards the pickup truck, towards the police line with their pepper spray, towards the conflict—with nothing more than an instrument and a desire to play music. When I got to the truck, I set my viola case by the back tire, opened it up and got out my instrument. By the time I looked back up, there were two other violinists that were setting up around the truck. We all started playing, no rehearsal, no plan—just music. Within moments there was a massive crowd swarmed around the pickup truck, at least 50 different musicians, the crowd singing the lyrics to the songs being played, chanting at the police, “I don’t see no riot here, why you got your riot gear?”
At one point, I realized that the musicians closest to me were all people I knew from music school, including the young man in the pickup. I hadn’t seen any of them in over a decade, and there we stood—drawn together by a need to create something beautiful in the center of an ugly storm. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
Elijah’s family members climbed into the bed of the pickup and spoke. Screamed at the police in anguish. Sobbed. All while the violins continued to harmonize. Someone behind me said, “They’re starting to arrest people, we have to go.” Some people left. More people came in. We kept playing. Eventually the energy calmed, and I didn’t stay long once the tension started to subside.
Once I got home and started putting together my own experience with others on social media, the situation made even less sense. Apparently, on the other side of the park the vigil had been allowed to carry out without any disruption from the police—but anyone who had tried to enter the park from the other side (the side I went in) was met with police in riot gear. There were stories where the reports from the police department alleged that they were responding to a small group of protesters that had armed themselves with sticks and rocks—but, I didn’t see any such group. The only rock I saw thrown was after the police instigated with the use of tear-gas and pepper spray. If it was a small group, why not respond to just that small group? Why did the Aurora Police Department feel the need to employ tear-gas and pepper spray on musicians and families gathered peacefully? Why did they march in with full riot gear in the first place? Even this report, which includes the most videos and pictures from across social media that I could find, states that the APD denies the allegation of using tear-gas…which directly contradicts the videos and reports from friends that arrived before I did.
It was a powerful experience, to witness and create music as an energetic container for the grief and anguish of a community who’s cries for justice were literally pushed to the margins of a space that is supposed to grant equal access to all. It’s been two days. And I still can’t wrap my head around a police response of violence for violins.