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In the two decades since Dantrell Davis was gunned down on the way to school, some of the central characters are still trying to come to terms with it. In many ways their ups and downs say a lot about the city as a whole. For all the ways Chicago has changed, it's still a complex mix of neighborhoods and people both moved by unlimited promise and burdened with violent poverty.
Accused sniper Anthony Garrett was convicted of murdering Dantrell in 1994, and Judge Earl Strayhorn sentenced him to 100 years in prison. Garrett, though, has maintained his innocence. The gun used to kill Dantrell was never found, and Garrett claims he signed his confession after police beat him twice with a rubber hose.
Garrett appealed the conviction, but in 1995 the Illinois appellate court upheld it. Representing himself, he has continued to fight for the introduction of new evidence that would grant him another trial. Last year, in fact, he filed a motion for copies of trial transcripts, police reports, a copy of the Dantrell Davis autopsy, and other records. It was denied by Cook County judge Clayton Crane. "After 17 years what petitioner expects to derive from an autopsy report is unfathomable," the judge wrote.
Yet there were also positive developments that came out of the tragedy. In the weeks after the killing, street activists and gang leaders announced that they'd brokered a truce at Cabrini-Green and in other neighborhoods. Mayor Richard Daley mocked the notion. "That's a bunch of malarkey," the mayor told reporters. "They sell drugs. That's not a gang truce. They sell weapons. They extort money from merchants. They threaten people. Forget about it."
But Wallace "Gator" Bradley, a former gang leader who helped broker the truce, still maintains it was taken seriously by gang members. "We used to go behind the walls of the prison and talk to people," he says, and part of the message was that anyone who violated the truce would be punished. "They had no choice—they knew the consequences to their actions. These young guys out here now, they don't think there's any consequences."
Something certainly happened—crime dropped citywide the next year, and there were no homicides at Cabrini for eight months after Dantrell's slaying.
The notion of appealing directly to gang members and drug dealers to reduce violence is no longer ridiculed by the political establishment. This summer Chicago police began a partnership with the nonprofit Ceasefire, which employs former gang leaders to intervene in disputes that could turn violent.
While citywide crime totals have dropped significantly in the last two decades, the bloodshed continues: 1,899 shootings and 406 murders from the first of the year to the end of September, a double-digit increase over a year ago. At least five people were murdered and another 25 shot last weekend alone.
In 1997, after another vicious attack on a child in Cabrini-Green—the rape and near-fatal choking of a nine-year-old known as Girl X—clergy and community leaders formed an organization called the Alliance for Community Peace to provide mentoring and recreation to area youth. It's since expanded citywide.
Rev. Phyllis Harrell, the organization's chief operating officer, says the Cabrini area is more stable since the high-rises have been slowly replaced with mixed-income housing. But children still have to be bused across Division Street so no one gets jumped by rival gangs, and the money and prestige of drug dealing continues to attract some youth. "Even though we've changed the face of Cabrini-Green, we've still got some of the issues," she says.
I ask if anyone still remembers Dantrell Davis. She says teenagers have heard about him, but not the younger kids. It was too many years and too many incidents ago. "They're globally dealing with violence," she says. "By now they've seen so many of their friends shot and killed—and Dantrell was a long time ago."
The two decades since then haven't always been smooth for Annette Freeman, Dantrell's mother, who's now 42. Over the years she's spoken out against violence, but she's also had to move around, struggled to find steady work, and wrestled with questions about how to honor her son's memory.
"I know I can be a spokesperson, but I'm not sure where to go," she says.
Young men on the streets "lack the knowledge of peace," Freeman adds. "Some of these people, they don't know nothing but the projects. Then they tore them down and just put people out there. And it's going to get worse if all we do is lock people up.
"We need to get these parents [of victims] out here to tell their stories so people have empathy."
Freeman says she's most saddened that, a generation after Dantrell's death, the violence rages on in neighborhoods like Englewood, where she currently lives. "I'm in a real bad area but I can't go anywhere else because I'm lacking a job right now," she says. "The other day I was walking to the store and bullets flew past me. And I thought, 'Nothing has changed.'"