Militant Journalism

“My Appetite is Justice:” mother launches hunger strike after son’s death in presence of police officers

On July 4, Dannielle Brown brought a rocking chair and a stool to Freedom Corner, the location of a monument in the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh marking the spot where major civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s took place. She sat down in her rocking chair and would not leave or eat, beginning a hunger strike. She sat by herself for two days, in the same chair in which she had rocked her son Jaylen when he was a baby.

Dannielle’s son, Marquis Jaylen Brown, died on October 4, 2018 just up the street from Freedom Corner at Duquesne University, where he was a student. He fell 16-stories from his dorm room window. The night of his death is full of unanswered questions, the most troubling being: what happened in the moments leading up to Jaylen’s fall, when he was in his dorm room with three campus officers?

There were four eyewitnesses in accountable positions at the time of Jaylen’s death: two Duquesne police officers, a campus security officer and a residential assistant. Jaylen, according to police claims, “picked up a chair and broke a window” before “jumping out the window.” But Dannielle says, “The officers’ mere presence is enough” to raise suspicions. “You either watched my son go out the window, or you had your hands on him.”

A few days into the strike, Duquesne University released a statement in regards to Jaylen’s death, claiming that they did a “thorough” investigation into the case and found no wrongdoing in their campus officers’ behavior.  But what Duquesne left out was that this investigation was being done by their own attorneys, and at no point in their investigation did they speak to Dannielle.

“How can you say it’s a thorough investigation if you haven’t talked to the mother?”  Dannielle asked. “Duquesne was able to write their narrative and their investigation, the Pittsburgh police department was able to write their narrative and their investigation; this mom wants an independent investigation, because it directly affects me, and I should have a right to know the truth.”

Dannielle tried to get answers for years, until she couldn’t go on without knowing.  “For almost two years, this mom has not been able to breathe,” Dannielle said, “so when you see the signs that say, ‘I can’t breathe’, think of the mothers, when the cameras aren’t rolling, or when we didn’t make the front page, or the 6 o’clock news, we suffer.”

“I’m here [at Freedom Corner] because this is where I find that I can mostly breathe. This is where, to me, what I consider ground zero; this is where I could be impactful, in making sure that as I’m knocking that the school hears me. I got here, and I didn’t let anyone know I was coming, I didn’t want anyone to deter me, I was focused, I understood the cause and the reason why I was coming, and that was to find the truth of what happened to my son, and I had three demands, and these three demands are what led me to say, ‘this time, I’ll let them find me.’”

Dannielle’s three demands are: 

  • Duquesne’s full cooperation with an independent investigation into her son’s death with full access to any records, sources of information, and resources that developed from files or that her investigator may be interested in having
  • Body cameras for all university police
  • Mandatory certification training in mental health crisis intervention and de-escalation for campus police and first responders.

“My son was in his dorm room,” Dannielle pointed out,  “Four individuals should have kept my son safe.”

A movement develops

Dannielle’s story began to garner attention in Pittsburgh. Talk of her strike spread on the news and social media, and many people began showing up to support her. By Day 5 of the hunger strike she had a small canopy tent set up and neighbors from the local Black community in the Hill District showed up and stayed by her side to keep her company, make her lemonade and help her with whatever she needed. One neighbor even let Dannielle use their shower. By Day 6, multiple tents had been set up. Activists from Pittsburgh had been sleeping in Freedom Corner with her to make sure she was safe. Now there was a small tent city.

On Day 9 of the hunger strike, Dannielle marched with a crowd of people from Freedom Corner to Duquesne’s campus, right under Jaylen’s dorm room window.  Attendees were asked to decorate plastic plates in honor of Jaylen. When they reached the campus, Dannielle said, “As you all are holding on to the plates, you are holding onto a piece of me.  You’re holding on to what I’m willing to sacrifice for, and that is to lay down my own life for my son.”

Duquesne has continued to evade accountability and Dannielle’s demands. On the 12th day of the strike, Duquesne released another statement, doubling down on their narrative of events. The university did not agree to meet any of Dannielle’s demands, only offering “to make available for in-person review to Ms. Brown’s attorney and/or investigator its complete Duquesne University police file on this matter.” But Dannielle has already seen the Duquesne police file, and wants full cooperation in her own investigation, not just their file. Dannielle has not been satisfied with Duquesne’s statements since her strike began.

“You’re standing up for this — you’re putting a statement out there to say, ‘Whatever that mom says, this is how we feel about what our officers did or did not do.’ Yet, it doesn’t answer the questions of how four police officers — to be technical, three officers, and an RA — bottom line, four bodies could not protect my son. No one sends their kid to school under those circumstances, where something like that has a chance of happening. He was in the safety of his dorm room.  However erratic he was, before the campus police arrived, my son was marked safe potentially, because he was alive. Had no one called the police on him, he still would maybe be alive. But something in the chemistry of what happened in that room, that my son floors out — even if that was an independent decision my son made through his state and mental health, four bodies should’ve kept him safe. Four bodies should’ve been the barrier through adequate training, between that window and my son.  If anything, the school was negligent in that. I want the school to, in their statement, say, ‘There’s some things we could’ve done differently,’ rather than, ‘We stand behind the police and the people in that room’s actions.’”

Dannielle’s struggle continues. Her hunger strike has become an inspiration for the people of Pittsburgh. The residents of the Hill District, who have been suffering under police brutality and gentrification for years, have rallied to Freedom Corner to support Dannielle in her fight. Will Duquesne meet Dannielle’s demands, or will they let her starve?

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