The Visible Man

Davis Touched All the Bases in a Volatile Brooklyn District

Slain councilman James E. Davis had a knack for infuriating old-school pols with his braggadocio—he publicly proclaimed that he would become president, and he called Assemblyman Clarence Norman, a leader of the powerful Brooklyn Democratic machine, a "sellout Negro politician."

Davis, gunned down in City Hall by small-time politico Othniel Boaz Askew last week, based his 2001 campaign on the argument that Fort Greene and Crown Heights weren't being served by longtime local pols. Then he easily snatched the seat from Tish James, the candidate of Norman's machine.

One machine insider contended that Davis, an ex-cop, used a "gangster mentality" to dole out favors, and he paid lip service to gain street cred. But Davis also eagerly set up meetings with bigwigs like Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff. He coaxed the diverse groups in his heavily polarized district—project residents, Fort Greene buppies, Crown Heights Jews, Nostrand Avenue businesses, middle-class people throughout the district afraid of being pushed out by further gentrification—into believing he was on their side. He was a fresh face after his predecessor, Mary Pinkett, who held the seat for 27 years.

The 35th District is a microcosm of Brooklyn's most notable problems. The poorest and richest are within a stone's throw of each other. Low-income residents are priced out of redeveloped apartments and high-dollar shops. Recent drug warring has left in its wake a volatile relationship between the NYPD and the Whitman and Ingersoll projects. And of course, Crown Heights itself has had only a delicately woven peace between the Hasidic and black communities since the deadly 1991 riots.

Davis did his City Hall work—on the day he was shot in the balcony of the council chambers, he was introducing a resolution against violence in the workplace. But Davis made his name among at least some of the factions in his district at two in the morning on the streets.

In an interview with the Voice a week before his death, he said he was watching out both for drug dealers and for police harassment in Whitman and Ingersoll by strolling through in the middle of the night. "Come meet me tonight, I'll walk with you," he said, explaining those strolls by saying, "That's my credibility."

Darnell Canada, an activist who lives in Ingersoll, recalls, "He would call at one or two in the morning and say, 'What are you doing? Let's walk out and talk to these young brothers.' James would walk through and say to them, 'I know you're not out here for nothing. I understand people have to survive, but there is a better way.' " Davis also asked Chanina Sperlin, chair of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, to join him in patrolling. "He said I should see what is really going on in the community," Sperlin says.

It's hard to assess what Davis accomplished. What is clear is that he gave face time to pockets of the district that had long been ignored. "Pinkett never did anything for South Crown Heights," says Benfield Munroe, executive director of the Nostrand Avenue Merchants Association. "All she did was give money to Medgar Evers College and she was satisfied. James said he would put resources here." Bill Lynch, a political strategist and deputy to former Mayor David Dinkins, says Davis won over his district "in the projects." When the projects are disregarded for long enough, Lynch says, "you fix a few doorbells" and people are happy. "He was seen and he was visible. They never saw Mary."

But Davis did take stances that won him some middle-class support. He was one of only three Democratic councilmembers who voted against the property tax increase. (That position, of course, could have strangled services for his core constituents in the poorer parts of the district.) He traveled to Israel and began working closely with Jewish leaders.

The real problems in the district run deeper than doorbells on the fritz. Fort Greene's drug and crime problem came to a head one night in April, when drug lord Floyd Quinones of the Whitman projects fired his gun to celebrate a friend's birthday and was fatally shot in the back by police on Carlton Avenue. Snipers immediately started firing at cops at the scene, though none were hit. The NYPD then locked down some Whitman buildings, keeping residents from leaving for at least a day, and raided a number of apartments in the search for shooters. Pastors arranged a meeting between infuriated youths who were being rousted, their families, terrified residents, and cops. "The police came under encouragement by James," says Rosalind Williams, head of the Whitman Tenants Association. "He told them, 'Let them vent.' "

Davis told the Voice that people in the projects "don't want to be prisoners because of bullets. They also don't want to be cut down by police." There has to be some way of getting drug dealing under control without victimizing residents, he said. But tensions have eased only marginally.

Whitman and Ingersoll are both targeted for revamping by the New York City Housing Authority, and that could result in the forced relocation of hundreds of tenants to other public housing throughout the city. Davis had recently attended yet another rage-filled meeting in which residents faced off with NYCHA. "We are living in a David and Goliath scenario over here" when it comes to housing and development, says Reverend Mark V.C. Taylor of the Church of the Open Door. "Davis had a very clear position against that." But Davis had also told the Voice that there needed to be an understanding of NYCHA's need to revamp. In the same way, Davis took a "no-displacement" stance regarding a $700 million, 14-square-block cultural district proposed by the Brooklyn Academy of Music's development arm, but he stayed on good terms with BAM board members.

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.


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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 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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