Sister Activist: Tawanda Jones, six years after her brother’s death keeps fighting against police brutality

Photo by Brandon Soderberg

March 6, 2019 was Ash Wednesday to many, and a very cold winter day to all Baltimoreans, and for Tawanda Jones, day 2044 since her brother, Tyrone West died in the custody of Baltimore City police and Morgan State University officers after they pulled him over on hot day in July.

Despite the freezing temperatures, Jones and a dozen or so others protestors gathered outside at the intersection of Greenmount Ave. and 33rd Street, holding up the signs with West’s name and the names of police brutality victims across the country on them.

The event is called West Wednesday, a weekly protest and vigil led by Jones to speak out against police brutality and keep her brother’s memory and death fresh in the minds of Baltimoreans. It has happened every week since West’s death on July 18, 2013. 

March 6, 2019 marked the 292nd West Wednesday.

Bill Bleich, a former Baltimore City educator and member of the Progressive Labor Party who Jones affectionately calls “Uncle Bill,” set up the mic and a speaker. He has been working closely with Jones since 2014. Tacked onto the speaker is a laminated poster that reads in white block letters: “JUSTICE FOR TYRONE WEST.” The words are accompanied by a picture of West, his long dreads hanging behind his ears, an introspective look on his face.

Anybody in attendance can step up to the mic and speak, call attention to adjacent social justice causes, tell a story of their experience with police or a friend or family member’s experience, read out a list of Baltimoreans killed in the past week, or simply express support for this grassroots movement going for more than a half-a-decade.

But no one speaks louder, longer, or with more passion than Jones. Even though she was bundled up in a coat and gloves, Jones presence was striking. She had on a large, shiny necklace, thigh high leather boots, and a black hat with a large fuzzy pom-pom. She greeted everyone with a smile and a hug. At one point, she interrupted her impassioned speech to greet an elderly West Wednesday participant.

“Hey beautiful queen!” she said. “Glad you could join us.”

On that March day, Jones called out to everyone to voice their opposition to the Johns Hopkins University private police force. It’s a cause she has gotten behind because it increases the amount of police in Baltimore and that means to Jones, more unaccountable cops and the likely death of more people in Baltimore and because her brother’s death involved a number of Morgan State University police.

A month later in April, Hopkins students and community members that oppose the bill staged a sit-in in Garland Hall, the university’s administration building. Every Wednesday during the sit-in, Jones marched the West Wednesday protests to Garland Hall.

Jones, a prekindergarten teacher, wasn’t always an outspoken person. She was shy, and kept to herself and did not like to start trouble. At another West Wednesday, Jones talked about attending church with her brother on July 14, 2013, the Sunday before he died. That day, the pastor said something Jones had never heard before: Black Lives Matter. 

After the siblings left church, West told Jones that he felt like the pastor was speaking specifically to him.

“That Thursday, at 6:30 p.m., the last conversation I had with my brother on Earth was about George Zimmerman.” Jones said. 

West had told her that he had been thinking a lot about the pastor’s sermon, and that they needed to watch out for the George Zimmermans in their own community. Jones asked him to elaborate.

“His last words to me were ‘I’ll tell you when I get back,’” Jones said. “I guess we’re going to have a heavenly conversation.”

July 18, 2019 marks the sixth anniversary of Tyrone West’s death. Six years earlier, West was having dinner with Jones when he got a call from a friend of his, who was stranded and needed a ride. He took his sister’s green Mercedes Benz and set off to help his friend. West and his passenger were on the corner of Kitmore Rd. and Northwood Dr. when two police officers, Jorge Omar Bernardez-Ruiz and Nichole David Chapman pulled him over. 

Residents of the homes around the area said West was chased down by police officers, tackled, punched. They watched in horror as West was beaten onto the sidewalk with batons, kicked and knocked in the head and back, restrained, and pepper sprayed. Twelve officers were at the scene when West was handcuffed. One of them, a Morgan State police officer named David Lewis, sat on his knees on West’s back. Another officer screamed at Lewis to get off of West. Officer Corey Jennings of the Baltimore City Police told CBS Baltimore in 2014 that when he tried to rolled West over, he was “dead weight” and ashen gray.

At that moment, Jones, who was at home, says she felt a sharp pain in her neck and back. She fell to the floor, writhing in pain, crying. She said the spell only lasted 10 minutes. When the pain subsided, she knew immediately that something had happened to her brother. She told her fiancé to go to her brother’s house to check on him.

“I told him, ‘I don’t care how you get there, just get there,” Jones said. 

Her fiancé ran five miles to her brother’s house. All the while, she prayed that her fiancé would see her green Mercedes parked in West’s driveway, which he had borrowed from his sister, and then he would know that her brother made it home safely.

By that point, West had been taken to the Good Samaritan Hospital. He was pronounced dead at 8:11 p.m.

Jones was devastated realized that her brother’s death was part of a larger story though one that in 2013 was not quite as prominent in the news as it is now. Instances of police brutality were happening across the nation, and police were not being held accountable for their actions, so she began the West Wednesday protest tradition.

The medical examiner of the state of Maryland conducted an autopsy and claimed that West’s death was caused by a combination of heart complications and dehydration rather than the brutal beating so many Baltimoreans reported seeing that night. There was an internal investigation surrounding the officer’s charged with Tyrone’s death. Eight of the officers were suspended. The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office determined that there was not enough evidence to file criminal charges against any of the officers. None of the police officers were charged. 

In 2016, Abdul Salaam, another man stopped by some of the same cops just days before West’s deadly encounter won a Civil Suit against officers Chapman and Ruiz and another officer Nathan Ulmer. A popular chant at West Wednesdays is “Chapman and Ruiz you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.”

In 2017, the West Family settled with the city and state in a wrongful death lawsuit connecting West’s death to police misconduct and excessive force. The family received $1 million dollars. Part of the settlement does not allow the family to publicly discuss the case—so Jones decided not to be part of the settlement. 

“You can either look at things as a negative or a positive,” she said. “Even though what happened to my brother was horrific, I turned that energy into something positive.” 

Connections and friendships are forged or rekindled at West Wednesday. Bleich, a retired teacher who taught at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute had three of West’s cousins as students and knew of the West family. He got involved in West Wednesdays in 2014, after Jones reached out.

“Tawanda and her fiancé told me what they needed most was for people to stick around,” Bleich said. “They needed people to stick around and be committed to the cause.”

Bleich mentioned a West Wednesday march through the Morgan State University campus. The march ended in the university’s student center, which features a permanent Civil Rights movement exhibition. Morgan State security broke up the march and one West Wednesday participant was arrested. Bleich observed that this was the only person to have ever been arrested at a West Wednesday. He couldn’t shake the irony of this arrest in a hall featuring images from prominent historical moments in civil rights movements. It was also a message that there was still so much civil rights work to be done.

Bleich said that one of his former students at Poly, a current Hopkins security guard, predicted that, once the private police arrive on campus, it would only take six months before tragedy strikes—a tragedy like West’s death.

“Hopkins is manipulating people by saying this force is going to be a good force, and not only that, but they’re going to be held accountable,” Jones said. “But nothing in that bill spells out accountability.”

She mentioned something someone at a West Wednesday had said when they got on the mic: “Whatever Hopkins wants, Hopkins gets.” 

“Brutal forces are going to come in, and something is bound to happen.” Jones said. “Someone’s loved one is going to be murdered.”

On April 29, the Monday before the 300th West Wednesday, Jones received a notice from Hopkins administration. It warned her that further protests would be considered violations of the university conduct code and she could be charged with trespassing. 

Her response: “Nobody is going to stop me. The Baltimore Police Department didn’t stop me, The State’s Attorney didn’t stop me, the Medical Examiner’s Office didn’t stop me, you honestly think this foolishness is going to stop me?”

The following week, early in the morning of Wednesday, May 8, Baltimore City police arrested seven students and community members who had locked themselves inside the Hopkins building. At the West Wednesday held later that night, Jones expressed her support of the student protestors.

“Even though they tried to ambush us this morning, we still stand in solidarity with our soldiers and queens and kings.” Jones raises her fist in the air. “We still riding for the cause.”

One day things will change for the better, she believes. West plans to continue to speak out until that change comes around. Many of the people Jones met through opposition to the Hopkins police force now show up to West Wednesday.

“I do this out of love. One day I’m going to sit down with the right prosecutor that is going to prosecute,” Jones said. “Even if those killer cops spend six months to a year in jail, it still sends a strong message—Don’t give up.”