I had the opportunity to visit with Dannielle Brown on the 49th day of her hunger strike. Since July, she has been camping at Freedom Corner in the Hill District and sitting outside of Duquesne University during the day. Her son, Jaylen Marquis Brown, was a student at the university until he died tragically in 2018. She came to Pittsburgh this summer because the university had not shared all the information it had about her son’s death and she believes they have not taken the steps to protect students experiencing mental health crises. The goals for her hunger strike are for the university to provide:
Full access to the investigation materials from the inquiries into her son’s death
Support for a new, independent investigation
Body cameras and crisis intervention training for campus police
The university has repeatedly claimed to meet these demands but Ms. Brown does not agree they have been met.
When I visited her at Freedom Corner, I went with a group of religious leaders who had helped to plan the Interfaith Vigil for Black Lives this summer. We were drawn together by a shared concern for racial justice. We are just getting to know each other and we are just learning what this justice work requires. And we want to do more.
That day we were drawn to Freedom Corner as spiritual caregivers. We have walked with people who are journeying through grief. We have talked with people who are seeking after reconciliation. We have called our communities to work together for the common good. For all of these reasons we went there to do what we do. To be present with Ms. Brown, to listen to Ms. Brown, and to work together as a community to promote justice, and peace, and healing.
I left feeling grateful to her for sharing her space with us, for sharing with us her pain and her grief, and also for sharing with us her strength and her hope. We saw her working and struggling to make meaning from her son’s death. We prayed that she will receive the justice and the peace that she is asking for, and in such abundance that it will overflow her own life and into the lives of others.
But now that we have listened and heard there are some things we have to deal with.
We have to deal with the various and insidious ways that racism and white supremacy have poisoned our relationships, have weakened our empathy, have fueled injustice, have promoted misunderstanding, and have diminished our trust in each other and in our institutions.
In the media it has been widely reported that Duquesne University had met the demands of Ms. Brown. But what was not widely reported is that Ms. Brown does not agree that her demands have been satisfied. Instead, the university has cast suspicion on her and implied that her presence is a threat to their own students. We have to deal with this. We have to tell people about it.
We also have to deal with our collective inability to respond urgently, compassionately, and wisely to each other when someone is experiencing a crisis. We have too often left this community-building work to the police. But the presence of armed police officers can escalate a tense situation - even when they have good intentions and de-escalation training. We have to find new ways of caring for each other.
Ms. Brown has blessed us with a vision for the future. We see a future in which we walk alongside others, even strangers, in their grief. We see a future where we work together to heal the broken places in our relationships and our communities. And we see a future where no one is lost the way her son, JB, was lost.
Before we left we prayed for the healing of our city, for the healing of the Duquesne campus, and for the healing of her broken heart. We prayed for justice so that she may have peace.
Since our visit, things have shifted a bit. The overnight camp at Freedom Corner is closed. Ms. Brown is moving into an apartment and focusing on the creation of a foundation in JB’s name for supporting mothers whose children have died.
But the hunger strike continues and may be having some influence on the university now that students have returned to campus. Since last week, communications from the university have shifted to a more compassionate, conciliatory tone. A positive sign is that they are talking with the Pittsburgh Black Elected Officials Coalition about supporting her moving forward.
When asked how we can support her, Ms. Brown asked us to share her side of the story. If you’d like to post about her situation, here are a few good articles to share: