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Tawanda Jones, Kelly Davis and other Baltimore women have turned their pain into protest

Tawanda Jones, sister of Tyrone West
(Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

For 378 straight weeks, Tawanda Jones has told her brother’s story to anyone who will listen. She has bellowed his name into microphones and bullhorns to as many as thousands and as few as just a handful of supporters. During the coronavirus pandemic, she carried on the effort on YouTube.

Before the deaths of Freddie Gray and George Floyd brought widespread protests against racism and police brutality to the streets, Tyrone West died in the custody of Baltimore and Morgan State University police at a Northeast Baltimore traffic stop in 2013.

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Four years later, the city and state paid his family $1 million to settle a federal lawsuit alleging police misconduct and excessive force. But the medical examiner’s office ruled that the 44-year-old died from a heart condition exacerbated by the struggle with police and the summer heat. No officer was charged.

Jones has consoled grieving family members of Floyd, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. She wants prosecutors in Baltimore and across the country to reopen police brutality cases and deliver justice for her “blood family,” whose relatives' blood "has been on the hands of ‘Amurderca,’” she said.

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“There’s no statute of limitation on murder,” said Jones, 42, who lives in White Marsh. “I’m never going to stop.”

Jones, a Baltimore County teacher, is one of several Baltimore activists who exemplify the conviction that women — and Black women, in particular, from Ida B. Wells to Rosa Parks — have contributed to peaceful protests throughout U.S. history.

Women’s activism, often sparked by personal experiences, represents a recognition of the many inequalities and injustices in their communities, said Adele Newson-Horst, coordinator of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Morgan State University.

“It is personal, and the personal is, in fact, political," Newson-Horst said. “We are living the experience."

It’s the same drive that inspired Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi to found Black Lives Matter. Initially a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2013 killing of Trayvon Martin, the movement has gained widespread support, particularly this summer, after video circulated of Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis.

“As a network, we have always recognized the need to center the leadership of women and queer and trans people,” the Black Lives Matter organizers say on their website.

‘I made them know who I am’

Iya Dammons stood in front of Baltimore City Hall under a glaring sun in June as hundreds of people joined in the largest Black Trans Lives Matter demonstration the city had ever seen.

Baltimore photographer Devin Allen’s picture of the protesters lying on the street graced the cover of Time magazine as people flooded streets across the country following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.

And yet Dammons, a transgender activist with Baltimore Safe Haven who spearheaded the event, sees the national magazine cover — also believed to be a first for a Black Trans Lives Matter event — as more than just a symbol at a time when Black trans people face violence, discrimination and ignorance.

Dammons had turned to sex work to make money and survive. Now, she was turning to activism.

The killing of Tony McDade, a 38-year-old Black transgender man, by Tallahassee, Florida, police in May has helped bring the longstanding issues facing the trans community to the forefront of the national consciousness, Dammons said.

“They said the revolution would not be televised," she said. “Some days it has been great; some days it had been hard. But [the protest] was a historical moment for Black Trans Lives Matter in Baltimore.”

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Dammons wasn’t satisfied. About a month later, she helped lead the charge to paint a “Black Trans Lives Matter” mural on North Charles Street between 21st and 23rd streets. It caught the attention of Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who showed up to lend his support.

Now, Dammons is feeling empowered after gaining strength in the city’s political landscape. Her aim: to liberate Baltimore from all forms of racial injustice and protect transgender sex workers and other members of the trans community from violence and discrimination.

“We are going to be here even when the hype goes down. As a Black trans woman, I want to make sure that we are visible,” Dammons said. “They didn’t know who I was until I made them know who I am. I have nothing to lose when it comes down to fighting for communities.”

She particularly wants to increase employment opportunities for the transgender community and ensure they will be accepted in the workplace.

“It’s harder for the black trans woman to show her strength,” Dammons said.

‘You’re going to remember his name'

Kelly Davis was on the phone with her then-boyfriend, now-husband Keith Davis Jr., in 2015, when he was shot by police, who said they suspected him in a robbery in Northwest Baltimore.

Nine months later, after being acquitted of the robbery, he was charged in the killing of Kevin Jones, a Pimlico security guard.

Police and prosecutors offered no motive for the killing, and the prosecution of Davis hinged on circumstantial evidence. But after three unsuccessful prosecutions, a new jury convicted him of second-degree murder last summer, and he was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Kelly Davis, an administrative assistant and billing specialist who lives in Glyndon, had been so private and reserved that many of her friends were surprised to learn she had a boyfriend at all. But when she couldn’t get answers from city officials, she organized “Team Keith," a vocal group that attended his court hearings and protested the prosecutions outside State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s offices.

By this summer, Davis was speaking passionately from the back of a pickup truck to thousands who gathered outside the Baltimore Convention Center for a miles-long youth-led protest march that eventually shut down the Jones Falls Expressway.

“I wasn’t getting anywhere on my own,” the 36-year-old said. "I decided to go public to get more people behind me, make more noise and keep the light shining.

"If you didn’t, in this city, the next week, they just kind of move on.”

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Years of protesting can feel like yelling into a void when it doesn’t produce the intended results, but it hasn’t hardened Kelly Davis the way people might think, she said.

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“It makes you a realist,” she said. “He’s going to sit for a while until things are made right.”

Keith and Kelly married at the Jessup Correctional Institution in 2017, and he is a father figure for her teenage boys and pre-teen girls, she said. Until her husband comes home, nothing will stop her from making sure people know his story, she promises.

“If I do nothing else, you’re going to remember his name,” she said. “You’re going to know who he is.”

The oft-repeated protest chant “No justice, no peace!” is her favorite for a reason.

“I believe I embody it," Davis said. “If we get no justice, you get no peace. If you are an elected official, and you are part of anything that is wrong, if I had it my way, you would not be able to freely move around the city without people reminding you.”

‘Turn your pain into power’

Daphne Alston, left, co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United, listens at a monthly community meeting in 2018 held at St. John Alpha and Omega Pentecostal Church. Alston's son, Tarik Sharif Alston, was fatally shot and killed at a party in 2008.
Daphne Alston, left, co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United, listens at a monthly community meeting in 2018 held at St. John Alpha and Omega Pentecostal Church. Alston's son, Tarik Sharif Alston, was fatally shot and killed at a party in 2008. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Hundreds of mourners descended on Daphne Alston’s house in Edgewood after her 22-year-old son, Tariq, was killed at a party at the Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Station in Harford County in July 2008.

“Tariq was so well loved,” his mother said. “We didn’t go to bed for almost two days.”

The loss inspired Daphne Alston, a 61-year-old optician manager, to co-found Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United with Mildred Samy, whose son, Samuel Horne, was killed at age 25 the previous year.

The Baltimore-based organization began offering group counseling at St. John Alpha & Omega Pentecostal Church for parents whose children are killed in the region, Alston said. Together, they shared the ways they were confronting their despair.

“We would just have talks,” she said. “We called ourselves ‘The Fellowship.’ ... We shared our stories, our pain, what we were going through every day that a co-worker wouldn’t understand.”

Eventually, they realized all but one of them had something in common: Their children’s killings remained unsolved. The group’s monthly counseling sessions evolved into calls for answers.

“That pain speaks in ways nobody can understand,” Alston said. “Who is this person that took my child’s life?"

They met in 2014 with then-Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and officials from the city State’s Attorney’s Office to ask for updates and what they could do. They held peace walks and cookouts in their loved ones’ memories. But fear of retaliation and the deep divide between police and the community often contribute to witnesses being reluctant to testify in homicide cases, she said.

Alston feels overwhelmed and discouraged sometimes, especially by unending violence in Baltimore and lack of answers. But something always keeps her from giving up: her fellow MOMS members.

“As soon as I’m ready to throw in the towel, I’ll get a couple of phone calls from a mother whose child was murdered,” she said. “There’s still hurt people who need somebody just to say, ‘Hey, look at me; I’m over here.’”

A mother’s pain can’t bring her son back, Alston said, but it can help other families process tragedies of their own.

“Turn your pain into power, into something that’s going to work for you,” she said. “If you sit back and do nothing, it’s going to sit there and get worse. Never let your child die in vain."

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