The Visible Man

Davis Touched All the Bases in a Volatile Brooklyn District

Davis faced backlash from the Brooklyn Democratic machine in the fight over redevelopment. A local activist recalls a redevelopment meeting to which pols from Congress and the Assembly pointedly didn't invite Davis. "They didn't want him," says the activist. "They wanted Tish James. So they weren't going to work with him." Ultimately, Davis arranged his own meetings, in his own house—most recently, he hosted Doctoroff to discuss redevelopment issues.

The slain councilman lies in state on Monday at City Hall.
photo: Michael Appleton
Dreadlocked youth, a few Hasidim, church ladies, and old schoolmates of Davis's from Tilden High packed the corner of Eastern Parkway and Brooklyn Avenue at a "Stop the Violence" rally (led by the Rev. Al Sharpton) the Saturday after Davis was murdered. In his death, Davis drew a bigger crowd than he ever did at the annual "Love Yourself: Stop the Violence" rallies he organized.
The mourning after: lighting candles in front of Davis's office on Dekalb avenue.
photo: Michael Appleton
The mourning after: lighting candles in front of Davis's office on Dekalb avenue.

The slain councilman—whose face on campaign posters adorns half the bus stops in the area—was praised as a leader in the tradition of Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman. Smuggle slaves to freedom, Davis did not. But he definitely wasn't an outsider. "He wasn't just out here when he was trying to get votes," says one woman.

On many people's minds is a big question: Will the Democratic machine reclaim this seat? The rally pumped up Davis's brother Geoffrey to succeed him in office, though he roared into the crackling microphone at opponents and the press, "How dare you talk to me about a political position!" But asked about his possible future as a councilmember for the 35th, he replied, "You thought he had fire? You ain't seen nothing yet!"

Meanwhile, on the streets, conspiracy theories abound. In this case, the word is that this was a purposeful "assassination" of another black leader, echoing Geoffrey Davis's lament that "the system" killed his brother. The day after the murder, a young motorist driving by Davis's district office bellowed out the window, "Check them out on the council! They always hated James!"

But even those who believe that Askew was simply a man who cracked up are fearful that the murder will mean a return to business as usual—a district run by reclusive party hacks, not insurgents like Davis who at least gave some time to practically anyone who approached him.

Related Stories:
"Death by Outing: James Davis's Killer Was Deeply Conflicted About His Sexuality" by Richard Goldstein

From the Voice, September 6, 2000: "Selling Himself—What James E. Davis Does Best" by James Bradley

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