Justice for Danye

Oct. 17, 2018, began like any other pre-dawn Thursday morning, except that the light in Danye Jones’ basement bedroom was still on when his stepfather, Derek Chatman, entered the North St. Louis County home after his overnight shift. Annoyed, Chatman yelled Danye’s name. No response. Danye’s mother, Melissa McKinnies, ran downstairs from her bedroom to investigate the racket.

A single brick from the back patio lay at the foot of Danye’s neatly made-up bed. There was no shattered glass, so McKinnies shrugged it off and picked up the brick, reasoning that Danye was taking advantage of the stillness and crisp, early fall morning air to write or work out, as he sometimes did. She padded up the stairs and out the back door to return the brick to its rightful place.

“It was still pretty dark but something told me to look out into the yard,” McKinnies says.

She noticed one of the wooden patio chairs sitting upright in the grass, 9 or 10 feet from the yard’s signature, center tree. There was a sliver of pink from the rising sun. She glanced in the direction of the light, which partially illuminated the tree, blinking at what looked like legs, then arms. Her mind began screaming in denial, I know I’m not seeing what I think I’m seeing!

Walking closer, McKinnies realized the body hanging from a knotted sheet tied on the tree was her 24-year-old son, Danye. Unspeakable sorrow, crippling shock and horror consumed her. McKinnies wailed Danye’s name, begging him to “Please move, please wake up.”

Hearing her screams, Chatman and McKinnies’ brother, Daniel, shot through the back door while McKinnies stumbled backward into the house, crumpling to the kitchen floor, sobbing, unable to breathe.

“It was unreal. A nightmare,” remembers McKinnies. “My mind couldn’t grasp what was happening. How could this be possible?”

She remembers asking her husband over and over, “Is my baby dead? Is my baby dead?” But McKinnies only saw his mouth moving, forming the word, “Yes.” Mother and Son On a sunny, early spring Sunday afternoon, McKinnies, dressed in a dark hoodie and yoga pants, sits in the living room of her home. The blinds and drapes are drawn shut. The room is dominated by a giant framed poster of Danye dressed in a sharp suit, tie and pocket square, inscribed with one of his poems and #JusticeForDanye. A Bible sits atop a carefully arranged, white blanket on a settee below. There is a TV and a lamp, but nothing else.

McKinnies refers to the home as a “hell hole.” She avoids eye contact and with her hands in her lap, she speaks low, almost in a whisper. McKinnies is stunningly pretty. She refuses to share her age but looks no older than her late 20s, although she is likely closer to 50.

Next to Danye’s poster is a large framed photo of a giggling baby. That was Danye’s older brother, Danny, “DJ” who suffered a head injury at one year, 11-days old in 1991. McKinnies and DJ’s father tried for another baby, praying for a boy. Danye was born two years after DJ.

Danye ran track at his middle and high schools. He was a sports fanatic, with a penchant for basketball.

After high school, Danye worked in construction as a forklift driver. In early 2017, he quit, telling his mom, “I want my own business, wanna be my own boss. I ain’t never gonna work for anyone who looks down on me.”

McKinnies believed in her boy, telling him: “Well, you wanna, you gonna.”

Danye left for Colorado, returning nearly a year later after learning that his mother had just been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and systemic lupus. In 2011, McKinnies was diagnosed with colon cancer and treats herself holistically. She does not believe in chemotherapy or radiation.

Contrite, Danye apologized to his mother and confessed that he sold cannabis in Colorado (where marijuana is legal) to make the money necessary to launch his own business. McKinnies wasn’t happy with his choice but accepted that Danye would never go near drugs again.

“He wanted to take care of me and insisted that I quit my part-time gig at a friend’s cleaning company,” says McKinnies.

Before that, no illness slowed McKinnies from working, often in pain, as one of Ferguson’s leading activists, beginning in August 2014 after teen Michael Brown’s lifeless body lay in the middle of the street for hours, gunned down by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. A predominantly White grand jury refused to indict Wilson in Brown’s death. McKinnies, joined by her children Danye, Jovan (now 22) and Melisha (now 24), helped organize the shutdowns of busy highways, several major malls, business districts and government centers throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area with peaceful “Stop The Violence” and “Black Lives Matter” protests and marches.

“Mike Brown — any of them — could have been one of my babies. So, I believed in fighting on their behalf. I had to go strong, even if I felt like my head was going to explode,” McKinnies explains.

Then it hit home. McKinnies thought Danye was acting paranoid when he would say, “Mama, we need to get protection. They’re out to get us.” Two weeks prior to Danye’s death, McKinnies describes how a caravan of what she believed were undercover cops, some in bogus utility-company vehicles, repeatedly circled her block, eventually parking on her street. Several, dressed in their black “police” t-shirts, got out and lined up in front of her home, just standing there, staring at the house.

“Danye and I were the only ones there at the time. He was protective of all of us and never would have left me home alone,” says McKinnies. “We just watched from the living room windows, wondering what they wanted.”

McKinnies remembers Danye saying, “This is crazy.” He and his mom backed away from the windows and closed the blinds, peeking out every now and then.

“They left after a couple of hours,” McKinnies continues. “I guess it was supposed to be some kind of message or threat. But who were we going to call? The police?” The Investigation McKinnies maintains that her son was lynched.

“Danye didn’t believe in suicide and was excited by so much: his new property-buying-and-flipping company, ‘Moving On Up,’ studying to earn his realtor’s license and his upcoming 25th birthday,” says McKinnies. She shares copies of the police report and the medical examiner’s report, the glaring discrepancies highlighted.

McKinnies is quick to rebut every reported allegation and “official detail.”

“My husband, who is ex-military, and my brother both carefully examined the knots in the sheet, which they described as ‘intricate Navy knots,’ something Danye would never have known how to tie since he was never in the military or even the Boy Scouts,” says McKinnies. “If you were going to kill yourself, would you create these challenging knots? Plus, it was not a sheet from our home,” says McKinnies.

In the police and medical examiner’s reports, Danye is described as 5’7” tall and 143 pounds.

“He was 6 feet tall and weighed between 150 and 160,” his mother points out. “His hair is described as ‘medium-length,’ but Danye always rocked a fade.”

Both reports state the cause of death as ‘suicide.’ Yet, no autopsy was performed to confirm that conclusion.

“They didn’t dust for prints. They didn’t speak with the family or check his phone. I alerted the police to the last text on Danye’s phone, which read, ‘I’m sorry.’ I know my baby didn’t write that. Danye was a poet; not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ person.” McKinnies says one of the most haunting memories of that terrible day was the laughter of one of the detectives.

“That man laughed from the backyard to the front like he was in a comedy club. My baby was still on the ground. I asked another officer, ‘Is this how y’all act when someone’s loved one is laying out there, dead?’ No response,” says McKinnies.

McKinnies now fights for an independent investigation. New York state Sen. Kevin Parker took interest in the case and sent supporting letters in January to Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt. Parker also copied local and national legislators, asking that they step up and conduct independent investigations of Danye’s hanging death and the mysterious, “unsolved” deaths of other young Black and Brown men connected to the Ferguson protests.

There have been six deaths altogether:

  • In November 2014, Deandre Joshua, 20, was found shot in the head inside a torched car weeks after a jury declined to charge officer Darren Wilson with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

  • Twenty-nine-year-old Darren Seals, a friend of the Brown family, was also found shot inside a burned car two weeks later.

  • Ferguson activist MarShawn McCarrel, 23, of Columbus, Ohio, reportedly shot himself outside the Ohio Statehouse in February 2016.

  • Twenty-seven-year-old Edward Crawford, who was photographed throwing a flaming, tear-gas canister back at police during a Ferguson protest, reportedly shot himself in May 2017.

  • Danye Jones, 24, was found hanging from a tree in the family’s backyard by his mother on the morning of October 17, 2018.

  • In November 2018, Bassem Masri, a 31-year-old Palestinian American who supported the Ferguson protests by livestreaming them on social media, was found dead on a bus of an apparent heart attack. Toxicology results released in February 2019 reported a fentanyl overdose.

From Protest to Policy Fellow long-time activist Theda Person supports the fight to re-open all cases and says that Ferguson residents still live in a toxic atmosphere where police are the “threat,” not the “protection.” She says McKinnies is a dedicated woman.

“After all her sacrificing for others, why isn’t Melissa not getting all the support? All the outrage? All the on-going national attention?”

McKinnies and other Ferguson activists believe that the protests generated as much resentment as they did support. Though there is no solid proof or corroboration that Ferguson police were involved in the deaths of the Ferguson activists, statistically, the St. Louis area ranks infamously high in the number of police-involved deaths of African-American men. A recent NBC News poll notes that “13 of the 100 largest U.S. city police departments kill Black men at higher rates than the actual U.S. murder rate.” St. Louis is sixth on that list.

Both McKinnies and Person are done with marching. They want policy change from within by people who aren’t afraid to act, along with less aggressive policing and real economic growth in the area.

A young Black attorney and former Ferguson city councilman, Wesley Bell, handily defeated longtime St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch in the Democratic primary. Two days after Bell was sworn in on Jan. 2, 2019, he promptly fired veteran assistant county prosecutor, Kathi Alizadeh, who presented the evidence to the grand jury that failed to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, and her staff. Bell’s office had no comment on Danye’s case at this time.

But newly-elected Ferguson Ward 3 City Council member, Fran Griffin, a long-time activist, is asking for “an independent investigation by an independent medical examiner outside of St. Louis” to look at Danye’s case. As an elected official, Griffin, a mother of three, promises to “put her money where her mouth is.” She vows to “work on policy that will shape a police department that does not aggressively police the people in the community. Right now, their policies are not designed with us in mind.”

Five months after Danye’s untimely death, McKinnies remembers him as her miracle baby, impatiently entering the world three months ahead of time, weighing just 2 lbs. 7 oz. on Nov. 19, 1993, fighting for every breath. The battles continued for the first nine years of Danye’s life. When he began to walk, doctors diagnosed Danye with mild cerebral palsy, prognosticating that he would never walk correctly. They predicted that he would also be learning and speech disabled.

There were multiple surgeries, weeks-long hospital stays, heel cords on both feet so that Danye wouldn’t tip over, leg braces, wheelchairs and speech therapy. But, he claimed victory over every challenge, his mother says.

“Danye was always determined, adamant about being ‘normal,’” McKinnies reminisces, blinking back tears. “Despite every hurdle thrown at him, a fire inside that boy made him push harder so he could be the best.” — Sheila Banks is a St. Louis-based journalist.

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