Protesters demand answers in death of trans activist Aaliyah Johnson | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Protesters demand answers in death of trans activist Aaliyah Johnson

click to enlarge Protesters march through downtown before holding a candlelight vigil in McKeesport demanding answers and an investigation following the death of trans activist Aaliyah Johnson. - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Protesters march through downtown before holding a candlelight vigil in McKeesport demanding answers and an investigation following the death of trans activist Aaliyah Johnson.
This story has been updated on Mon., June 15 with additional details from the protest and a statement from the Allegheny County Medical Examiner

On Fri., June 12, a few hundred protesters gathered in McKeesport, calling for a thorough investigation into the suspicious death of Aaliyah Denise Johnson, a 32-year-old Black trans woman and activist. This comes after Johnson's body was found on the morning of May 27 on the 500 block of Sinclair Street outside of the Midtown Towers apartments, where she lived in McKeesport.

The rally and candlelight vigil were organized by the Pittsburgh arts and activist collective 1Hood Media. Representatives from a number of local LGBTQ groups were also in attendance, including Terrance McGeorge of Project Matters and Dena Stanley of Trans YOUniting, who were both friends of Johnson. Also at the rally was Johnson's mother, Tonya Reed, who cried out for answers about her daughter's death.
click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
McGeorge and others led chants of “Black trans lives matter” and “Say her name” as the rally marched from Jerome Street Bridge and looped around downtown McKeesport, stopping briefly in front of Midtown Towers to speak. Marchers cried and hugged as volunteers handed out candles, many of which remained unlit because it was still daylight.


Taking the megaphone, McGeorge pointed out the absurdity of Johnson dying just a short distance from the McKeesport City Hall municipal building, located right across the street from Midtown.

“We need to be standing up and letting people know that they are safe,” said McGeorge, adding the Allegheny County police, local representatives, and Midtown management should all be held accountable for their roles in not keeping Johnson safe.

The Allegheny County Medical Examiner determined that Johnson died on May 26 from blunt impact to the head and neck, and her death was ruled a suicide, with reports saying she either jumped or had fallen from her apartment window.

On Mon., June 15, the Medical Examiner sent further details in the hope that "this definitive determination along with additional investigative details will provide some answers to the family and loved ones of Aaliyah Johnson,” noting that their investigation included a review of building security video which showed Johnson entered her apartment alone, that no one else entered or exited her apartment during the night, and that she was alone at the time she exited her apartment window.
click to enlarge Tonya Reed, the mother of Aaliyah Johnson, screams for answers through the megaphone in front of the police station in downtown McKeesport. - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Tonya Reed, the mother of Aaliyah Johnson, screams for answers through the megaphone in front of the police station in downtown McKeesport.
However, on Friday, many remained unconvinced that Johnson had taken her own life. A statement released prior to the rally detailed how Johnson's family had received “little information in regards to the investigation,” and that she had been the subject of transphobic discrimination, including “being brutally attacked in her own home on multiple occasions at [Midtown Towers], having her partners outed on social media, and facing threats due to her gender identity.” Overall, they say she had been in fear for her life.


The organizers see Johnson's death as part of a wider problem with Black people being victimized by police and government officials, given the dozens of other nationwide protests spurred by the lack of prosecutions in the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others.

“At a time where there is a groundswell of support against police brutality and violence, the community is concerned that the disregard for Aaliyah’s Black life means her family will never find answers as to why her body was found lying in the street and why evidence has yet to be collected,” says the statement.

Johnson also adds to a disturbing trend of Black trans women being killed nationwide over the last few years. The LGBTQ civil rights organization, Human Rights Campaign, determined that, in 2018, 27 transgender or gender-nonconforming people were the victims of “fatal violence,” the majority of which were Black trans women. This month alone, two Black trans women were killed, Riah Milton in Liberty Township, Ohio, and Dominique "Rem'mie" Fells in Philadelphia, Pa.

The rally demanded that Allegheny County police conduct a more thorough investigation into Johnson's cause of death, highlighted by repeated chants of “Do your jobs.”
click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
The event also called for more protections and services for trans people in McKeesport and the surrounding area. Allegheny County does offer non-discrimination protections for trans people as part of its civil rights laws, but rally-goers want more services available to show trans people are welcome and are kept safe throughout the county.

As the rally concluded at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Walnut Street, where attendees formed a circle before dispersing, McGeorge emphasized once again the need for the public to speak up and demand justice for Johnson.


“We demand a fair investigation, we demand to know the facts,” said McGeorge. “We want a fair and swift investigation. … We demand that Black, queer, and trans lives are celebrated in this community.”
click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
click to enlarge CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
click to enlarge Protesters form a circle at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Walnut Street. - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Protesters form a circle at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Walnut Street.

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