Jeff Hughes saves us all. Photo by Giles Clasen. Front photo by Reuters
This weekend, thousands of peaceful souls and string players gathered at Violin Vigils in Colorado, Chicago and New York to honor Elijah McClain, the young massage therapist, violinist and innocent killed last year by police for being black, and thus "suspicious." At New York's Washington Square, a poignant chorus of violins played "We Shall Overcome" and "Amazing Grace" to a hushed, masked crowd. In McClain's hometown of Aurora, CO, which drew violinists from across the country who felt "called to show up," a huge, quiet, respectful event suddenly devolved into "an absolutely surreal scene" as strolling families and wafting music were interrupted by the jarring sight of black-clad, heavily armed riot police suddenly marching, Gestapo-like, toward them.
The air of WTF unreality grew as the thugs of the Aurora PD, as one observer noted, "break up the peaceful violin vigil for the very kid they murdered." In one video, a woman filming the peaceful scene, seeing the ominous dark figures approach, emits an increasingly agitated series of cries: "No...no....no no no....NOOOO...." As the line of police started shoving batons into the crowd, panicked people began to run while others stood passively, hands in the air. Soon, cops began shooting pepper spray and rubber bullets, their loud "pop" punctuating the still-drifting music, as people frantically scattered. Back from the rioting police, others urged each other to encircle the musicians, hands up, to calm the scene as, nearby, a lone, determined violinist played Bruce Hornsby's, "That's Just the Way It Is."
The day's most stunning moment came as Jeff Hughes, perched on his pick-up's tailgate, launched into Tupac's “Changes,” the song wailing over the chaos. Hughes is a professional violinist who has played with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra; he is also a big black guy who's been stopped, held at gun point, and shoved to the ground by cops for no reason. That day, he said he “felt like I was in a little bit of a war zone...I needed to remain calm, move quick, and focus. I knew the music was a bigger weapon than any other weapon out there." At that point, reads one account, "The crowd stopped screaming. The police stopped pushing. Everyone turned to watch a man play his violin...to honor Elijah." Hughes remembers feeling "the people were able to save the vigil, and make it something even bigger...resurrection to remembrance...in honor of Elijah's memory." The next step, he said, is to seek justice for his death.
That's clearly a far tougher challenge, given the enduring pathology of the police on display that day and newly surfaced, truly gruesome reports that, soon after they murdered Elijah, his killers gleefully took photos of each other re-enacting the deed at the site. Police say they are investigating. Blah blah: Elijah's family is unimpressed. "Just when we thought the Aurora Police could not be any worse," they said through their attorney, "they somehow find a new low." But amidst the horrors, the bittersweet, just-salvaged beauty of the Violin Vigil lingered for some. "This is what we were there to do...mourn in community," wrote photographer Giles Clasen afterwards. "We came to a vigil in peace. The violence was never necessary. Not to Elijah McClain, not tonight, not to so many others."
Ashanti Floyd, Lee England Jr. and other musicians soothe the crowd with a haunting rendition of "Killing Me Softly." Photo by Kevin Beaty
Jeff Hughes. Photo by Kevin Beaty
One of these things is not like the other. Photo by Giles Clasen
Photo by Giles Clasen