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Illinois Congressman: Poverty Plays A Large Role In Chicago Gun Violence


We hear now from Congressman Danny Davis. He's represented the 7th Congressional District since 1996, but gun violence is not just an abstract concept to him. His 15-year-old grandson Javon was killed in a dispute over borrowed clothing last November, and Congressman Davis delivered the eulogy. He was kind enough to host us in his offices on Capitol Hill. Congressman, thank you so much for speaking with us about this difficult topic. And if you don't mind, if I may say, I'm so sorry for your loss.

DANNY DAVIS: Well, thank you very much. As a matter of fact, a good part of getting over it has been the reaction of people all over the country and in many other places throughout the world.

MARTIN: One of the things that came out, though, when your grandson was killed is that you noted that you've delivered eulogies for some two dozen young Chicagoans who've been killed. So the question is why? Why is this happening?

DAVIS: I mean, the over-arching, over-reaching issue is poverty. Black unemployment in Chicago is off the chart. I mean, there are communities where literally 40 to 50 percent, especially of the youth male population, is unemployed. I've been around low-income people all of my life. I mean, growing up, low income, the community where I've chosen to live, low-income. But there's never been a time, to my knowledge, I would say, where the lack of positive thinking - I mean, everybody that I knew growing up practically had little in the way of resource, but we all have the hope and the possibility that as soon as we finished high school and went to college or went to the Army that we were going to have access to employment. We were going have a chance.

Many of the young people living in inner-city America don't see themselves - I mean, they even talk about things like death and dying. And there's a tremendous loss of hope. And of all the things to lose, I think nothing is worse or more difficult to overcome than the loss of hope.

MARTIN: The terrible incident that took your grandson's life, they were fighting over borrowed clothing. Like, one kid had borrowed something from another...

DAVIS: Well, they had a little...

MARTIN: But the question I have is they were all 15 and 16 years old, why did a fight over borrowed clothing, like, you know, somebody borrowed somebody's pants and they wanted their pants back result in somebody shooting somebody?

DAVIS: Because it's more than that. They had a swapping group where you swap me your jacket for a week, and I swap you my gym shoes. Part of the group decided that, hey, I want my item back right now without returning your item. And then the overall frustration was such and they had such a sense of protectiveness and a sense of machoism that, as a result of the discussion, somebody feels that, hey, I can come invade your space and take back whatever the item is that we had been dealing with.

MARTIN: Congressman, do you remember when you got the phone call? I don't know where you were when you found out about your grandson. Can you take us back to that? What...

DAVIS: I do remember. As a matter of fact, one of my staff persons and I had just come back to the office and one of the police commanders was on the phone and he said, I have some bad news to tell you. And I said, bad news, well, I'm pretty accustomed to bad news (laughter). He says, but not this kind. He says, I want you to just brace yourself. I understand that your grandson may have been shot.

And I say, well, where where was it? What's the address, so I can get over there? And he said - he gave me the address, which was their home address. And I said, how is it? He say, it's pretty bad. He said, it's pretty bad. I think you may want to come right away. I couldn't, for the moment, think. And by then, my son called, and I said, oh yeah, I heard that Javon - he says, daddy, he's gone. That's how it felt. That's how it felt.

And so, you know, I've kind of pledged to myself that I will spend more time, more energy if there's any way that I can to try and influence some diminution of guns in our society. One thing I always say when I discuss guns with people - if a gun is not present, it's generally more difficult to do irreparable harm.

MARTIN: If there hadn't been a gun there, they might have had a fistfight and then it would have been over, you know.

DAVIS: That is correct.

MARTIN: Do you see any sign that people agree with you that something about this country's use of guns and the role that guns play in this culture has to change?

DAVIS: There are millions and millions of people who think about guns the same way that I do. You know, one of my favorite songs, something by a guy named Sam Cooke used to sing - oh, it is so profound. It may be a long time coming, but I know some change is going to come. That's the way I feel about this issue.

MARTIN: That's Congressman Danny Davis. He's an Illinois Democrat. He represents the 7th Congressional District in Chicago. Congressman Davis, thank you so much for speaking with us. And once again, I just want to say I'm very sorry for the loss of your grandson.

DAVIS: Thank you very much. And I do believe the change will come.


SAM COOKE: (Singing) It's been long, a long time coming but I know a change gonna come. Oh, yes it will. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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