Yes our Black lives matter, but more than that, our Black lives are sacred and invaluable, our spirits eternal. To say that our Black lives matter, here and now, is to say we matter forever, that time can never erase our worth. When a Black person dies, their life still matters, in the present tense. As we fight for every Black life being lived now, and for all those to come, we have yet another responsibility: to hold the preciousness of Black life beyond death.
On May 27 2020, Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell from the balcony of her 24th floor apartment building and died, after being confronted by several Toronto police officers. The Special Investigation Unit, which last week decided not to lay criminal charges against the cops who responded, says Korchinski-Paquet fell from the balcony at 5:39 p.m., and was pronounced dead just after 6 p.m. The report does not mention that Korchinski-Paquet’s body then remained on the ground, in front of the building and in proximity to her grieving family members, for more than five hours.
There has been almost no public reporting or conversation about this blatant act of disrespect and collective callousness by our public officials. The state and its agents can treat Black death as our natural state, devoid of any sanctity or need for care. Such neglect mirrors white indifference to our living struggle, and demonstrates that, within the context of this global white supremacist nightmare, our lives do not matter.
Six summers ago, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson murdered Mike Brown, a Black teenager who was walking in a Ferguson street with his friend. Brown’s body then lay in the street for four and a half hours. We know this because those who fought for Brown insisted we know. In December of 2014, Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Oakland shut down all local train traffic by locking themselves down to the safety rails inside a subway station. Their goal was to stay there for four and a half hours, to remind the world of the indignity of Brown’s death and the sacredness of his life.
Most people don’t know about the neglect that followed Korchinski-Paquet’s death, especially because the media failed to report it. CBC News, for example, cited the hours-long delay in attending to Korchinski-Paquet’s body as an unproven allegation by her family: “As controversy around Korchinski-Paquet’s story swirled, her family gathered for a news conference Thursday outside the highrise where they say she lay dead for some five hours before her body was retrieved.” [my emphasis]
I’m heartbroken that such an important and observable truth can be so easily trivialized as “they say”. On the night Korchinski-Paquet died, I arrived more than four hours after she fell, and I stood near an orange tarp on the lawn in front of the building. Several men in long coats finally removed that tarp around 11:20 p.m, and placed Korchinski-Paquet’s body, which was inside a quilted body bag, into and unmarked van.
Korchinski-Paquet’s body lay within meters of her grieving family, her neighbours, the police, and the swarm of reporters who gave live updates from the scene, for five hours and forty minutes. It should have been reported then, and it must never be forgotten as we continue to assert that Korchinski-Paquet’s life matters.
At a memorial service on July 25, Korchinski-Paquet’s family members gathered at that spot on the lawn of her High Park apartment building, and released twenty-nine white doves into the air, one for every year of their beloved’s life. I felt deep sadness but also gratitude as I watched the birds take flight. This honouring of a Black woman’s spirit, of the eternal within her and all of us, felt restorative and real.
I struggled to hold that feeling this past week as the SIU, as it almost does in nearly every case, refused to hold police legally accountable for Korchinski-Paquet’s death. The public details of the SIU’s investigation are grotesque, as are assertions from the family’s legal team that a second autopsy of Korchinski-Paquet’s body contains more clues about her death. The battle for legal accountability points us to the physical remains of a person whose body we failed to protect in life, and dishonoured in death. We owe Korchinski-Paquet and her family so much more than this.
Those who continue to say “Justice for Regis” know the peril of ongoing police responses to Black people and families in crisis. We know the true function of a months-long SIU investigation that will now be weaponized against Korchinski-Paquet’s family and the Black community at large.
We must also know and speak about the neglect and indifference we so often experience in death. Our liberation includes acts of dignity, ritual, and remembrance, in honour of the humanity that white supremacy is constantly trying to deny us. When we respond to fatal instances of anti-Blackness with acts of respect, love, and care, we extend Black life beyond our moment, back to the ancestors who made a path for us, and into a future where we can finally be free.