By Caitlyn Hunter
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Driving on Route 235 the smell of cow dung mixed with salty brackish water is the first signifier that I am home. In the back of my car my styrofoam cooler squeaks as the lid thumps against the door of the trunk. I hear the shifting of oyster shells and plastic tubs of blue crab meat rattling on ice as I pass by a sign for a “Coon Hunting Association” and Sotterley plantation. Lawn after lawn are scattered with Trump 2020 signs and Confederate flags and I chuckle to myself thinking it’s another beautiful Sunday morning in Southern Maryland.
No trip to Maryland is ever complete if I don’t bring back my beloved blue crab. Driving back north to Pittsburgh I think about all of the ways I am going to cook that tub of meat. Maybe I’ll make a dip. Maybe I’ll make some Cream of Crab soup. Maybe I’ll make a crabcake, but then I remember something else, today is October 4th. Today Jaylen Brown would’ve been 23 years old. Today his mother, Dannielle Brown, has been on a hunger strike for over 93 days.
It’s enough to make anyone sick to their stomach.
The average human pregnancy lasts 280 days. To carry a life, to nurture it within, to let it consume what you are eating, and to have that fluttering kicking reminder that your life is currently not just your own is an unfathomable relationship which transcends scientific explanation. My mother often tells me that she knew that God existed the very moment I was born and placed within her arms. Her second thought, she also reminds me, was “what the hell have I just done?”
To be a mother outside of the biological definition is a bond that comes to us as natural as breathing. We love our mothers for better or worse of who they are and what they mean to us. But what happens when one of us stops breathing?
Exactly two years ago today, Marquis Jaylen “JB” Brown was celebrating his 21st birthday. According to reports, there was marijuana in his bloodstream. According to reports campus police were called to Brown’s dorm on a report of students fighting. Whatever happened in that room resulted in Brown falling sixteen stories out of a window thus ending his birthday in a body bag.
The past 95 days has been a reminder to me that all lives are not equal nor valued not just in Pittsburgh, but nationwide. When a Duquesne professor came under the microscope for using the n-word in class, this story garnered national attention where Brown’s hunger strike did not. To date as far as I researched, Dannielle Brown is the only woman to hold the longest recorded hunger strike in the United States without the assistance of a feeding tube.
Why do few know about it? Ask Breonna Taylor.
Optics here is the major problem, not just at Duquesne, but in Pittsburgh in general. It’s a shame when my Black friends ask me for my opinion about moving here and I have to tell them not to do it. I live in a city where the Mayor is more concerned about tweeting about the 40th anniversary of Bob Marley visiting Pittsburgh than the fact that Tonee Turner (who went missing on Dec. 30, 2019) still has not been found. I live in a city that reported a year ago that Pittsburgh is most liveable for women of Asian, Multiracial, Latinx, Other, and Native American descent (who make up 2% of the population) and white men. I live in a city where people think it’s perfectly acceptable to use racial profanities in and outside of the classroom, where I’ve heard the n-word (and equally problematic derivatives) used more here than in my 20 years of growing up in a small, rural, and backward town in Southern Maryland.
In the time since Dannielle Brown started her hunger strike, Duquesne has not issued body cameras to campus police. As far as I’ve seen they have not instituted any form of sensitivity (multicultural, gender, disability, or otherwise), mental health, or de-escalation training for campus police. I have seen that the administration held a Zoom meeting on August 28th in response to inquiries regarding JB’s death but this was behind closed doors and only offered to staff and faculty…not students nor Dannielle Brown. Dannielle Brown has repeatedly asked Duquesne for a seat at the table and for three simple things, all of which, to my knowledge have not been met.
Gandhi didn’t last in his hunger strike as long as Dannielle Brown. Even still, he famously said to be the change you wish to see in the world. I have to wonder if change is ever possible. I have to wonder how any institution, any parent, and/or any decent human being could continue to let a woman starve that is searching for answers around her son’s death and fights for the safety of other students at her son’s alma mater. I have to wonder what kind of city I live in where we would let a woman starve at the gates of a Catholic institution where her son took his last breath. I have to wonder, if the next time I see Dannielle Brown, she too will become another Black death that I’m forced to mourn.
With each passing day I watch, helplessly, as a woman continues to waste away. Each time I see her and we hug, my arms wrap around her a little more loosely as if I’m hugging warm air. There is a vacancy between us that only her passion and grace can fill. Her presence is the epitome of a mother’s love where every time she hugs me I feel as if I were her own.
When you think about the men and women in your life think about what it would feel like to lose them. Think about those subtle nuances that you would miss. Think about the inability to have Facetime or Zoom calls, to celebrate milestones, to celebrate successes, to grieve losses together. I want you to think about how it would feel to watch them suffer, day after day and stand by knowing that you are incapable of doing anything else but be supportive as best you can. I want you to think about your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, your grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and your friends.
If they died on their birthday, wouldn’t you be hungry for answers and preventative solutions too?