By Caitlyn Hunter
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
In the first six hours of starvation, glucose–the enzyme that feeds the brain–depletes in the body.
In the first 72 hours the body enters into ketosis, a state where the brain instead converts fatty acids into glucose, cognitive function becomes impaired, the breath begins to smell rancid, and approximately one and a half pounds of body fat is consumed by the body.
After 72 hours the brain breaks down protein from amino acids where the body begins to atrophy, an internalized cannibalism where bone density diminishes.
In the first two weeks the body’s immune system is weakened, hair loss occurs, and the body can die without proper vitamins and minerals where tissues in the heart and major organs depletes with each passing hour, and severe organ failure occurs. By three weeks, dependent on hydration and body fat, the body is determined to die.
In opposition to British rule, Mahatma Gandhi survived 21 days before he ended his hunger strike.
In opposition to the poor labor treatment of Chicano workers, César Chavez survived 24 days before he ended his hunger strike.
Determined to finally get answers surrounding her son’s 2018 death on the campus of Duquesne University, Dannielle Brown’s hunger strike has so far lasted 46 days.
But at this point, the number of days don’t really matter. Each day takes her one step closer to death.
I first met Dannielle Brown a month ago on day nine of her hunger strike. It was a humid Saturday evening. A friend and I decided to march in support of her demands to Duquesne regarding her late son, Marquis Jaylen “JB” Brown. At the time, I had known the story only peripherally. I was a student on campus when JB fell sixteen stories out of a window in Brottier Hall. I remember walking to class and looking at the window. I remember the email that the University administrators sent out in response to his death. Then, a week later, it was released that “drugs” were found in JB’s system.
Something never sat right with me about this story, but I accepted the narrative that Duquesne sold. Most of us did. Here was a student who was an active member in school athletics, was in his junior year, and was simply reduced to a statistic of black death who “smoked marijuana” while celebrating his birthday. It never added up but who was I to question it?
My complicity in this narrative has continued to haunt me. A year and a half later, when I found out that his mother, Dannielle Brown was on Freedom Corner starving herself for answers, that she was from my second home of Washington DC, that she was a fellow soror of my mother, that she was a mother and simply a woman who needed support, I showed up without question.
Freedom Corner is the gateway to the Hill District from Downtown. It is the physical marker where Black Pittsburghers refused to allow further urban construction eating into their once-vibrant community. It is a place where, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, people marched demanding their humanity be seen as having equal value. Now it is a monument where a Black woman in a gold and white gown stretches out her arms as if to protect the Black community behind, underneath, and around her. It is a symbol of Black strength and resilience, of tested faith, and of perseverance. When we gathered on the steps of this corner we signed dinner plates in honor of JB, we marched, we listened to Dannielle Brown’s three demands and to the story about her son’s passing. But then after the protest, most of us moved on.
Days later, Duquesne University issued a release stating that in the interest of transparency, they would share the details of JB Brown’s death as an attempt to bring closure to this unfortunate event. First, they said they conducted a “thorough” independent investigation and interviewed all parties involved in the situation including the two officers who, as the release states, were Black. Second, they mention that Pittsburgh Police also conducted an investigation, where it is still unknown what other drugs were in JB’s system outside of marijuana. Third, they mentioned that the University has reached out to Ms. Brown numerous times to agree to let her review the entire file the university has compiled. There is no mention of meeting her demands which would include a full independent investigation without any stipulations, equipping all police on campus with body cameras, and training all Duquesne campus police to respond appropriately to mental health crises of students on campus.
I continued to follow Dannielle Brown’s story on social media. She became a thread in Instagram stories, the occasional post on Facebook group feeds, and stories shared on Twitter. I sat, day by day and watched from the comfort of my apartment a woman continue to die.
On day 40 of her hunger strike, I was collecting my things from the graduate student office on campus. I frantically looked for my student ID and couldn’t find it. I remembered how last year there were a series of robberies on campus and knew that the color of my skin reflected the alleged culprits of these thefts. Nina Simone famously said that freedom means no fear, but the fear still exists. It’s real and it festers in the most unlikely places. Even though I have been a member of Duquesne’s community for years both as a student and former employee, I know that at any point my presence on that campus can be questioned at any time and I hoped my driver’s license would be enough.
Duquesne was a ghost town as vacant lots and the quasi-empty building of College Hall reminded me of the impending doom of a new fall semester where the Coronavirus has forced us all to reconsider our proximity to one another. While boxing up my books I received an email from the Senior Vice President of Student Affairs where the subject line refers to “information concerning a campus situation.”
I read the email and the language staring back at me was disturbing. It refers to JB “propelling” himself through a window. It paints Dannielle Brown as a menacing threat who “records without your permission if you engage in answering any questions or sharing your position in this matter.” It links to multiple releases the University has issued including a new one where Ms. Brown has now, apparently, requested a newly fourth demand in “ a substantial monetary value.” In the span of one email, a Black woman was reduced to a money-hungry and intrusive threat. In reading this email, a fear washed over me. When I collected my belongings, bags of books, random toiletries and papers, there was the fear that I could be stopped and accused of stealing at any point. It was the fear that one wrong utterance or misstep down the halls could derail my excellence. These are not fears that I should be having at an institution I have called my community for years. Was I, another Black woman, equally as threatening?
That same evening I watched a press conference held by representatives of Duquesne University’s legal team. At the Q&A, a reporter questioned the fourth demand. Duquesne’s legal counsel replied, “you’ll have to ask Ms. Brown about that.” And, so, on Day 44 of Dannielle Brown’s starvation for justice, I intended to do just that.
It was a cool day for August. As gray skies and clouds covered any chance of warmth the sun provides I entered the camp on Freedom Corner and was immediately greeted by Dannielle Brown with a hug, before I could even introduce myself. It had been months since I last made physical contact with anyone outside of my immediate social circle and her warm embrace was everything I didn’t know I needed. Despite a weakened immune system, despite her debilitating health where she had been confined to a wheelchair days before and got so bad she had to take temporary respite in someone’s home, Dannielle Brown embraced me as if I were her own and this mother’s love felt unconditional.
She held me the way she would hold a son, a son, whose life was taken far too soon. In the minutes of our warm hug she was my own mother, my own godmother, my sisters, my aunt, my grandmother, and every woman in my life who ever loved me. As we talked about how I too was from the DC/Maryland area she joked that the only thing that would end her hunger strike would be some blue crabs. I promised if that day ever comes that I will make her crabcakes knowing full well she may die before I’m ever afforded that honor.
More supporters arrive and she plays chess, urging me to sit beside her and get to know me better. As the previous shift leaves, she scolds them about not properly wearing masks, to be careful getting home, and how she cares because she doesn’t want to put anyone in harm’s way. As she plays, taking pawn after pawn, decimating knights and bishops across her battlefield I watch her field phone calls, say hello to passersby, and wave at honking cars in support of her mission. For someone whose brain and heart are slowly being eaten away with each fleeting minute, I am in awe of her resolve.
In his speech, “What Does the Fourth of July Mean to a Slave,” Frederick Douglass said, “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
Dannielle Brown has been starving herself since Independence Day. Let that sink in a second. On a day where we commemorate independence and liberty by celebrating with picnics and cookouts, one mother pushed back her plate in pursuit of a life lost, liberty of the truth, and justice.
“My faith and spirituality have been tested beyond words,” she tells me, “and it has been tested to the core. I have to find inspiration outside of my prayers in just the common good of people because I am up against giants.”
And like David, her slingshot is the community standing behind her. These are the people who bring her ice, water, fresh-squeezed juice, non dairy milkshakes, or just simply just a lawn chair to sit with her and get schooled in a game of chess. Day after day she continues to fight against an institution that has turned a blind eye to her tragedy.
The 40th day of her hunger strike meant something to Brown. Her son proudly wore the number forty on his football jersey in both high school and college. Jesus only drank water for 40 days and nights and this fact affirmed her in her daily struggle. It should not have been a day where Duquesne issued any commentary regarding her son’s death.
“It was very disappointing to the mothers, the Black community, the Pittsburgh community, the alumni, the students, and the parents and to have them hijack this day with sentiments of disgrace and devaluing claims I never made, is heartbreaking,” she says.
What is most heartbreaking is the image of this grieving mother. A mother should never have to bury her son, and yet, here she is becoming a martyr for answers. There is no amount of monetary value that can be placed on her son’s life. While we sit in the comfort of air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and the freedom to eat to our heart’s content day after day, Dannielle Brown sits outside in a rocking chair under a flimsy canopy, tethered together by duct tape and tarps. While we lay on our memory foam mattresses and rest our heads down on pillows and cover ourselves with plush blankets, she has slept in a tent on Freedom Corner in rain, 90-degree days and chilly nights for the past seven weeks.
The question is one of intention. Why must we, as Black people, become the martyrs for our communities? Why are Black people only heroic under certain conditions that threaten our daily lives? There is a long history in this country in which we use the violence of Black bodies to articulate the injustices in this world. We must kill ourselves to be made visible. As we put Black Lives Matter signs in our front yards, don shirts, buy from Black-owned businesses, and donate money in support of Black , here is a Black woman that needs our attention, support, and protection unconditionally.
What Dannielle Brown wants to remind you is there is a mother here. A mother whose child once walked the steps and sidewalks of Pittsburgh, who played on Duquesne’s field, sat in the classrooms, wore the Duquesne insignia proudly, and whose life was taken in the comfort of his home away from home. Her fight is colorless. She is a mom who is laying down her life for the sake and safety of incoming freshmen, for sophomores and juniors like her son. For their mothers and mothers everywhere.
The Black Lives Matter movement has visually demonstrated the ways in which we as Black people are suffering from the generational trauma of systemic racism. We have a dark history of mothers being ripped away from their children in slavery, in lynchings, and now, in events surrounding police brutality. This, first and foremost must be a time of acknowledging our pain and refocusing this attention towards healing. Here is a mother who demands a seat at the table and wants to work with her son’s school, not against it.
Brown’s phone rings and she excuses herself as the call is from Antwon Rose’s mother. As she continues the conversation, I watch her from afar and I think about the pictures I saw a few weeks ago in a Facebook group post. In response to the painting over a mural of Romir Talley, a man who was shot by police in Wilkinsburg in December 2019, a demonstration was organized. In one candid photo Dannielle Brown covers her face, fighting back the tears of another woman’s story of losing her son. In another, she is shown embracing Talley’s mother, the two women’s grief pulsating between their bodies. This is the image that I want to leave with you with. The ways in which Black women mourn is communal and that narrative of suffering is a narrative we all know and understand implicitly because it happens too frequently.
“Life,” as Brown says, “matters more than reputation. There is a crisis throughout our homes and in our neighborhoods that affect college students. For a grieving mother to be at the gates starving and to know that your life can be on the line and you can’t bring your son back to life, knowing that the University doesn’t care, you hope that the mothers care. ”
On my way home I called my mother to check in and let her know that I am safe. She is fearful every day that is not spent in her home, in her arms, where there is the real fear that one day I may not come home. I tell her about my day, my time with Ms. Brown, and tell her how Ms. Brown reminds me of her sister, my Aunt Carole.
“I’m so proud of you Cait,” she assures me.
“I know Mom,” I respond, “I know.”
“I just…” she pauses. “I just did my best.”
I allow her words to sit in silence between us. I allow the silence to reverberate and wash over, embracing me the ways in which a mother’s love can only fulfill. I allow her to love me with her language because not all mothers are afforded this daily chance. I tell her I love her because not every child has the chance to tell their mother these words. Our love is what protects us. It is what gets us through each day, makes us stronger, and urges us to keep going.
At this point, it should be frighteningly obvious to everyone that Dannielle Brown’s hunger strike reaches one of two conclusions — Duquesne University acquiesces to her demands or she dies. At its press conference a week ago, Duquesne let its attorney wash its hands of Dannielle Brown. And if the public doesn’t apply pressure on the university, it will continue to ignore Ms. Brown’s hunger strike until she is dead.
JB Brown isn’t here to stand up and protect his mother. So, I have to ask, will we be the ones to protect Dannielle Brown? Because if we don’t, then we will be complicit in her death.