By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
When Dannielle Brown learned in October 2018 that her son, Marquis Jaylen Brown, had died after falling from his dorm room window at Duquesne University, she drove from her home in Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh like she was on the Autobahn.
“It normally takes three-and-a-half hours to get here. I got here in two,” said Brown.
She was desperate to know what had happened to her son, but was utterly confused by the circumstances. An investigation found that her son had smashed the window with a chair and jumped; he was reported to have been acting “erratically.”
The story didn’t add up to Brown, who had spoken to her son just hours before his death. He got a haircut that day, and was looking forward to seeing family at that weekend’s homecoming football game. She says the investigation told her nothing about what happened that night, and wants her son’s case reopened.
To that end, Brown returned to Pittsburgh on July 2, set her white rocking chair in Freedom Corner in the Hill District, and began a hunger strike, with the goal of preventing another mother from suffering like she has. On Saturday, July 11, she led a protest march to the Duquesne campus to demand answers.
A crowd of approximately 100 gathered where Brown had set her rocking chair nine days prior. The crowd was diverse in age and race, and carried plastic plates with various messages written on them. Brown, along with organizers from the grassroots activist group Pittsburgh I Can’t Breathe, led the march toward downtown via Fifth Avenue, until they reached the campus of Duquesne University.
There, the crowd assembled in front of Brottier Hall, the dormitory where J.B. lived and died, and his mother Dannielle told the story of her son, as she knows it to be.
Marquis Jaylen Brown, or “J.B.” as his friends called him, was a junior at Duquesne at the time of his death. He was a popular student athlete, a linebacker and fullback on the university’s football team. He died on the night of October 4, his 21st birthday.
“We were robbed of time with him, unjustifiable time,” said Brown. “His death took pieces of us.”
That night, Brown spent time at a friend’s apartment before returning to his dorm in Brottier Hall. When he returned, he was reportedly behaving strangely, tossing items around his room.
A noise complaint was called in, which two Duquesne University police, a security guard, and a student RA responded to. What exactly happened in his dorm room is unclear, but it ended with J.B. falling 16 stories out of his window.
“Four people did not keep my son safe, and that is unacceptable,” said Brown. “Duquesne will have to answer for that.”
There are three demands Brown asked of Duquesne: an independent investigation with full access to information resources, body cameras for all campus police, and mandatory mental health and crisis intervention training for first responders.
An independent investigation was something Brown demanded repeatedly; she said the first investigation was not properly conducted. Brown said she was never contacted by anyone working the original investigation, even for background information.
“I wasn’t included in a thorough background investigation, so we need an independent investigation,” said Brown.
Brown also alleged that Duquesne failed to secure his dorm room after the incident, allowing his roommate to continue living in the space.
“Whatever crime scene…was already compromised,” said Brown. “It was the call of the administration to say ‘We need to secure this room.’”
She said proper training for the responding officers could have ultimately prevented the situation from escalating. She referred back to a crisis intervention course she took while working on her masters degree in counseling.
“One of the things we learned in crisis intervention was, ‘Keep the subject safe at all times,’” said Brown.
After Brown spoke, the march processed back to its starting point, as did Dannielle Brown to prepare for her hunger strike’s tenth day.
“I’m pushing back the plate,” said Brown. “My appetite is justice. I don’t have an appetite for anything else.”