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Mother of dead Duquesne football player on hunger strike for answers

Dannielle Brown has vowed not to eat until the school satisfies her doubts about what happened to her son

PITTSBURGH — The mother walked down the steps of Freedom Corner, trailed by seven women carrying her casket and hundreds more people lifting her spirit. She left the embrace of the city’s historically Black Hill District, turned toward Duquesne University and began marching to the place of her anguish.

Dannielle Brown’s mock funeral took place more than a month into her hunger strike aimed at forcing Duquesne to answer questions about the death of her son, Jaylen, who police say leaped from his 16th-floor dorm window as they tried to calm him down. Brown’s empty casket symbolized her declaration that she is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for all the Black mothers drowning in grief because their children’s last moments are veiled by the institutions of American power.

“You know that slogan, ‘I can’t breathe’ — well, for a lot of us mothers who lost children under questionable circumstances, we’re suffocating,” Brown, who wrote up her will before leaving her home in Washington, told me a few days before her funeral demonstration. “No answers, not having our children with us, we can’t breathe. We’re physically functioning, but can’t breathe. So I knew I had to do something.”

When I spoke to Brown again recently, I could hear the despair in her voice. She had not eaten solid food for 39 days, subsisting only on water mixed with nutrient powders. She has a bachelor’s degree from Howard University, a master’s degree in counseling and psychology, and a career working at the federal Defense Department — but her life is frozen in a nightmare. She spends her days holding a vigil at Duquesne’s front gate and her nights sleeping in a tent at Freedom Corner, a monument inscribed with the names of Pittsburgh residents who fought for Black political and cultural freedom.

Dannielle Brown is seeking information to be released from Duquesne University, where her son, Marquis Jaylen Brown, died after falling from his window in October 2018.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Duquesne, a private Catholic university with a $300 million endowment, said that its officers did everything possible to help a student who was having a mental crisis. The university says it has tried to share information from its investigation that Brown has requested, but she remains unsatisfied with some of the conditions and legal restrictions. Duquesne says Brown has requested a financial settlement that is “not warranted by the facts.” Brown says Duquesne offered her an “insulting” amount.

So almost two years after her son’s death, Brown marched on Duquesne, followed by her own casket.

Marquis Jaylen Brown, who went by Jaylen or JB, graduated from DeMatha Catholic High School outside of Washington. He was a 245-pound redshirt sophomore running back for Duquesne, a Division I program with multiple conference championships and two Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearances since 2015. Jaylen only got to play in one game, rushing three times for 7 yards, before he died the night of Oct. 4, 2018. It was the day after he turned 21.

Police say Jaylen smoked marijuana at an off-campus party earlier that evening, and that when he returned to his campus apartment in Brottier Hall, he was acting irrationally. Students called 911. According to an investigation by the city of Pittsburgh police, two Black Duquesne police officers, a campus security guard and a student resident assistant were in Jaylen’s apartment when he smashed his window with a chair, then jumped out. There was no physical contact or confrontation between the officers and Jaylen, the police said in a press release announcing the results of their investigation, which concluded that the case was closed.

Brown does not trust the police to investigate other police, and she dismisses a separate investigation conducted by attorneys hired by Duquesne. She says police did not contact her during the investigation to inquire about Jaylen’s history or state of mind that day. Brown spoke to her son a few hours before he died, and says he did not sound upset or depressed. She wants to know how close the officers came to her son before he went out the window, and wonders if they did put their hands on him. Even if her son wanted to jump out of the window, Brown says, shouldn’t the officers have been able to stop him? (The university said one of the officers tried unsuccessfully to grab Brown as he jumped.)

A photo of Marquis Jaylen Brown sits in flowers near a tent where his mother, Dannielle Brown, has been staying and holding a hunger strike.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Brown wants to see the statements that the Duquesne police officers, the security guard and the resident assistant gave after Jaylen’s death. She wants to see security camera footage from the hallway and campus. She says Jaylen’s room was not closed off as a crime scene and his roommate was allowed to walk around inside. She wants Duquesne and the city police to cooperate with the investigator she has hired. She wants access to the entire case file, and for her investigator to interview all the eyewitnesses.

“Ms. Brown has the strongly held belief that, but for the negligence and or misconduct of the responding officers for Duquesne University, her son would be alive,” her former attorney, Lee Merritt, told me. “The university believes that they’ve done all they could, and this was an unfortunate incident that was sparked by a bad reaction to an illegal substance.

“Even if it did happen the way they claim, No. 1, they should have had body cameras,” Merritt said, who represented Brown until last week. “No. 2, they should have been able to assess that this kid was in some sort of crisis and needed help. And they had more than enough officers to prevent what happened next.”

The university has set aside funds for body cameras and agreed to mental health training for first responders. Duquesne has been “responsive and sympathetic. They have treated Ms. Brown with respect,” he said. “However, there are fundamental disagreements about her claims, and they are very far apart on that.”

Brown is not giving up. Her funeral march drew about 300 people to the launch point at Freedom Corner. The concrete plaza stands sentry on the boundary of redevelopment efforts that have long threatened the Hill District, which in the early to mid-1900s rivaled Harlem, New York, and Chicago as a center of African American business, sports and music.

Brown was calm and resolute that day as she walked ahead of the throng, wearing a flowing white dress and a white wrap around her dreadlocks. The march moved toward Duquesne with a practiced precision that was an unfortunate byproduct of years of Black oppression in Pittsburgh.

Protesters join a march through the streets of Pittsburgh in support of Dannielle Brown.

Justin Merriman for The Undefeated

Allegheny County, Pennsylvania’s, 1.2 million residents are 78% white and 13% Black. Duquesne’s student body is 78% white and only 5% Black. The region has few influential African Americans in politics or the major industries of health care, higher education and banking. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the city’s most beloved institution, but their Black coach, Mike Tomlin, rarely speaks publicly about subjects beyond football. Against this backdrop lies a grim series of Black residents unnecessarily shot or killed by police, and some of the worst health outcomes in America for Black women.

“Contrary to popular belief, this is not one of America’s most livable cities,” said activist Nicky Jo Dawson, a prominent Pittsburgh figure who is facing charges related to a separate protest last year. “So when Ms. Brown came to our city, we automatically stepped up and helped her. This is not the type of city where a Black person is accosted and we don’t respond with action.”

Dawson said Brown’s protest speaks to a plethora of larger issues. “But if I could nail it down to just two, I would say this shows the lack of commitment to transparency, not only from Duquesne, but the system at large, especially in Pittsburgh. And two, it also shows the plight of the Black woman who will do anything, including a hunger strike, just to get the answers that she deserves.

“We birth these children, we raise these children, we love and support these children,” Dawson said. “And then we bury these children.”

Many are praying they will not have to bury Brown. In her weakened state, she finds it hard to focus sometimes and forgets words. She has declined to weigh herself or let doctors do any blood work.

Kimberly Ellis, a Pittsburgh activist, performance artist and Carnegie Mellon University professor, said Brown and her supporters are not ignoring Jaylen’s personal responsibility, but that Duquesne had a moral obligation to care for an intoxicated student who sought the safety of his dorm room.

“He didn’t jump out the window before officers arrived,” Ellis told me. “I can hear the legal arguments now: ‘We didn’t give him the drugs.’ OK, but if a loved member of your community lost his life in this way, with four campus officials in the room, what is your responsibility?

“How much do you literally value this Black life? That is the question.”

If Brown were not a single Black mother from out of town, if she had the money to hire a connected Pittsburgh lawyer, if police didn’t have a history of unreliable reports, if Duquesne had made her part of its own investigation from the start — perhaps Brown would not be at Freedom Corner now. Brown knows that aside from what did or did not happen to Jaylen, her suffering can help change a system that has historically swept Black people under the rug. She hopes her pain can save another Black mother from the same fate.

The funeral marchers made their way along Crawford Avenue, down the Hill and turned right on Fifth. They rallied beneath an overpass, in front of a mural of Jaylen wearing his No. 40 uniform, then made a turn onto Forbes Avenue. In two more blocks, they stopped at the Duquesne main gate. “Who did this? Duquesne did this!” they shouted.

They walked up a short, curving drive into the shadow of Brottier Hall, a 20-story brick tower perched on one of the city’s trademark inclines. Brown placed a wreath with a blue ribbon reading “Beloved Son” beneath the lamppost in the circular driveway.

She looked up toward the window of her son’s room, and the tears flowed.

“I miss him so much,” the mother cried. “But that’s why I have to do what I have to do.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.