The first sign of trouble was the screaming.
The shrieks came from the back of the crowd on Interstate 225 in Aurora, where demonstrators shut down the highway in both directions Saturday evening to protest the death of Elijah McClain. They had been peacefully marching, chanting and shouting.
But this screaming was different.
Those in the back of the group screamed to get off the road, to get out of the way, according to witness accounts and videos taken at the scene. Protesters rushed toward the shoulders and someone drove a teal Jeep through the crowd. As it passed, a protester pulled a gun and started shooting at the vehicle, witnesses said. Six shots rang out, causing panic.
Two protesters were shot or grazed, and another fell or jumped from the highway, breaking her leg.
“I just heard people screaming ‘Medic!’ from everywhere,” said protester Heather Benton, a certified EMT. “I didn’t realize I’d entered a war zone.”
On Sunday, both protesters and officials took stock of the previous night’s chaos, which included smashed windows and fires set at the city’s courthouse. Demonstrators urged Aurora police to arrest the driver of the Jeep and Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said he wanted to meet with police Monday for a debriefing.
Coffman issued a statement on Facebook on Sunday titled “Aurora cannot become a Portland” that didn’t address the Jeep or the shooting but instead focused on property damage done by a smaller group of protesters who stuck around after most others had left the demonstration after 8 p.m.
Coffman estimated about 150 of 600 overall participants stayed behind Saturday night with the intent to “bait the police into a confrontation and destroy as much public property as possible,” he wrote.
In an interview Sunday, Coffman said the police department’s approach to Sunday’s protest — in which officers largely stayed out of sight and did not make any arrests — left the courthouse vulnerable to vandalism.
“What they tried to do is reduce their profile as much as possible to the protesters in the hopes that they can bring down the temperature in terms of those who are looking for a confrontation,” he said. Some officers stayed behind fencing, he said, and no one was posted on the south side of the courthouse, where protesters broke windows and started fires.
The mayor in an initial statement Sunday called that smaller group of demonstrators “domestic terrorists,” but deleted that phrase in a revised statement.
“I took it right down after I put it up,” he said. “The reason I took it down is it’s not appropriate. When we think about domestic terrorism in the United States, it’s the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, or the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, where the target is human beings, and certainly that was not the case here,” he said. “It’s hard to define what this is, so out of frustration I put that up, but I took it down right away.”
The protester who fired shots had not been identified by investigators as of Sunday, Aurora police spokesman Matthew Longshore said. Police shut down northbound I-225 for about half an hour Sunday so detectives could search for evidence related to the shooting.
The driver of the Jeep was identified, but not arrested because the investigation is ongoing, Longshore said.
“We have had zero reports that the Jeep struck anyone,” he said.
Benton said she did not see the shooter or see anyone hit by the Jeep. She just dealt with the aftermath, as protesters cowered along the highway’s concrete barriers and others called out for help.
She went to a young man who was bleeding from a graze wound to his right temple. Benton had gloves, and other protesters had bandages, so she wrapped his head in gauze and put a bulky dressing on it. The man was conscious and talking.
“He was actually calming everybody down,” Benton said. “Everybody was obviously freaking out, and he was like, ‘Guys calm down, I’m fine.’ ”
As Benton tended to the wounded man, Denver school board member Tay Anderson helped move the majority of the crowd away from the highway. He said he doesn’t blame the shooter for firing and thinks the action saved lives.
“It’s not easy to act on instinct, pulling your gun from your holster and firing it,” he said. “Nobody was trying to aim at one of our protesters.”
He said he doesn’t want the chaos to distract from the protesters’ overall message about McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died Aug. 30, six days after Aurora police used a carotid chokehold on him during an arrest and paramedics injected him with ketamine, a heavy sedative. McClain, who wore a ski mask because of a medical condition, had been walking home when he was reported to police as a potential suspicious person.
“We must do everything we can to get justice for Elijah McClain,” Anderson said.
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