After graduating from high school this spring, Donnell Rochester wanted to move to California and embrace the Hollywood life. A young man who loved to sing and idolized rapper Nicki Minaj, he planned to study fashion in college and envisioned a future filled with glamorous outfits.
His plans were cut short during a fatal encounter with Baltimore police last month that started with an outstanding bench warrant and escalated quickly into gunfire when Rochester tried to flee. His family has already raised significant questions about how police approached Rochester, including why they “ran up on him with guns drawn” over a warrant for failing to appear in court in an earlier carjacking case.
But on Friday afternoon, about a month after his death, dozens of young people gathered outside City Hall alongside relatives of Rochester to demand criminal charges for the two officers who fired their weapons.
“Police officers choose their job. They choose to put on that uniform every day. But my skin color is not a choice,” Jaleyah Morton said into a microphone, her voice reverberating through downtown. “Y’all cannot continue to hide behind the color blue. We are literally begging you: Let us live in our Black skin.”
The protesters called on Mayor Brandon Scott to come stand with them and acknowledge what they called a gross injustice — a request that went unanswered and left the group chanting loudly outside the locked front door of City Hall, their voices filled with deep frustration.
“Do your job, because last time I checked, driving while Black was not a crime,” Morton said, addressing the mayor directly. “Donnell could have been any one of us.”
Some protesters gripped handmade signs demanding “Justice for Donnell” while others carried rainbow flags signifying gay rights.
Many were students at Morgan State University. Morton, a sophomore studying journalism and criminal justice, said she learned about Rochester when body-worn camera video of his graphic death appeared in her social media feed.
Baltimore police released the bodycam video soon after his death. The footage shows that Rochester started driving away from officers, who had approached him on foot after scanning his license plate and finding the warrant, officials said.
One officer approached his moving car, then opened fire and jumped to the side as the vehicle passed him. Rochester, 18, quickly slammed on the breaks, stepped out with his hands up and then fell to his knees. He was later pronounced dead from gunshot wounds.
Morton said watching the video took her back to the myriad other instances of police brutality she has watched unfold in recent years. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, she participated in massive demonstrations after the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in March 2020.
“Same thing, different state,” she said at the Friday protest, shaking her head.
Rochester’s mother attended the protest despite the overwhelming grief and the reality that nothing can bring back her son.
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“I had to bury my son on March the 12th,” Danielle Brown told the crowd. “That pain is like no other. It’s so deep — it’s unbearable.”
She said Rochester had the brightest smile and infectious energy that made it impossible to be bored in his presence. He loved to sing and dance, with dreams of becoming a Hollywood star.
“That was his big dream,” she said, her eyes wide and glistening. “My first born — he taught me everything I know about being a mother.”
That he would end up dead because of a bench warrant is hard to comprehend, she said, adding that the family had moved in recent months, which could mean Rochester never received court notices that were sent to the old address.
Police have said the warrant was issued because Rochester failed to appear in court for an earlier carjacking charge. Charging documents show he and his female cousin were accused of ordering an Uber and then threatening the driver and taking his vehicle in November 2020. Police stopped them soon thereafter, and Rochester confessed to the theft but denied being armed, according to police.
In addition to his mom, Rochester left behind a younger sister who he adored, relatives said.
The family said they recently retained an attorney and are considering a civil lawsuit against the police department. They said they plan to continue protesting until they get results.