On Friday, a crowd held candles outside of the apartment building in McKeesport where Aaliyah Johnson lived. They were there to honor her life — and demand a proper investigation of her death.
Johnson, a transgender Black woman, died on May 26 after falling from her window in Midtown Plaza Apartments. She was in her early 30s. Her death was ruled a suicide, but friends and family say there wasn’t an adequate investigation and demanded answers.
“Her death is not gonna be in vain,” co-organizer Dena Stanley told PublicSource. “We’re going to get the justice we deserve.” Stanley is the founder of activist organization TransYOUniting and a close friend of Johnson.
Johnson was a hairstylist, entertainer and commentator for the ballroom scene, an LGBTQ subculture started by Black and brown LGBTQ people.
The Allegheny County police are investigating her death. On June 15, the department issued a statement providing details of its investigation of Johnson's death, which the medical examiner determined to be a suicide. In the statement, Superintendent Coleman McDonough said that "detectives can say conclusively that she was alone" at the time of her death, based on security video from the scene.
Over 200 people joined the two-hour march and candlelight vigil that looped around downtown McKeesport, stopping at police headquarters, the apartment where Johnson lived and the intersection of Walnut Street and Sixth Avenue.
“I need some answers. Her family needs some answers,” said Johnson’s mother, Tonya Reed, while standing in front of the McKeesport Public Safety Building where the police are headquartered. “My child will not be pushed under nobody’s rug.”
“Black trans lives matter. Black queer lives matter. And we’re here to make sure she gets justice. Period,” said Terrance McGeorge, event co-organizer and a close friend of Johnson.
Black transgender women are at a high risk of fatal violence. In 2019, over 25 transgender or gender-nonconforming people were killed, most of them Black transgender women, according to national LGBTQ civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign.
Several friends and acquaintances shared stories and sentiments about Johnson’s life. “She was one of the best this city ever had to offer,” said Max Ryan, 32, who said he’d been friends with Johnson for almost 20 years.
“Aaliyah was someone who showed me what love was,” said childhood friend of Johnson Tinky Younger.
While David Brown only met Johnson one time, he said she made an impression on him. “We have the opportunity to learn from moments like this. To move forward from moments like this. To open our arms from moments like this,” he told the crowd. “Dare to love somebody. Dare to believe in somebody… because I want somebody else to saunter the way that she did.”
Update (6/17/2020): This story was updated to include information on the investigation of Johnson's death from the Allegheny County police.
Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @julietterihl.
Ryan Loew is PublicSource's visual storyteller/producer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @RyanLoew.