ATLANTA – The story of Elijah McClain's death, which came after he was confronted and detained by police officers last year in the Denver suburb of Aurora, Colo., did not go unnoticed by residents and the local news media in the weeks that followed.
Articles were published, and a few modest rallies were held. But it was nothing like the avalanche of fresh attention his killing received after the death last month of George Floyd sent thousands of protesters into the nation's streets, including in Colorado.
Now the story of McClain — a 23-year-old black man who had committed no crime but was reported as "suspicious" by a 911 caller — has come to occupy a central place in the state's emotional and fast-moving debate over police reform.
McClain's mother was a high-profile presence in the Statehouse this spring as legislators debated a sweeping police reform law. The city of Aurora recently banned a type of controversial hold that had been used to detain McClain, and jettisoned an outside investigator — who had been hired to look into the killing — because he was a former police officer.
"If George Floyd didn't die, I don't think people would have paid attention to Elijah McClain," said Tay Anderson, an activist and director of the Denver Public Schools board, in an interview. "I think people would have continued to ignore it."
Instead, celebrities like singers Michelle Branch and Kacey Musgraves have been sharing McClain's story on social media. And nearly 1.4 million people have signed a petition asking for the officers to be taken off duty and for a more rigorous investigation into McClain's death.
McClain's killing is among many deadly episodes involving police that are now receiving renewed scrutiny in the wake of outrage over the death of Floyd, who gasped for breath beneath the weight of a police officer's knee, a fatal encounter that was captured on video.
The death of Floyd, who was black, also unleashed a tsunami of demonstrations against police brutality and entrenched systemic racism, in turn elevating several cases that had been little known to the world but had burned like scars in the minds of neighbors.
Across the nation, from San Francisco to Houston to Duluth, the names of other men and women killed in confrontations with police are now on the lips of protesters or back on the pages of the local newspapers.
Some police killings that have followed Floyd's have become flash points, such as the fatal shooting this month of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Within days, the police chief resigned; the police officer who pulled the trigger was fired and then charged with murder; a second officer was put on administrative duty and charged with assault; and the mayor announced a series of measures aimed at overhauling the police department.
In the New Orleans area, demonstrators have protested the fatal shooting of Modesto Reyes, a black man who was shot by sheriff's deputies in suburban Jefferson Parish two days after Floyd's death May 25. (The Sheriff's Department said Reyes pointed a gun at deputies as they were chasing him.)
It remains to be seen whether the renewed focus on many of these less prominent cases will have a tangible effect on their outcomes.
Sam Walker, an expert on police accountability at the University of Nebraska Omaha, said it was not clear whether old, closed cases would be reopened for investigation. But at the very least, he said, the new attention underscores the fact that problem cases are not anomalies.
"What I think is important is the extent to which the public discussion in the African-American community on these old cases really represents the collective memory that exists, that doesn't exist for whites," Walker said. "It dredges up all these old issues and passions: This happens all the time; justice is never done."
In some cases, news outlets have played a key role in bringing new details to light. In Austin, protesters have memorialized Javier Ambler, another Texas man, who died in March 2019. Williamson County sheriff's deputies tried to stop Ambler for failing to dim his headlights, according to news reports, and then pursued him when he did not stop. They held him down and Tased him while he pleaded that he had congestive heart failure and could not breathe.
A film crew for "Live PD" was with the pursuing officer and filmed the encounter but later claimed to have destroyed the footage because, the host said, the show had a policy of not showing fatalities. The show has since been canceled.
The Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, the local ABC affiliate, had been requesting more information on the case for months but had only recently obtained police documents and video, the American-Statesman reported. The newspaper published an article on June 8 that said Ambler had cried, "Save me," before deputies shocked him a final time.
"His death never made headlines," the article said.