After the killing of Dantrell Davis in 1992, CHA chairman Vincent Lane called for the national guard to help secure Cabrini-Green
  • After the killing of Dantrell Davis in 1992, CHA chairman Vincent Lane called for the national guard to help secure Cabrini-Green

This is the second of a five-part look at how the murder of a seven-year-old 20 years ago still reverberates nationwide. You can read the first installment here.

The shooting death of Dantrell Davis just didn’t seem like all the others. Even if gang violence had become way too common—Chicago was on its way to 943 murders in 1992, up 201 from just three years earlier—something was beyond messed up when a seven-year-old was shot down by a sniper on his way to school. To many it was a sign of wanton lawlessness, the collapse of social standards, the abandonment of poor children, and the power of gangs and drug rings that had replaced factories as the go-to employers of countless inner-city men.

Community leaders tried to channel their horror into action. Along with other clergy, Rev. Walter Johnson, pastor of Wayman AME Church in the middle of Cabrini-Green, organized escorts for kids going to and from school. School officials and area political leaders such as Jesse White worked to extend support services to parents. And street activists led by Wallace “Gator” Bradley, Maurice Perkins, and Hal Baskin got gang leaders together to discuss a truce, fearing that if they didn’t, a full war could erupt. It was bad enough that a little kid had been slain on his way to school. It was much worse that the kid happened to be the great nephew of Black Disciples leader Jerome “Shorty” Freeman.

“Every black man worth a salt was embarrassed at the lack of control in our community,” says Perkins, a onetime nightclub owner who’s run a Bronzeville-based youth organization for years. “We were saying, ‘Is this what it’s come to?’

“The call went out from there. We got with all these gang leaders in the penitentiaries, in the neighborhoods.”

Pressure also mounted on city officials to do something—anything—to signal that they were committed to halting the violence, even if it wasn’t evident exactly what could be done. Yet the reaction from City Hall was tepid at best. In fact, Daley’s response to the killing of Dantrell Davis became a model for how a politician shouldn’t react to an outbreak of violence—even when it only affects poor people.

The most visible official was a shaken Chicago Housing Authority chairman Vincent Lane, who stepped forward with a proposal that was decisive and bold—and politically nuts.

Since taking the job four years earlier, Lane had won national acclaim—and generated controversy—for trying to shake up the CHA, long a political and financial cesspool. A critic of the economic segregation that had been allowed to develop in public housing, Lane led an effort to get federal support for mixed-income developments. He’d also attempted to introduce chronically unemployed residents to the job market. One program cut heating expenses by hiring tenants to check the gas meters at CHA properties; another provided training in construction trades so they could rehab apartments. Lane was widely considered a potential housing secretary if Bill Clinton were elected president that fall.

But that was before he called on Mayor Richard M. Daley and Governor Jim Edgar to deploy the National Guard in CHA developments. “What this calls for is drastic measures,” Lane said to the Tribune. “If this had occurred in Winnetka, the National Guard and the Marines would be there.”

Lane was serious, and probably right, but he was also playing politics: he was directly challenging both voters and elected officials around the country—starting with his own boss—to wake up to the astounding levels of violence in the nation’s poorest communities. This included an average of about 160 slayings a year in CHA properties alone.

He also made it clear he didn’t think area politicians would deliver. “I’m not optimistic because it would indicate that the local government doesn’t have control.”

Lane was right about that. Two years earlier President George Bush had mobilized National Guard staff to provide support to police in Washington, D.C., and if it also embarrassed Mayor Marion Barry, that was OK too. But Chicago wasn’t D.C.—there was no way Daley was going to let outsiders occupy any part of his city. When Alderman Ed Smith proposed bringing in the military to help rid his west-side ward of drugs in 1990, Daley shot the idea down, saying troops should be posted on the U.S. border with Mexico, not on city streets.

This time mayoral aides quickly told any reporter who’d listen that the mayor was working on a plan—and that Lane needed to get with it. “A Daley spokesman said the mayor would be speaking to Lane personally on Thursday,” the Tribune noted.

“I was at that time pretty outspoken, and the mayor didn’t know what to do with me,” Lane says. But Daley knew exactly what to do with the National Guard idea. Lane was summoned to City Hall for the news that the proposal wasn’t dead—it had never been alive and never would be. As Lane recalls: “It ended there.”

As the shooting made headlines and provoked soul-searching around the country, Daley responded by making a pitch for his candidate in the November presidential election. “It shows you the proliferation of guns in our society and drugs in our society,” Daley told reporters. “That’s why Bill Clinton’s going to be focusing on the drug problem, the first president to really focus on the drug problem, to put 100,000 new police officers back in the streets of the cities.”

Daley then left for a weekend of golf and family time on the east coast.

Police swept Cabrini buildings for weapons and drugs, and Lane moved to shutter four underused high-rises. First up was 1157 N. Cleveland, the building where gang leader Anthony Garrett had allegedly gone into an empty apartment and fired the shot that killed Dantrell. Within days, CHA workers were knocking on doors to inform tenants they were going to have to move because the building was being sealed.

Daley aides said the mayor was being updated regularly on the situation at home. They noted that since taking office Daley had lobbied for tougher gun control laws, requested a federal crackdown on drugs, and moved hundreds of police officers from desk to street duty.

Chicagoans weren’t convinced. The criticism mounted, especially within the black community, where Daley had always fared poorly at election time. The mayor was ripped at a rally that Friday night; at Dantrell’s funeral the next day his absence was glaring. Finally he cut his trip short by half a day and called his top aides to an “emergency” Sunday evening meeting.

The mayor made his plan known with a series of announcements the next week. It amounted to a renewed war on gangs, guns, and drug dealers, on top of those that had already been declared. “For too long, you have made the community a target,” Daley proclaimed to the TV cameras, as well as any gang leaders who were listening. “Now you’re the target.”

Daley added that off-duty police officers and federal officials, including Secret Service agents, would help with the crackdown. And he suggested that some of the most underutilized, decaying CHA buildings might have to be torn down as part of a “long-term master plan for public housing in Chicago.”

Click here to read part three.