The horrific sequence from ‘There Are No Children Here’ that explains everything

The former Henry Horner Homes. Photo taken April 20, 2002, by David Wilson. Used under Creative Commons license via Flickr.

There Are No Children Here is Alex Kotlowitz’s 1992 classic tale of two children growing up in deplorable conditions in the infamous West side Henry Horner Homes public housing project. While those projects and others have been demolished across Chicago, Kotlowitz’s account is as relevant today as it was when the ink dried: race, policing, poverty, the neglect of poor, black communities is as timely a story as when Kotlowitz took on the ambitious non-fiction work. The book’s primary driving force was to capture the innocence of adolescence and the seemingly impossible hurdles placed in front of children trying to survive Chicago’s violent streets, let alone thrive in them.

And while the book’s depiction of poverty is as haunting as one could imagine, there’s one plot point in particular that I can’t shake. It helps explain how all of society’s major forces conspire and control a narrative when it comes to police misconduct, or at the very least in this case, the lack of regard for human life in poor communities.

I am certain no one, then or since, has paid the price for what happened to Craig Davis — a teen killed trying to avoid the police because he wanted to pick up some music records from a friend’s place. Really, not that many outside of family, friends and the rest of the community took much time to notice; just a few newspaper paragraphs were dedicated to the incident in the spring of 1989 when the shooting occurred.

The prelude to the shooting is important to get a sense of how Craig, who would be called a gangbanger in official reports after the shooting, was viewed in his community. He’s featured in perhaps the book’s most uplifting scenes. A neighborhood DJ of sorts, Craig had rolled his tables out on the lawn at Henry Horner one hot summer night. The normal backdrop of family scuffles or fear of gangs and guns disappeared, if for a moment, and Kotlowitz describes residents who were genuinely touched by Craig’s music ability and a personality that beckoned an inclusive night of dancing in what one of America’s most inhospitable places.

Craig, 19, was afraid of the police because of an incident involving chocolate chip cookies. Police suspected Davis and his friends of having lifted some cookies from a delivery truck, and, some time later, the cops tracked the group down at a friend’s apartment — and arrested the entire group for the cookie caper. (I find this in and of itself to be confounding. In Chicago’s crime ravaged streets, the cops are arresting would-be cookie thieves? And at their home, well after the supposed crime occurred? I’d love to read that warrant…)

Davis told a family member he had nothing to do with the cookie heist and, after spending in a night in jail for a crime he says he didn’t commit, had become afraid of the cops and wanted no part of any interaction with them.

In the early evening, Davis happened to run into officers Francis Higgins and Richard Marianos who were on a detail focused on finding and confiscating illegal weapons.

Davis, according to the book, was on his way to pick up stereo equipment (p. 196):

This night, though, Marianos and Higgins were looking for someone they knew only as ‘Craig’ and who they’d heard had purchased a sawed off shotgun.
… Now, Craig feared the police so on this cold night he ran. Craig, everyone said, was always moving. He took off, and took off fast. … Marianos lost sight of Craig for ‘a split second,’ according to a later police investigation, and so unholstered his service revolver, a .357 Smith and Wesson … Marianos caught up with him … and shoved him up against a wall. … (The officer) later told detectives that Craig struggled, that he ‘began to twist and turn his body and then reached over his shoulder and made contact’ with Marianos right hand. But the medical examiner’s later report cited evidence of ‘soot staining within the wound,’ which indicated that the barrel of the gun may have been pressed up against Craig’s skull when it discharged. Whater the case, it appereaed that Marianos slipped and fell … and when he did, the Smith and Wesson accidentally discharged.
… “Them sons of bitches shot him in cold blood,” one resident said to another. “They ain’t got no reason to have done that.”

The official word:

Photo of text from There Are No Children Here.

Suffice it to say, the family or the agencies involved, CPD and the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), never apologized or fully addressed the incident. There are legitimate, nuanced discussions about use of force, departmental policy, training and community policing. But Kotlowitz’s account also underscores the deep bitterness that we only see when the most obvious of scandals hits — and, like the newspaper report above, it means most of us are missing the messy rest that goes along with daily life in crime-ravaged neighborhoods.