James E. Davis Biography
New York City councilman James E. Davis died in a bizarre city hall shooting in 2003 that caused panic in the municipal building as well as the activation of an emergency-event plan for Lower Manhattan. The Brooklyn Democrat was gunned down by a political rival, with whom he was trying to forge a more productive working relationship. It was a tragic end for the irascible Davis, a political newcomer who had made his name leading anti-violence initiatives in the city.
Davis was born in 1962 and grew up in Brooklyn. His father was a corrections officer, while his mother Thelma worked as a registered nurse. He graduated from Tilden High School in 1980 and seemed to drift for a time. His political activism began, he once said, when two white police officers used undue force against him during a 1983 incident. After earning a degree from Pace University, he became a corrections officer as his father had been, and joined the New York City Transit Police department in 1991. Two years later, he moved on to the New York Police Department (NYPD) itself, where he trained recruits at the police academy.
Along the way, Davis also became an ordained minister and ran a ministry out of his home to help New York teens. Out of that group came "Love Yourself, Stop the Violence," an anti-violence group he founded in 1990. Davis led an annual "Stop the Violence" march in New York City that helped establish his name in the community. The group also launched various campaigns to raise awareness of gun violence, one of them a challenge to retailer Toys 'R' Us to urge it to stop selling realistic-appearing toy guns.
Davis made a few unsuccessful bids for municipal office before he became a district leader with the Brooklyn Democratic Party organization. In 2001 he ran for an open New York city council seat from the 35th Council District in Brooklyn, and bested six other candidates at the polls. Quickly gaining a reputation as a maverick who regularly challenged the status quo—even within his own party—Davis regularly engaged in heated political battles with rivals, and sometimes with perceived rivals as well. He once allegedly threatened to investigate the child-support payment record of a potential political challenger, but observers of New York City politics usually noted in newspaper reports that such tactics had a long history in all five boroughs. In Brooklyn, he was a popular figure and approachable public servant. "He had become a player in a City Council that for the first time in generations was without entrenched veterans," noted a New York Times report, and "was developing a reputation among his constituents for delivering on his promises and had worked hard to win over his most bitter opponents."
A political novice and onetime male model named Othniel Askew emerged as a potential rival in Davis's 35th District as his 2003 re-election campaign gained steam. Askew had none of the social-activist background upon which Davis had built his own career, and police had even been called to his residence when Askew allegedly chased his male partner, who was naked, out onto a Manhattan street one day in 1996. But on July 23, 2003, Davis came to City Hall with Askew in tow. The pair bypassed the metal detectors that all attendees to city council meetings were required to pass through thanks to a wave from Davis, who was exempt from the daily search because he was an elected official. Davis brought Askew onto the floor of the city council chambers, where the meeting was slated to begin soon, in order to introduce him to a council member from the Bronx, Larry B. Seabrook. "He said this guy was going to run against him and had decided not to run against him," Seabrook told New York Times writers Randal C. Archibold and Winnie Hu. "And now they were going to work together."
After that, both Davis and Askew headed to the balcony. Just as the meeting was about to start with roll call, ten shots rang out. Mayhem erupted, with city council members and their staffers ducking for cover. Many initially believed it was perhaps another attack on the city, so soon after the events of September 11, 2001; nearby, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was prevented from leaving his office for safety reasons once he heard of the incident. From the floor, a plainclothes NYPD officer, who served as part of the security detail for council president Gifford Miller, shot Askew and killed him. Emergency personnel and a flood of police officers arrived on the scene, and Davis was taken down the steps of City Hall on a stretcher. A photograph of this part of the scene became the front-page leader for the city's newspapers that day. Subsequent police work revealed that Askew had told others that Davis had pressured him to drop out of the race, possibly by threatening that he would "out" Askew, who was gay, to his family. Once the two began working together earlier that week, however, observers recounted that Askew appeared excited to be working in a political atmosphere, and seemed to have pressured Davis for a permanent post on his staff.
The slain council member was honored by some 3,000 mourners during a funeral at the Elim International Fellowship Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Speakers included Mayor Bloomberg and the Reverend Al Sharpton, the latter receiving a number of thunderous ovations for his lead eulogy. Commenting on the media frenzy that surrounded the shooting, Sharpton pointed out that violence regularly touched the lives of many New Yorkers. "We've been scrubbing blood off of stairs for years," Sharpton told a crowd that included Davis's friends, family, and teenagers he worked with in his Stop the Violence group, as well as some of New York City's most powerful political figures, according to a New York Daily News report. "But it didn't matter to folks until it went in the Hall. That makes them uncomfortable."
In November of 2003, Davis's brother Geoffrey ran for his city council seat, but lost to a third-party candidate. By then, NYPD officers were a permanent fixture at city council sessions, and everyone was required to pass through the metal detectors in the building, even elected officials. Mayor Bloomberg remembered Davis as a rising new voice in city politics, and paid tribute to his spirit at the funeral. "He was never shy about expressing himself," the New York Daily News quoted Bloomberg as saying. "His great strength was that he told it like he saw it."
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 29, 2003.
New York Daily News, July 23, 2003;, p. B3.
New York Times, June 16, 2002, p. 26; July 24, 2003, p. A1; July 25, 2003, p. A1; July 30, 2003, p. B3; August 1, 2003, p. B1; August 20, 2003, p. B3; November 7, 2003, p. B4; August 14, 2004, p. B3.
New Yorker, August 4, 2003, p. 22.
United Press International, July 24, 2003.
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