By the time we arrived in Toronto, I had no time to go to the hotel. Bruce drove me straight to my interview at the Toronto Police Station. I spent the morning and into the early afternoon talking to Constable Scott Mills about my story, and by 2 p.m., I was beginning to feel faint from lack of food. Thankfully, I was interviewing him in the cafeteria, so I got up and bought myself a sandwich and pasta salad. I felt funny eating in front of the officer, though, so I offered him half my sandwich. He declined. I insisted. He took it. I regretted it. I wanted it. He ate my pasta salad, too.
At 3 p.m., he had to leave for a memorial service for a 15-year old boy named Terrence Ali, who was killed seven years ago during Caribana, a festival of Caribbean culture held every summer in Toronto. Ali had apparently had an argument with three other teens and was beaten beyond recognition. They then tossed his naked body into Lake Ontario. An expert at the trial described his injuries as similar to the trauma one might suffer in an airplane crash.
The tragedy has made a victim’s advocate out of Terrence’s mother, Moonie, who holds a memorial at Terrence’s grave site every August to raise awareness about the effects of violence in the hopes she can prevent future tragedies. Moonie — and Constable Mills — believe strongly that if someone who saw Terrance was falling in with a bad crowd had said something, they may have been able to save him.
The service was at a cemetery about 30 minutes outside of Toronto. When we arrived, we immediately saw Moonie, who was stooped over and leaning on a cane because she’d been in a car accident. Someone hit her car from behind. It was about 90 degrees outside, even at 4 p.m., and there was one bench on which people could sit, but Moonie said she preferred to stand. Her injury made it too painful to sit.
There were only about 12 people there. Two were from the police department, three were from the media, and then there was me and my husband, Bruce, who joined us. While Bruce and I held up a big banner that said, “Walk for Justice, For Our Murdered Children,” — even though we weren’t walking — two of Terrence’s friends handed out a package of items made for the occasion: a bookmark with a photo of Terrence in a graduation outfit, a CD entitled “In Loving Memory of Terrence Rias Ali, aka Junia,” with three photos of him on the cover — one of which was very blurry and had clearly been taken from a computer photo– a thank you card from his mother, Moonie, and a booklet of prayers that was to be read at the service, though almost none of them wound up being recited. At the bottom of the booklet, the name of the original pastor who was supposed to be there was whited out, and the name, “Mike Holmes” was written over it in pen.
We stood around in the hot sun for about half an hour. I felt like I was going to pass out. I was hungry, having given away half my sandwich, and I was hot and tired of standing, but I felt silly taking the only bench there when Moonie was standing next to us, her face wet from crying, swaying back and forth on her cane. Finally, I just started telling everyone who would listen that I was pregnant, and I sat down.
When the pastor began to speak, he recounted the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year old black boy from Chicago who was murdered in Money, Mississippi, after reportedly whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman whose husband owned the small grocery store at which Emmett and his cousins had gone to buy candy. Bryant’s husband, Roy, was out of town but when he returned, he and nearly a dozen other men hunted Emmett down and brutally murdered him. The only thing reconizable was the mole on his face.
“Nooooo,” Moonie gasped.
The pastor continued. “The main suspects were acquitted by a jury of 12 white men, but the defendants later admitted they were responsible for Emmett’s death–”
“Can I say something?” Moonie said, walking over to the microphone. “When they took me to see if that was my child, I couldn’t recognize him. But I saw a mole. That’s why I said, ‘Nooooooo!’ I saw a mole on the child’s face, and I thought I don’t believe that’s my child,” she said, flapping the hand that wasn’t holding the cane for emphasis. “But that’s the only identifiable thing I saw there, on that day, on that gurney, and I have a feeling that is my child, only because of that mole.”
Moonie turned from the microphone. “I’m sorry,” as she walked off and stood by the banner.
On the ride back to Toronto, Scott opened up a little cooler he had in the front seat of his car, and in it, there were slices of salami, some peaches, a bag of sliced cucumbers, and a package of cheese.
“Eat something,” he said.
“Well, maybe just a peach,” I said. Soon, I was taking one slice of salami after another before moving on to the cucumbers. Scott had torn open the package of cheese and was biting into it like it was an ice pop. It turns out he’d been about 100 pounds heavier and had just lost a lot of weight in the last year, mostly because his father had gotten very sick and ultimately died.
“Was Terrence in a gang?” I asked.
“He was most definitely not in gang,” Scott said. “But he was starting to change his behaviors in a way that are the fantasy stages of gang development. He was getting into at-risk behaviors.”
On what would have been Terrence’s 16th birthday, Moonie brought a cake and candles to his grave site. On his 18th birthday, she brought him 18 long stem roses. And on his 21st birthday, she brought him 21 long stem red roses. I wondered how long her wound would stay open, because after seven years, it didn’t seem to have healed much at all.