A Grieving Mom Is On A Hunger Strike At Freedom Corner. The Hill District Has Embraced Her.
In October 2018, Marquis Jaylen “JB” Brown died at Duquesne University just after he turned 21. Pittsburgh Police say he broke a dorm room window with a chair and jumped out.
But his mother, Dannielle Brown, said she has trouble believing the official story. So on July 3, she arrived in Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood at Freedom Corner, a historic landmark, and began a hunger strike.
She has three demands: full access to the school’s files and reports surrounding her son’s death, body cameras for Duquesne University officers, and mental health crisis de-escalation training for campus police.
Within a few days, Duquesne responded by saying its investigation matched what police reported, and that they would try to work with the family for their independent investigation.
Dannielle, however, was not satisfied and continued her strike. On Aug. 27, the school said it created a team consisting of Duquesne and community leaders to address the situation. The team includes health care professionals to “look out for her wellbeing” and people who can help her and her attorney sit down and review evidence in her son’s case, “which is at her disposal but requires following the correct legal protocols.”
Dannielle, however, said she has not seen any documents yet.
She said she can feel her body going through the process of starvation, and there are days where she “can barely see and stand because of the headaches and pain in [my] body.”
Dannielle’s diet consists of water, vitamin water, fresh squeezed juice, non-dairy drinks, and teas. She also takes liquid supplements, but no solid food or meal supplements.
And Dannielle said the nights are getting colder.
“I don’t have enough nutrients in my body to keep my body warm. My body aches,” she said in a Facebook post. “The pain can not be explained. I feel the wind in my bones.”
So Dannielle has now gotten part-time residence in the city.
“I will run these initiatives from Freedom Corner during the day, Duquesne University, and [a] newly acquired residence,” she said in the post.
She arrived in July with a rocking chair, candles and photos of her son, and for two days, no one knew she was out there. The community soon discovered her, and quickly rallied to provide tents, beverages, masks, and hand sanitizers. Freedom Corner has now become a “tent village,” where people gather each day to sit with Dannielle.
‘He was 21 for 24 hours’
Marquis, a marketing major, was a linebacker at Duquesne, which in September 2018 had traveled to Hawaii for a game. Dannielle made the trip to see Marquis play. The night before the team was set to return home, she went to dinner with Marquis and took a picture together. It was the last time she saw him.
The week after Marquis returned to Pittsburgh, he celebrated his 21st birthday.
“He was 21 for 24 hours,” his mother said.
According to a Pittsburgh Police report, Marquis visited a friend’s off-campus apartment and when he returned to his dorm room on the 16th floor of Duquesne’s Brottier Hall, he behaved erratically in the elevator, in the hallway, and in his room. Students called 911 because they believed there was a fight in the room. Police said his roommate was trying to calm Marquis.
“Soon after the officers’ arrival, Brown picked up a chair and broke a window. Eyewitnesses in the room -- including two Duquesne University Police officers, a campus security guard and a student Residence Assistant -- stated that Brown then jumped out the window,” the police report said.
The police report said drug testing showed that Marquis had marijuana in his system. But Dannielle said his behavior did not match what she knows about how people act when they smoke marijuana.
By February 2019, the case was closed. Dannielle said the official account of what happened that night still doesn’t make sense to her.
“We're talking about our Black boys. If they move, the police officers are all on them,” she said. “So the motion of him getting up to even get to a chair in the room. The motion of him even grabbing the chair. You had to have been close to him. If you're performing de-escalation, crisis intervention, mental health … truly you’re not performing it from across the room in the doorway.”
The school said an officer did attempt to grab him on his way out, but believes he only touched Marquis’s leg.
Dannielle said that while she would attend events at the school — like the dedication of a bench in Marquis’s honor, and a ring ceremony from the football team to honor him — she said she still has questions.
“I can't bring him back. I'm not trying to rewrite the narrative,” Dannielle said. “I'm saying there's so many holes and gaps and such a very hard to believe circumstance that it requires this mom to say it's not good enough for me to accept what you, the school, say.”
On Friday, June 19, Dannielle came to Pittsburgh to participate in a march in honor of Antwon Rose Jr., an unarmed Black 17-year-old who was killed by East Pittsburgh Police in 2018. She wanted to honor her son, too, and put on a march for Marquis the next day.
“Freedom Corner is where I did the march, which is so symbolic,” Dannielle said. “Freedom Corner... you mean tell me I can stand in the center of Freedom Corner, look to my left and see Duquesne and glimpses of the building where my son took his last breath; I can look to my right and see the statue on top of one of Pittsburgh's oldest African-American Catholic Church.”
She returned to her home in Washington D.C., but she said she kept thinking about Freedom Corner.
“I felt inspired and I felt comforted. It just felt right and I couldn't get out of my head. All I knew was to come back to Freedom Corner.”
Dannielle said she “went into motion throwing things in a suitcase, grabbing my chair.”
Dannielle set up her protest, and sat in the hot weather for two days.
On the second day, Donnie Kyte, owner of a local clothing line, and Ashley Woodson, a photographer doing a photoshoot, passed by.
“Brother Ash, is what Pittsburgh calls [Woodson] … was looking at all my display of pictures of my son. He said, ‘What's going on? What is this?’” Dannielle said. “And I explained to him, you know, this is my son and I'm not leaving here at Freedom corner until I get answers for what happened to my son. He said, ‘Well, who knows that you're out here?’ And I said, ‘Nobody.’”
Woodson said he believed she did not need to be alone, and called people in the community, and news stations.
“This is like a spiritual journey, if you will,” Woodson said. “She's sending a message that she will die on this corner until she gets these answers that she needs.”
Taking a stand
Freedom Corner commemorates where the community stood against the city attempting to tear down businesses and homes for development. It is now filled with signs in solidarity of Dannielle, including tents, chairs and water coolers.
It is also the meeting place for the community any time there is an injustice. Kyte said Freedom Corner “gets attention that it deserves.”
“Years and years ago, our ancestors stood on this very corner to stop [the city] from coming further up to the Hill District,” Kyte said. “...But our people stood here on this corner in front of bulldozers and everything and put their lives on the line to stop them right here and said, you're not going no further.”
Every day, dozens of people stop by Freedom Corner to visit Dannielle, drop off supplies, or donate to her cause. As Dannielle nears the beginning of three months on her strike, she said her needs are different and she now sleeps in a temporary residence in the Hill District. But during the day she is at either Freedom Corner or Duquesne University.
“I drink a lot of water. I drink water, vitamin water, I take potassium iron, liquefied and I put droplets in my water,” Dannielle said. “But no solid food. No meal substitutes. I don't do any of those because I'm not here for that. I'm on a hunger strike… my body is getting weaker. I’m going through starvation.”
Duquesne University responds
As she neared day 20 of her strike, the school issued a public statement that it agreed to her demands. But Dannielle has not seen the files because she has not signed the confidentiality agreement, the school said.
“The files contain info like driver's licenses of people involved,” Duquesne Communications vice president Gabriel Welsch said. “That info is protected by federal law. That means she could see it but it would have to be confidential. She has repeatedly asked for full access without stipulation. We’re not requiring anything besides what is required by law. The investigation file is ready. But we haven’t received the paperwork back.”
The school said it is actively working to get body cameras for its officers, and officers are “as up to date as can be” when it comes to mental health crisis training.
During a press conference in early August, Duquesne claimed that Dannielle added a monetary demand from the school.
“On July 30 [Dannielle’s former attorney] Lee Merritt made a written multi-million dollar financial demand,” Welsch said. “The University offered $100,000 to fund a foundation that would honor her son. That offer was rejected.”
Dannielle said she never asked Duquesne for money. In her own statement, she confirmed that she rejected the school’s $100,000 offer. But she said the foundation was her idea.
“She counter-offered with the intention of possibly seeding the necessary work to
assist other mothers and families whose young people have or may experience harm, neglect
and tragedy on college campuses,” the school’s statement said.
Dannielle also filed a writ of summons in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, which gives her the right to sue the school in the future. However, she has not filed a formal complaint.
Not giving up
Dannielle said her hunger strike will go on “indefinitely.” She has another son, Jamal, who she said worries about her constantly.
Dannielle said her “life has been totally compromised” and it is hard for her to do the things she used to do, like her job, where she worked for the Department of Defense.
“It's hard for me to be Jamal's mom because I look at it like a sheep,” she said. “I can have all my sheep, but if one’s missing, I’m going after that sheep, which means the other sheep had to fend for themselves. Jamal has been fending for himself because his mother has not been able to be present, because she's trying to find out what happened to the other one.”
Behind the story:
Q: What did the people you talked to say about the experience of being interviewed for public radio?
Ariel Worthy: Some people were not familiar with the station, but they were still willing to talk to me. Some had questions about how exactly would the story air (if I would edit the sound, how would they sound on air, etc.) Those who were familiar with public radio appreciated the fact that we were giving this story attention.
Q: What surprised you about this type of community engagement?
Worthy: I actually expected a little more pushback because it is such an emotional story, and I thought people would not want media around so that they could discuss how to address issues with the school without reporters around. But they were very open to my presence and welcomed me there each time.
Q: What lessons do you have for others who want to do the same?
Worthy: Actually get to know the people first. Talk to them off-the-record before you go in with equipment to record them.
Ariel Worthy produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Worthy followed Dannielle Brown around in the Hill District to get the full story and understanding of why she is on a hunger strike.