By Sean Yoes, AFRO Baltimore Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org
When I first met Tawanda Jones and her family in December 2013, it had been 155 days since Tyrone West, her brother and their loved one had been killed while in police custody July 18, 2013. West was beaten with batons, punched, kicked, tasered and choked to death by up to a dozen law enforcement officers from the Baltimore Police Department and the Morgan State University police force during a traffic stop on that humid summer day.
The AFRO was one of the first news organizations to fully report on the death of West and his family’s struggle for justice for their loved one, and more than 1,800 days later they are still seeking answers. For Jones, her private heartache and pain over what she says was her brother’s murder, has morphed into a crusade against police brutality as we approach the fifth year since his death.
“It’s been difficult….but, I know that God has got me and that is the main source that keeps me from falling apart,” Jones said during a phone conversation earlier this week.
“The thing that is so profound that sticks in my head is… dealing with this system, everything is scripted, everybody is going by a script…it’s not about what’s right or what’s wrong, it’s seems more so it’s about winning or losing…people that know what’s right and they’re still lying, still hiding behind this script, nobody has integrity, no morals none of that.”
The AFRO was the first to report two of the officers who were on the scene when West died July 18, 2013, Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz and Nicholas David Chapman, had also been a part of the arrest and beating of Abdul Salaam, in the driveway of his home a little more than two weeks earlier on July 1, 2013. West died in the 1300 block of Kitmore Rd. in Northeast Baltimore near the campus of Morgan State University.
Salaam was beaten at his home while his young son watched in the backseat of his car, a few blocks away from where West died. Chapman and Ruiz, who were the first to engage West the day he died, were never disciplined by BPD for their role in the beating of Salaam, who later won a lawsuit connected to the incident. If Chapman and Ruiz had been assigned desk duty or suspended following the incident on July 1, 2013, the two cops may have been off the streets on July 18 and the family of Tyrone West argue their loved one may still be alive today.
“It’s so sad to be fighting for that long. The reason I fight so hard is I am my brother’s keeper. Change is not just going to come knock at your door, you have got to make the change, you have got to be the change,” said Jones. Although her family was awarded $1 million by the City of Baltimore in the death of Tyrone West, they still reject the Medical Examiner’s conclusion that West died of a undiagnosed heart condition and dehydration (the family says he was perfectly healthy). Jones rejected her portion of the settlement because, as is standard in Baltimore Police Department settlements, if she had accepted it she would not have been able to criticize the department. A subsequent autopsy commissioned by the family confirmed what they believed all along, that West was essentially choked to death by police.
“Honestly, I still don’t know the exact outcome…but, I do know that with me advocating the way that I am, I have taught other people how to advocate,” said Jones who leads a protest ever Wednesday at various locations in Baltimore called “West Wednesdays.”
“ I’ve heard people say, `You know what, if this sister is standing up there regardless of the weather…whether it’s freezing cold, or burning up hot and she is out there and she and she has not ever wavered or changed her story, I can do it too.’”
Her ultimate message for those whose loved ones have been the victims of police brutality is clear.
“Hold on, keep on fighting…everybody fights differently; you may not have that type of strength to hold protests…or to go to Annapolis to testify, you may not have that strength. But, hold on to those facts and advocate for your loved one and say to the world, `Hey, this is something that went wrong and should have never happened,’ and you keep fighting like that, keep knowing that there is a higher power that sees us,” Jones said.
“What will your story say about you? Because at the end of the day we are born into this world…at some point we leave this world…but, what will your life say about you?”
Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Baltimore Editor.