Dannielle Brown hungers for justice

Dannielle Brown places flowers on a symbolic empty casket during her living funeral procession on Aug. 6


Dannielle Brown places flowers on a symbolic empty casket during her living funeral procession on Aug. 6

Colleen Hammond | News Editor

Dannielle Brown is set to prove there are no limits to a mother’s love. 

In the staggering August heat, Brown sat on the sizzling concrete of Freedom Corner in the Hill District as her hunger strike demanding justice for her son Marquis Jaylen “JB” Brown rolled into its 53rd day. 

On the evening of Oct. 4, 2018, Jaylen fell to his death from the 16th floor of Brottier Hall. It was his 21st birthday.  

Although it has been nearly two years since the incident, Dannielle Brown has refused to stop searching for complete and satisfying answers about the moments leading up to her son’s death. 

“I am just an ordinary mom that wants a crack at the truth,” Brown posted to social media in early July. 

On July 4, she upended her life in Maryland and moved to Freedom Corner with no more than basic supplies and a white rocking chair. Brown then began her hunger strike and presented three demands to Duquesne University. 

“1) An independent investigation with full access to information and resources.

2) Body cameras for all university police

3) Mandatory certification training in mental health crisis intervention and de-escalation for police and first responders” read a sign at Brown’s protest site. 

“Her demands are very clear and concise,” said Kayla Harris, executive vice president of Duquesne’s Black Student Union.   

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the recent rise in protests for racial equality across the country, Jaylen’s death has once again received public attention with many supporting Brown’s demands, including Harris. 

Harris, like several Duquesne students, has frequently visited Brown and her supporters at their camp-out residence at Freedom Corner, often bringing along coconut water and other supplies. 

“I want to make sure that the love and support is still there,” Harris said. 

Since Brown began her hunger strike, she has received wide-spread attention in the Duquesne community and surrounding Pittsburgh area, as well as gained a substantial following. Two online petitions calling for “Justice for Marquis Jaylen Brown” have combined received more than 120,000 signatures, and her social media following has boomed. She also has a consistent group of roughly 20 supporters at Freedom Corner who alternate camping out overnight and performing chores, said local Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL) organizer and activist Emily Hannon. 

“She just seemed like she needed help,” Hannon said. 

Hannon has been visiting Brown at Freedom Corner and protesting at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Washington Place since the first week of Brown’s hunger strike. 

In addition to the camp at Freedom Corner and picketing on campus, events and marches led by Brown have attracted crowds in the hundreds. 

Her most notable event, a symbolic living funeral for her in which she eulogized herself, featured a large crowd of supporters dressed in all black following a procession through the streets of downtown. It was led by Brown and her supporters pushing an empty casket and singing traditional American protest songs. 

“You came for the wrong mother, until my last breath,” Brown repeated to the crowd, with many supporters wearing shirts with the same statement printed on the back. 

Despite her large following and wave of support, Brown said she has struggled to get her demands met by university officials. 

After meeting with Brown and her former legal counsel, Lee Merritt, in early July, the university said they would make the complete Duquesne Public Safety file available for in-person review by Brown’s counsel. The university also publicly urged the Pittsburgh Police bureau  to do the same with their case file. 

“Both parties are committed to transparency and resolution in a way that can celebrate and honor JB’s life and contributions,” said a joint statement by the university, Dannielle Brown and her legal counsel from July 9. 

However, despite the university’s statement of agreement, Brown alleged that the university did not sufficiently meet her demands and continued her hunger strike for an additional month. At the time of publication, Brown had reached day 55 of her hunger strike. 

“What the news don’t tell you — I continue on this hunger strike because Duquesne keep ditching out red tape,” Brown posted to social media on August 18. 

That same day, attorneys for Duquesne held a press conference in which they said they had agreed to meet all of Brown’s demands weeks earlier and formally announced this was not a case of police brutality, racism or negligence.  

“Duquesne agreed to expeditiously seek to procure body cameras for its officers to add additional training, to satisfy Ms. Brown’s other two demands and to bring closure to this matter,” the university news release said. 

University attorneys  David Fawcett and Jason Hazelwood from Reed Smith also said the Duquesne Public Safety file was ready to be viewed “as soon as Ms. Brown’s lawyer returns the relevant paperwork.”

But Brown tells a different story. 

She claimed the university has not met her demands and refuses to work with her to resolve issues of campus police reform and racial justice, citing “legal red tape” and a “lack of full access” She also alleged that the university has constructed a false narrative to discredit her and her work. 

“I think Duquesne needs to stop trying to protect their image,” Hannon said. 

At the August 18 news conference, Fawcett and Hazelwood claimed that Brown had made a fourth demand consisting of a large sum of money. 

“Ms. Brown now has communicated that she is making a substantial monetary demand of the University,” said the accompanying news release. 

Brown denies these allegations. 

“There was no fourth demand. I never asked for any money,” Brown said. “They (the university) offered me some, but it was insultingly low.” 

Since the August 18 statement, Duquesne has continued to say that Brown is seeking monetary compensation for her son’s death from the university. 

“It was a lot of back and forth,” Harris said. “I just want her (Brown) to have the closure she’s starving herself for.”

Harris noted how she deeply cares for Brown and finds a sense of sisterhood with her as they are both members of Delta Sigma Theta. 

Despite the conflicting reports from Brown and the university, Harris feels this case is about more than determining and making public the details of this case. 

“I still think a lot more would happen had he been white,” Harris said. “The mother would not be on a hunger strike; she would have her answers.” 

After 55 days of Brown’s hunger strike, Harris is not interested in Duquesne’s Public Safety file being made public. 

“We don’t have to know,” Harris said. “I just want Dannielle Brown to have closure.”

As the days drag on, Brown’s health has become a large cause for concern. Even President Gormley expressed his concern for Brown’s wellbeing in an exclusive statement to The Duke. 

“I walked down to the entrance of campus yesterday to speak again with Dannielle, to see how she is doing, and to convey to her, personally, Duquesne’s commitment to this new direction in seeking solutions,” President Gormley said. 

He also said that Brown “appreciated” his visit and that she “seemed in good spirits.” Gormley restated Duquesne’s commitment, past and present, to honoring JB’s legacy. 

“Please keep those assisting Dannielle and Dannielle herself in your prayers as we move forward on this important endeavor,” President Gormley said. 

Brown remains adamant about continuing her hunger strike for the foreseeable future. 

“When will I eat? When I reach a national platform where the Marquis Jaylen Brown foundation can properly advocate for mothers’ rights and the safety of college students throughout our country,” Brown posted to social media on August 26.