A rumble of boos fills the dark auditorium. "Check one, two. Check one, two," repeats a deep voice over the PA. "Are you ready?" But the 250 students at Prosser Vocational high school, on West Wrightwood, sit on their hands, united in their belligerence. They know the enemy is behind the curtain.
"Slick Boys in the house!" the voice announces. Taped music starts. The bass pulsates. The rhythm builds around the throbs, breaking down the barriers. The boos begin to fade. Suddenly there's this need to be moving.
The curtain slides open and three plainclothes Chicago police officers--21, E Murf, and Faheem--stroll across the stage, portable microphones in hand. They step down into the crowd, now swaying to the beat, and invite a couple students to come dance onstage.
A tall, skinny teenager shakes as if an electric wire just zapped him. He looks out at his classmates, flashing a wide grin while he spins, twitches, and jerks, feeling the music, listening to the Slick Boys rap.
Look where you're headed, look where you're headed . . .
Ain't it a shame, you're caught up in a gang game.
Start out at the age of five
Cockin' your hat 'cause you thought you were live.
But you're too young
To start thinking about carrying a gun.
And so you turn a direction,
Hoping to find a little protection
From your mother, brother and your cous,
But you see it ain't like it was.
Now five years have passed,
And you're out there kickin' some--.
OOPS I shouldn't have said it.
But check this out--look at where you're headed.
Ain't it a shame, caught up in the gang game.
The Slick Boys have once again captivated an audience that wasn't quite ready to listen. At dozens of schools, jails, and juvenile homes inside and outside the city they're on a mission to help inner-city youths while erasing negative police stereotypes. Along the way they've raised $ 100,000, all of which went to Cabrini-Green, where all three work--for school supplies, for a playlot, for 1,500 turkeys at Thanksgiving. They've been such a hit that Universal is planning a series for the Fox network next year.
After a couple songs the lights are turned on and the three rappers take turns talking about how hard it is to be an inner-city kid constantly threatened by gangs, drugs, and violence. They know because they've been there.
Twenty-One is cocky. Dressed in a white cotton tank top, loose black jeans, and black basketball shoes, he struts across the stage. A chunk of diamond sparkles in his left ear, and a gold watch slides up his left wrist. His eyes are hidden behind black shades. Give him a crazy cap or a hooded sweatshirt and he'd look like a gangbanger or dope dealer. No way could this man be blue.
He slowly lifts his tank top to wipe his goatee, revealing rippling stomach muscles. The girls go crazy; the guys sit back looking unimpressed. He holds the mike up to his mouth and waits for the screams to drift away. The crowd finally settles.
"I grew up in poverty," he says in a gruff voice. "I grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing project. I got involved in the gang activity the same way many of you got involved." He pauses. "You're hangin' with your homeboys and all of a sudden somebody from the other mob comes around the corner and jumps one of yours. Before you know it, you're hangin' out with the mob. You can't explain how you got in it, why you got in it, but you got to take care of your business. I understand that, because I was about that."
When he was 13 years old--"out on the streets, gang banging, doing the wrong things"--his colors cost him two bullets, one in his stomach, the other in his calf. But he ditched the gang and chose new friends. "I was banging, got shot, got scared, turned into a punk, and started going to school. Ain't that what we call that? You a square, you a punk, right? That's right."
The students shift in their seats.
"Wrong," his voice booms. "You go to school because it's the right thing to do."
He mentions being All-American in high school football and basketball, going to the University of Houston on a full athletic scholarship, having three Cotton Bowl rings and one NCAA Final Four ring (he played next to Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler), playing for a year with the Houston Oilers and two years with a professional basketball team in Ireland. But his proudest day was the day he graduated from college. "When I walked across that stage it was like my mom and dad were at a rap concert. My mom and dad were in their seats. Whoomp, whoomp." He throws his fist into the air. "Go ahead boyee." The kids laugh. "That's all right though. Because you know what? That degree wasn't just for me. It was for my mom and dad too."
Officer Eric Davis kicks back on his puffy white couch in his quiet south-side apartment. "You've seen 21," he says in a cool, calm voice. "Now you see Eric. I don't drink or anything. So it's like an escape--a chance to act like you never would in your normal everyday life." His six-year-old daughter, Alex, dashes down the hallway, then skids across the hardwood floor, only to be stopped by the living-room rug. She then stands up and makes faces at her father, hoping to receive some attention. "Alex," Davis says softly. "You're killing me. Would you please go into the other room for a little bit?" She drops her head and scoots off without a word.
Davis, who's 33, was the second youngest in his family, with nine older sisters and two brothers. His mother, Adele, who worked at a dry cleaners, and his father, William, a chauffeur, raised their family in Cabrini when it was a place to get on your feet. They instilled discipline and stressed education. But Davis still mixed it up on the streets. "When the police were around, it was bad news. It wasn't a good thing, so I was out of there. When they came around I didn't want to talk, I didn't want to be around them. I didn't want them to get to know me. I was fortunate enough not to get arrested or locked up." After he was shot Davis broke all his gang ties and started down the path that led him out of Cabrini. It was at Amundsen High School that Davis gained the All-American status and education that carried him out of Chicago.
Yet after his last season in Ireland he felt obligated to return to the community he grew up in. He wanted to be a role model for kids who take the dangerous detours he once took. "I didn't want to be a human trophy. I didn't want people to say, well, you played on a great team--here's this job. I felt I had to do something on my own."
Davis, who's six foot one and 205 pounds, still lifts weights and plays pickup basketball. He easily recalls the days when he played against the University of North Carolina's Michael Jordan in the 1982 NCAA semifinal game. Houston lost 68-65. In fact, Davis could go on forever about unforgettable games and his year in the NFL, but he generally chooses not to. "I don't like to wear my rings, because I think it kind of sells an unrealistic dream to a lot of kids that I talk to and deal with on a regular basis."
It was the cops he worked with in Humboldt Park in 1985 who started calling him 21, because they said he looked too young to be a "slick boy," the street name for a plainclothes police officer. He was assigned to Cabrini in 1986. Hell is how he described it back then, though he says that thanks to unprecedented community commitment and a peace treaty among gangs, Cabrini is far safer now. "The rapport in the community is so good," he says.
Davis and the Slick Boys now have a public-relations role in the community. When they're on foot patrol kids beat on their chests, scream their names, and beg to talk to the celebrities. Some of the 6,000 residents invite them over for dinner and ask them to explain to a daughter why she should be careful about getting pregnant or explain to a son why he should stay out of gangs and away from drugs and stay in school or get a job.
Sometimes, Davis says, it becomes too much, but he wants to do what he can. "I try to be a ray of hope. I know it's tough to make it out. I think it would be wrong of me, especially having roots there, just to write them off. It's important not only to go back, but to give something back."
Alex returns and does a headstand on the rug in front of the fireplace. She slams against the floor. Next she's up making funny faces. Then she's on the couch sitting partly on Davis's lap, her face close to his, staring at him when he speaks.
"What I stand on is the only way you get out is through education. Education in low-income areas is looked down upon so much because people are living day-to-day. I can tell them, go to school and get an education for the future. They say, 'Yeah 21, the future's great, but I don't know if I'm going to live to see tomorrow.' What I'm trying to do is to get out there and try to change those problems and tell them to start having bigger expectations for themselves."
E Murf's thick, flat gold chain is hidden under his plain white shirt. He stands on the left side of the stage just appreciating the music. He flashes peace signs to the students in the upper deck, who are jealous of the kids dancing onstage under the spotlight.
Then it's his turn. For a guy named after Eddie Murphy, he's serious. He looks out into the crowd--one-third white, one-third Hispanic, and one-third black--and says he wants one thing straight from the start. "When I say brothers and sisters, it's not a black thing, a white or Hispanic, thing. We're all brothers or sisters, like it or not." Part of the crowd cheers. "You don't have to like one another, but you have to respect one another."
E Murf, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, is a no-nonsense type of guy. He knows the streets and he tells it like it is. "I have yet to find a gang with a health plan or a retirement plan," he tells the students. "When a brother goes to jail, the Nation ain't going to see him. His mother is."
"Peace in the Middle East" says an officer who's leaving the near-north-side police station at 365 W. Oak. "How about peace in the middle west? Right here. That's more like it." Several other officers, who are in between evening shifts, smile and agree.
Two orange plastic chairs are squeezed between the entrance and a tall desk. WGCI is playing softly. The station is tidy--it's too tight to be messy. On the left, through a low swinging door, are more small rooms with bare off-white cement walls and a couple metal desks, a longer room with a couple vending machines in a dark corner.
Officer Jimmy Martin, better known as E Murf, was assigned to Cabrini as a punishment. In 1987 he was working in the third district, around South Shore, and violated one of those unwritten rules. He wrote a prominent public figure's son up for driving without a license, a sticker, and license plates. Two weeks later Martin was transferred to Cabrini.
"You can't really say who exactly was responsible," he says. He recalls that earlier he and a close associate of the same public figure hadn't seen eye to eye in a similar situation. "But I'm not going to police you based on who you are and who you know." Whoever was out to teach Martin a lesson also arranged for him to be on foot patrol in uniform and alone. "I was walking around Cabrini when it was buck-wild. They were shooting over here every day like it was legal."
He says he was on a foot chase the first day. "I was running around jumping over fences--then I realize I have no idea where I'm at. I look up and I was by Montgomery Ward, wherever that is. I called the station and said, 'I'm at Montgomery Ward, wherever that is.'" The same week he was in a squad car and gangbangers used it as a shield in a shoot-out. "I have never seen anything that bold," he says. "It was like being in Beirut."
One day in 1991 Martin was walking around Cabrini with Eric Davis and they stopped to talk with a bunch of kids who were listening to hard-core rap music that was putting down the police and advocating violence. The kids accused the officers of being jealous. Martin and Davis said they could do anything they set their minds to and promised they'd be back in a week to prove it. "At first we were terrified," says Martin with a smile. "It was like 'You do your song.' 'No, you do yours.' Then things got rolling. Now we're clowns."
Martin, who's 32, was raised by his grandmother in the Ida B. Wells housing project. "My biggest fear wasn't the police, it was being brought home by the police. My grandma believed in family pride and never embarrassing the family. When the streetlights came on, I was in front of the house. She didn't care how old you were or how big you were, her philosophy was 'There's one opinion in this house and it's mine. When you get yours, you're going to have to leave.'"
Other adults in the neighborhood wouldn't tolerate any nonsense either. "If James was on 39th cussing, being ignorant, an adult could just whip you--and they didn't even know you. They'd take you home, and you'd get another whoopin'. You had to respect your elders."
Day camps, sports, and other activities kept Martin and his friends busy. When he had to decide on a high school, his teachers all thought he should go to the old, beat-up Phillips, like the rest of his class. But he took the entrance exam for the more challenging Dunbar. "I said, 'I'm going to Dunbar.' That's the only test I was taking. Teachers said, 'What if you fail?' I said, 'I'm not failing.'"
He graduated at the top of his class. By his senior year he was lieutenant commander of the ROTC program. He applied to West Point, but wasn't accepted. Fortunately his grandmother had traveled over the years to different state organizations trying to bring extracurricular programs to the public schools, and one day she met a woman whose husband was the colonel of admissions at West Point. Four days after graduation Martin was on the train headed east. The military was his way to get out of the community and do something positive. "I tell people and they laugh: West Point was a joke compared to my grandmother," he says. "You had the responses: 'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir,' 'No excuse, sir,' and 'I don't understand, sir.' When they said, 'I want the reason,' I said, 'No excuse, sir.' They'd say again, 'I want the reason! 'No excuse, sir.' Their faces would turn as red as hell, because they couldn't get me to say the reason they wanted to hear."
Martin came back to Chicago looking for more opportunities to be a leader. He's worked in the Chicago Police Department for eight years. He's locked up his share of criminals, many of whom are relatives of friends or friends of friends he sees on a social basis. "If I'm having fun with them, being open, firm, and fair, we can do a lot of things. I'll be at my friend's house with six other people. I might have locked up three of them, sent a cousin of theirs to the penitentiary. We're all sitting there, laughing, joking, watching TV, whatever. But I don't disrespect them as human beings, and that's the main thing you've got to learn. As long as you treat a man as a man and don't disrespect him or lower his self-esteem, you really won't have any problems."
But Martin does have a problem with the media. A couple years back, in the "buck-wild" days, a prominent TV reporter stopped by Cabrini one afternoon. Martin and Davis were assigned to keep an eye on him and his camera crew as they tried to capture the lives of the Cabrini residents in less than an hour. To the reporter's disappointment the neighborhood was quiet. He needed violence. No one crossed the blacktop of an abandoned playground there for a reason: it was land contested by the Gangster Disciples, the Vice Lords, and the Cobras. The reporter asked Martin and Davis to step onto the playground and draw fire. "I said to him, 'Are you a fool? If you want to see some action, go out there and point your cameras at yourself. 'Cause you'll see some action--some fearless action.'"
Martin sits, forward, folding his arms on the police-station desk. Laughing, loud voices multiply as more slick boys filter into a room across the hall. Only the streetlights can be seen through a small basement window adjacent to the ceiling, but the sound of children playing can be heard.
Martin, dressed in a Slick Boys hooded sweatshirt and baseball cap, can't sit still for too long. He shifts in his chair and describes the vision he says carried him to where he is today. "I always had this dream that I was a super American who served my country."
Faheem's black jacket reads "Way 2 Fonky." He's Mr. Enthusiasm, Mr. Energizer. His raspy voice belts out, "Give it up for yourself for coming to school today. Give it up for the teachers who came today to educate you."
The students erupt into a round of applause for themselves and their teachers. "I see the future leaders out there, the doctors, the lawyers--I even see the president," Faheem says. "The only thing people cannot take away from you is your education. You can have a nice car, the gold chains, and the money. But success is up here." He points to his head.
He talks about parents who are behind the times. The music starts and he 'Mimics how older folks danced, breaking into the conservative hustle. "Tell your folks to get with the program!" he shouts, and busts into the percolator, a patented midwestern dance. His legs slide slowly into the splits, while his shoulders jerk to the beat. The crowd starts screaming.
Faheem is officer Randy Holcomb's Islamic name; it means "an understanding person." He understands why these kids would hate the police.
Late one summer night, when Holcomb was 16 years old, his friends asked him to play ball at their old grade school. Holcomb still had plaster on his clothes from working all day at his father's construction business. OK, Holcomb thought. I'll play a little ball, grab something to eat, get some sleep, and be up at the crack of dawn to head back to work. He and his friends were heading to the gym when they saw a commotion near the Congress Street el stop. Blue lights zipped through the neighborhood, and the teenagers followed.
A Hispanic man's store had been robbed and the police were looking for a suspect when Holcomb and his friends arrived. The Hispanic man could hardly speak English, but the sergeant decided Holcomb was the man. He handcuffed him. When Holcomb shouted to one of his friends to go home and tell his parents what happened, the sergeant grabbed his friend too. The two were charged with aggravated robbery and aggravated battery.
Holcomb lived across the street from Rockwell Gardens in a four-bedroom house with his six brothers and four sisters. He went to Saint Michael's and Precious Blood grade schools and Saint Michael's High School. He had a clean, Catholic schoolboy record.
When bond was set at $65,000, Holcomb didn't even look at his parents in the courtroom. The next thing he remembers is standing in Cook County jail listening to the inmates holler, "Fresh meat. Fresh meat." Holcomb and his friend slept in the day rooms on a picnic table covered with a sheet because the jail was so crowded. They heard the screams of a man being jumped in the showers. They saw how the guards did nothing. At mealtime the inmates ate out of whatever they could find. One cut a bleach bottle in half; on one side he put his food, on the other his juice. Others ate out of half trays, if they were lucky enough to find them.
While the two friends were in jail, the two people who actually committed the crim-e-two junkies who knew one of Holcomb's brothers--went to the Holcombs' house and admitted it. The Holcombs told the police, who said, "We've got our two."
One day Holcomb was called in to see the chaplain. He thought the electric chair had his name on it. But the chaplain told Holcomb he'd talked to Brother Johnson from Saint Michael's and he would fix the mess. As it turned out, the Hispanic man was an illegal immigrant and didn't show up in court. Holcomb's week-long nightmare was over, but it was two months before his friend got out.
Twenty years later Holcomb explains why he became a police officer. "With the injustice that was being bestowed upon--and I will say 'my people'--the only answer is to fight the injustice. There is so much that goes on in this job that people close their eyes to, turn away from--because they're afraid to open their mouth and say something."
Like Martin, Holcomb refused to give preferential treatment to influential people. While working in the 21st district, the Bridgeport-Hyde Park area, Holcomb brought in an alderman's son for driving without a license. He says his sergeant was ticked when Holcomb didn't drop the charges. A short time later Holcomb, like Martin, was sent to Cabrini as a punishment.
"Growing up, a lot of my friends lived in Cabrini," Holcomb says. "When they said, 'Come over to my house,' I said, 'I'll see you later. I'm not going over to your house. I've heard about Cabrini, and I'm not going over there.'"
Yet Holcomb grew up knowing about gangs, drugs, and crime. One of his brothers was once in the Blackstone Rangers, which in the 80s became the El Rukns. One day after his mother, a post-office worker, went grocery shopping, she and four of her kids stopped by a building in Cabrini-Green that the Rangers ran. When they returned to the car their groceries had been stolen. They told Holcomb's brother, and the groceries were returned with apologies within 15 minutes. "After that I was telling one of my brothers how much I wanted to grow up and be like him," Holcomb recalls. "My father overheard me and slapped the mess out of me."
Monroe Holcomb used to tell his friends that he had one son for each day of the week to work with him in the summertime. He was tough on all his kids. "His philosophy was that if I whip you, I'm whoopin' everybody," Holcomb remembers with a smile. "Because everyone else should have been responsible for what the others were doing." When a woman was nailed with a water balloon while walking past the Holcomb house, Monroe Holcomb lined the children up and asked who was responsible. Randy, thinking this was a perfect opportunity to tell the truth, ratted on Bobby. Bobby got whooped for throwing the water balloons, and Randy got whooped for telling on him--which blew his mind. But his father said, "No matter what, you never, tell on your brothers and sisters. You're family--you stick together."
His father's stringency kept Holcomb out of trouble. Basketball kept him busy too. By his father's choice, Holcomb went to William Penn College, a Quaker college in Iowa, on a basketball scholarship. But after two months the fields of corn, the peace and quiet, and the racism made Holcomb, one of only 12 blacks in the school, decide to return to Chicago. He majored in business and accounting at UIC, working for his father the whole time he was in school. "I always try to stress to kids that there are two types of education. One is in books. The other is on the streets. It's a necessity to have both."
The slogan for the Slick Boys is "Ye guma mo mo envano mo," which means "We serve and protect our brothers" in Ghanaian. One night Holcomb stopped a cab driver and asked how to say the English slogan in an African language. He says he wanted the slogan to be a conversation piece. "People try to figure it out. Now they have to talk to me, so I tell them about the Slick Boys."
Faheem believes African Americans need to understand their own history to increase their self-respect. He spends what little free time he has writing poetry and reading the works of leaders such as Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass. "I'm a firm believer that every one is born to be someone," he says. "You've got people born to be leaders. We're doing what we were born to do."
When the question-and-answer session is just about over, a kid in the fifth row raises his hand. "Are you the police, for real?" he asks.
The boy sitting next to him looks at him in disbelief, throws his arms in the air, and shakes his head.
Faheem, 21, and E Murf look at each other for a moment. Same question every show. They understand it's hard for many of these kids to buy that the Slick Boys are really officers, spending their time working with teenagers instead of against them. "Yes," E Murf says. "We're for real."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.