When “Different” Is Deadly

Posted On : 7/14/2020

What we can learn from Elijah McClain, our children and the danger of “otherness”

He didn’t care to fit in. He didn’t care what he looked like wearing a mask. He had his music and he lived in his own world. He was “different” – self-proclaimed in his final words to officers as he struggled to breathe – yet in his final moments, found the civility to repeatedly apologize for it. In his last conscious moments, he didn’t panic. He didn’t forget his training. 

We’re talking about Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old young Black man murdered by police officers in Aurora, Colorado last year as he walked home from a convenience store, picking up an iced tea for his brother. His crime? Officers responded to a call regarding a man in a ski mask waving his arms in the air. McClain was unarmed and had done nothing illegal yet he died days later as a result of the officer’s carotid hold (now banned in Aurora) and a paramedic’s injection of Ketamine. 

We’re also talking about our own children at MCHS who, for a temporary portion of their young lives, refer to our campus as “home” where they heal from an unfair past riddled with abuse, neglect and trauma at the hands of their caregivers.

We’re talking about our children who are Black. And despite the fact that all are under the age of 18, outside of our campus, they can be perceived as “men,” not children. Within our 80-acre idyllic campus, our children are safe. They are respected. They are loved. Just outside our borders, we cannot guarantee their safety – or justice – despite the promise our children are given by policy-making leaders and legislators. 

And for 16-year-old Cornelius Frederick who died earlier this year at the hands of staff at a western Michigan residential facility meant to heal his trauma, we saw again how Black children are continually perceived as a threat. At least seven adult male staff restrained the child for more than 10 minutes, continuing long after he uttered “I can’t breathe” just as George Floyd did. 

Our children, all members of Michigan’s foster care system, have a wide range of emotions and cognitive developmental setbacks due to the trauma and pain they’ve endured. And as a result are learning life and social skills that will ensure they can successfully navigate through life. Unfortunately, they cannot do anything about the color of their skin and how America views them.

April Young, a friend of McClain, describes him as having “a child-like spirit … He lived in his own little world. He was never into, like, fitting in. He just was who he was.” Another friend, Marna Arnett, explains McClain’s mask-wearing habit, a source of warmth to combat his chronic anemia. “He would hide behind that mask,” Arnett said. “Wearing a mask helped him manage his social anxiety … It made him more comfortable being in the outside world.”

Imagine how our children might want to hide away from the world after the unfair hand they’ve been dealt. Many of our children, among their unique and quirky characteristics, are “different.” They don’t conform to the standard ideals for what a child or teen should look or behave like. Because for so long, they’ve lived in a world where their only goal was to survive. 

Sometimes this surfaces as unpredictable behavior. Sometimes it seems like not listening to authority. Sometimes it means they don’t pick up on social cues or don’t make direct eye contact. And it almost always means they carry nervousness and anxiety around police officers. There is often a resurgence of trauma to see a man in uniform as it links to a past memory of their abusive homes. 

Let Elijah McClain’s last words be a warning, a painful reminder to each and every citizen, officer, classmate and parent to treat our brothers and sisters with the kindness, dignity and respect we all deserve. 

“I can’t breathe.
I have my ID right here.
My name is Elijah McClain.
That’s my house.
I was just going home.
I’m an introvert.
I’m just different.
That’s all.
I’m so sorry.
I have no gun.
I don’t do that stuff.
I don’t do any fighting.
Why are you attacking me?
I don’t even kill flies!
I don’t eat meat!
But I don’t judge people, I don’t judge people who do eat meat.
Forgive me.
All I was trying to do was become better.
I will do it.
I will do anything.
Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it.
You all are phenomenal.
You are beautiful and I love you.
Try to forgive me.
I’m a mood Gemini.
I’m sorry.
I’m so sorry.
Ow, that really hurt.
You are all very strong.
Teamwork makes the dream work.
Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that (vomiting).
I just can’t breathe correctly.”

Black Lives Matter. Say his name. Elijah McClain.

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