In October 1992, a 7-year-old named Dantrell Davis was shot to death in Chicago. He was standing next to his mother, outside his elementary school at the Cabrini-Green public housing complex, just before the morning bell. Then a sniper in one of the development’s 23 highrises opened fire. Officially, 943 people were murdered in Chicago that year, the highest toll in city history except for 1974, when Chicago had 970 killings and 300,000 more residents. Dantrell Davis was hardly an isolated case during that deadly year — he was the 75th child killed in the city and the third student from his school alone. But the first grader’s story resounded in the news for months, his name adopted as a rallying cry for change, just as another Chicago boy’s death a generation earlier had stirred calls for civil rights. He became, as the editor of the Sun-Times declared that fall, “the symbol that Emmett Till was.”
I’ve thought often about Dantrell Davis this year. Upwards of 4,300 people were shot in Chicago in 2016. There were more than 760 murders, a 50 percent increase from 2015 and the most in the city since the 1990s. In terms of absolute numbers, no other American city comes close. Each Monday morning, we’ve been inundated by the unrelenting tally of weekend casualties — most recently, 11 dead and 61 wounded over the Christmas holiday. Law enforcement is struggling to keep up: Chicago police now close just one-fifth of their murder cases, a third of the national average, and nearly 600 officers have left the department since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011. Even with almost 200 fewer homicides than in 1992, the violence today feels somehow worse, more out of control and treacherous.
Greg Zanis, a suburban man who constructed a wooden cross for every Chicagoan lost this year to gun violence, is one of many artists, activists, civic leaders, and journalists who has tried to elevate the tragedy of each murder into something more than an installment in the city’s daily accounting of horrors. A march along Michigan Avenue downtown with protesters carrying the 760-plus crosses is planned for New Year’s Eve. But the truth is that no victim has emerged to embody all our outrage and shame. There is no Dantrell Davis for 2016. And yet his death may still help explain what’s different about Chicago this year — and what should and shouldn’t be done about it.
In the early ’90s, there was a morbid logic to the street violence. Like other cities across the country, Chicago had fallen prey to the crack epidemic. Most of the homicide victims and victimizers were tied to the growing drug trade. In the 1990s, a top-down hierarchy still controlled the city’s gangs.
It turned out that Dantrell’s great-uncle was the head of the Black Disciples and one of several gang leaders controlling a large street organization from inside prison. Dantrell’s murder was an abrogation of the gangs’ codes. Organized crime was one thing, but disorganized crime was bad for business. Chicago’s black gangs responded by orchestrating a truce. Over the next six months, Cabrini-Green, one of the city’s high-crime vice zones, saw only one shooting and no murders.
Today’s violence remains largely confined to a handful of black and Latino neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides. But no longer is it moderated by crime bosses or their rules. The big street gangs have been replaced by hundreds of small cliques. A group of friends from the same street now wars with guys from a couple of corners away. Their conflicts are far less likely to be motivated by business than by petty differences — an argument over a girl or an insult posted on social media. Young people are stuck in arbitrary cycles of retaliation; they’re armed, scared, and idle, which exacerbates the problem. According to a recent Great Cities Institute report, more young black men are unemployed in Chicago than in any city in the country.
Dantrell Davis also reveals how the deeper problems of segregation and inequality that contribute to gun violence in Chicago have grown worse. His death became a cause célèbre in part because Cabrini-Green was located just north of the Loop and only a short walk from Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile. By 1992, when he died, that central area was recovering from its post-industrial swoon. Yuppies were settling the area around Dantrell’s home. His killing, in fact, was used as the impetus to tear down portions of Cabrini-Green, the beginning of the end of Chicago’s high-rise public housing. Up until then, demolishing the city’s stock of 43,000 units of public housing was considered both politically and logistically impossible — where would more than 100,000 poor, mostly African American people go?
A quarter century on, the Loop and its surroundings are flourishing like never before. But the urban renaissance hasn’t reached the neighborhoods beset by gun violence. After decades of joblessness, failing schools and disinvestment, many people who could afford to move out of these areas did, leaving behind an even higher concentration of poor families. The collapse of the housing market in 2008 struck with unfair force — two-thirds of Chicago’s tens of thousands of vacant homes were clustered in only a few black and Latino neighborhoods. Census data released this month showed that the city center added 42,000 people since 2010, while the South Side’s population fell by 50,000.
The glut of vacant properties have become magnets for violence. A study determined that, on average, seven crimes were committed in empty Chicago buildings or lots each day. Maps of the city’s homicides and foreclosures look almost like perfect overlays of one another. The families displaced from demolished public housing high-rises were relocated into these same areas. These trends further destabilized neighborhoods that continued to suffer the worst from Chicago’s deindustrialization.
In the final weeks before the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton stumped at Daley Plaza downtown, asking supporters to help him oust President George H. W. Bush, whom he said would never pay for the additional police officers needed to keep Chicago safe. “We owe it to Dantrell Davis!” he shouted. Within a couple of years, the economy improved, crack use declined, and violent crime subsided. But by then the hysteria over inner-city violence had transformed into policies with long-term consequences. In 1994, President Clinton signed into law the most sweeping crime bill in the nation’s history. Children were tried as adults and given mandatory minimum sentences, newly built prisons were filled, and sentences for crack cocaine possession rose to be a hundred times higher than those for powdered cocaine.
On his way to the presidency this year, Donald Trump seized on the headlines coming out of Chicago to paint a nightmare picture of “war-torn” inner cities where people are “living in hell.” In the fall, Mayor Emanuel, finally responding in earnest to the city’s rising shooting totals, announced plans to add police officers and pushed for harsher sentences for repeat gun offenders. The latter proposal is cause for concern. Chicago must not succumb to fear the way that the nation did in the 1990s. We can’t arrest our way out of the current crisis.
This, too, should be the lesson of Dantrell Davis: We need to address poverty and unemployment and segregation in our city — the factors that allow crime to flourish in pockets of Chicago from decade to decade. As part of his anti-violence plan, Emanuel also promised to fund mentoring programs for inner-city youth, a recognition of the deeper cycles at work. Advocates are working alongside residents to redevelop beleaguered neighborhoods, repurpose abandoned homes, and improve relations between the police and the people they are meant to serve. That’s the much harder work we must do in the new year. We owe that to Dantrell Davis, still.
Ben Austen is a writer who lives in Chicago.