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Posted under: Opinion

Elijah McClain Could Have Been My Brother

My sweet, talented, funny brother could have been just as easily taken away from this world without a trace and not talked about until months later.

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I was born in California but moved to Aurora, Colorado, when I was eight. I have two siblings: an older brother and sister. My brother, Orin, has always been the light in our family. He is the guy who could always make everyone laugh. A talented poet and free spirit are what we always call him.

My brother also has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, asperger syndrom, and oppositional defiant disorder. I grew up knowing he was different from other kids and I fiercely protected him. Throughout my childhood, Orin would have episodes. Sometimes they were mild and could easily be tamed by a stern look from my dad or some cooldown time in his room. Other fits would sometimes become so severe intervention from a third-party was necessary. Orin is considered to be on the high-functioning side of his disabilities, which means he seems “typical” to most and can be left to his own devices most days — so long as he’s on proper medication and monitored by the helpful staff at his assisted living home.

There have been a couple of incidents during my childhood where Orin would throw a large fit that would shake the house and leave us in fear. During those extremely difficult episodes, I wondered why my parents refrained from seeking help from others, specifically law enforcement. I thought they might be able to quell my brother’s anger and get him the help he needed. I would push and force the issue because I was afraid of what my brother would do the next time he had a fit. I love my brother and his bubbly personality, but he cannot control his emotions or actions during these very difficult episodes. No one blames him, it is just part of having severe disabilities.

Recently, while scrolling through my Instagram feed I saw a drawing of a smiling, sweet, frail, African American man. The drawing read “Justice for Elijah McClain.” Upon a quick Google search, I was able to find the story of the deeply disturbing murder of Elijah McClain in none other than my hometown of Aurora, Colorado. My heart sank into my chest.

I read the heart-wrenching transcript of what Elijah said while being detained by the police. He did not want to hurt anyone; he was frightened and afraid for his life. He was 140 pounds — too small to hurt a fly, as he said. After reading more about Elijah I found out he was a young Black man who people considered different, just like my brother. He could have been my brother. Just like Orin, Elijah liked to take walks to the gas station and had a good heart and was a light for his family. The three officers that detained Elijah that day dimmed — and would later extinguish — the light of Elijah McClain.

Elijah died in August 2019 and his story went relatively unknown nationally until the recent protests over the wrongful death of George Floyd. When I think of how long it has taken for Elijah’s story to come out and how the three officers that brutally put him in a chokehold to the point of unconsciousness and profusely vomiting, it makes me sick. Elijah's murderers still work for the Aurora Police Department and were put on paid leave. I can easily put myself in his family shoes.

I think of the times my brother Orin may seem suspicious walking home late at night since he’s a young African American man in his 30s. Elijah’s story could have easily been my brother, and that sits with me and keeps me up at night. My sweet, talented, funny brother could have been just as easily taken away from this world without a trace and not talked about until months later.

Our criminal justice system is broken and is on its last limb. Elijah’s story should not be something that gets brushed under the rug. Elijah is someone's son, brother, cousin and nephew. We must fight to continue to create change, like allocating more funding to health professionals so young Black men who are different, like Elijah McClain and my brother, Orin Chapman, can access the appropriate health resources. This would allow police officers who are unequipped to deal with men and women who are different not be the final author of their stories, leading to unnecessary lives lost.

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You can sign the petition demanding justice for McClain here and/or donate to his mother’s GoFundMe.

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I went to an arts school called Denver School of the Arts and was a dance major from middle school until the end of high school. I started gymnastics and dance at age two and received an athletic gymnastics scholarship to attend the University of Maryland out of high school. During my time training at UMD I tore my ACL and had to miss my sophomore and junior year of gymnastics. I came back my senior year and competed on two out of four events and helped my team make it to regionals that year. I graduated from the University of Maryland in May 2019 and from one crazy whirlwind experience to the next I was chosen to be one of two speechwriters for presidential candidate Tom Steyer. Getting to work on that team reconnected me back with my love of politics that I found in college and made me want to continue on my journey of helping the American people.