Duck the Bullet: How Children Survive Chicago’s Cabrini-Green : Poverty: Gunfire is not the only danger in this high-rise housing project. Kids must also try to dodge drugs, gangs and despair.


Al Carter believes there is a code of survival that all young people must learn at Cabrini-Green. He sums it up in three simple words: Duck the bullet.

It means more than hitting the ground when guns start crackling and snipers start shooting. It means avoiding gangs, drugs and the other demons that destroy so many lives and cause so many deaths at the housing project.

“It’s the negative surroundings that might be able to grab a young person up, swallow him whole, spit him out and make him run wild until he’s hit by a bullet,” Carter says. “It’s difficult to duck a bullet at Cabrini.”


Dantrell Davis didn’t even have a chance.

The 7-year-old was murdered Oct. 13 by a sniper aiming an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle with a scope from a 10th-floor window. The little boy was walking with his mother from their home to school--a 100-foot, one-minute journey that proved too perilous, even with the police parked nearby.

He was the third pupil from Jenner School to be murdered in seven months.

It was Dantrell’s death, though, that shocked the city, that grabbed the headlines, that spurred the mayor, police and public housing officials to say the killing must stop, this must never happen again, something must be done.

But Carter, who was brought up in Cabrini and now runs an athletic foundation for kids there, wonders when--and if--it will end.

“We continue to talk about the deaths, we rant and we rave, we get news coverage, yet the murders go on,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Carter has given eulogies at five funerals of Cabrini children since 1985. The first was Laketa Crosby, a bubbly 9-year-old killed in gang cross-fire while jumping rope double-dutch. The most recent was Anthony Felton, a budding 9-year-old boxer, shot in March, on the day he was supposed to collect a trophy.

“You remember what they did,” Carter says. “You can remember the laughter. When it happens, it just tears you in half.”


This time, Carter knew the accused, Anthony Garrett, 33, an Army veteran and expert marksman with a criminal record, and had hired him to umpire baseball games at Cabrini as part of a gang intervention program.

“I still can’t believe it,” Carter says. “I was the guy who encouraged him to go to the Army to get off the streets.”

At 51, Carter is a mentor to some kids, a surrogate parent to others, giving pep talks, picking up report cards, hoping his athletic programs--including 27 baseball teams named after African tribes--will build self-esteem and pride.

But he knows he can do only so much.

“Everybody wants to jump up and down on the police. They’re not the ones committing the crimes. The parents, the aunties, the uncles, are the ones that need to be involved, instead of pulling their shades down until it happens to them.”

At Cabrini, mothers teach their children more than manners, respect and the importance of sharing. Other lessons seem far more urgent:

How to steer clear of windows in case of shootings.

How to avoid the clutch of gangs.

How to stay alive.

Just ask Bernetta Winston, a stocky mother of two boys, 12 and 14.

“You sit them down and say: ‘Gangs will get you nothing but trouble; they’ll get you in jail or 6 feet under,’ ” she declares in her don’t-mess-with-me tone. ‘ “Go to school. Get an education and get out of here. Make a choice.’ They’d better make the right one.”

More than half of Cabrini’s 7,000 residents are younger than 20. Many are raised by single mothers in surroundings where hope sometimes is as scarce as work. Only 9% of residents have paying jobs.

To succeed here, it sometimes takes special steps.

Valerie Woolridge sent her 21-year-old son away when gangs started pressuring him and shot and burned his car.

Woolridge is a stylish woman, with dangling earrings and a dash of fuchsia-tinted hair. She has lived here all of her 39 years, but says it’s nothing like her childhood days when kids played outside freely.

“It’s the way you raise kids that matter. Give them support . . . don’t beat on them, don’t curse them out.”

She knows that some parents here can’t control their children. And some parents can’t control themselves, trading food stamps for crack or getting high in front of their babies.

But Woolridge, who helps run a Chicago Urban League after-school program for children, emphasizes that many, many more people here are law-abiding, struggling to make it.

“There’s a lot of good over here. Some of the people just need a chance. They never have a chance.”


In 13 years as a cop at Cabrini-Green, Dennis Davis has seen folks come and go, violence flare up and die down. But there has been one constant: gangs.

Driving through Cabrini’s 70 acres, a mile from the city’s elegant Gold Coast, Davis points to graffiti-scarred high-rises and identifies which gang controls which building--the Disciples, Vice Lords or Cobra Stones.

Gangs here have power, selling drugs, protecting turf. Sometimes it seems easier to live by their rules.

“You either join the gangs or get beat up,” says Davis, a soft-spoken 21-year police veteran. “What choice do you have? You can’t be beat up every day.”

Davis knows one young man who can’t find work and holes up in his apartment every day except Sunday, to go to church, because he doesn’t want to get involved.

When he first began working here, Davis says, the complex--23 high-rises and about 60 row houses--was mostly occupied. Now the vacancy rate is 31%.

Some buildings were sealed and vacated recently in a new security crackdown announced by Mayor Richard M. Daley that also included police sweeps of high-rises for drugs and weapons.

“A lot of people don’t like it,” says Davis, a neighborhood relations officer. “They feel like they’re in a prison.”

This isn’t Cabrini’s first 15 minutes of fame. In 1981, then-Mayor Jane M. Byrne moved here for three weeks to dramatize crime conditions.

Eleven years later, the killing goes on.

Asked if the stepped-up security will work, Davis says quietly: “We’ll just have to wait and see. It’s better than nothing. . . . It’s sad it took a 7-year-old kid to bring about this.”

For the children, Dantrell’s death was sad and scary, but it wasn’t shocking. And it raised a terrible question: Will I be next?

Those who attend an Urban League after-school program in the building where Dantrell lived expressed their fears and feelings on paper.

“Too many people (are) getting killed over here in Cabrini and I am tired of it,” wrote 12-year-old Erica Morris. “Because I may be the next one, but I am not going to say that. I want to move away from the projects.”

Erica, with her delicate features and whisper-shy voice, dreams of becoming a veterinarian. For now, she offers a suggestion for the random shooting.

“They should do it some other time,” she says evenly. “Not while kids go to school.”

Her sister, Angel, 8, also worries.

“I never got shot before, but I think I will or someone in my family will or someone in a lot of families will too,” the third-grader wrote.

Some children’s letters were pleas for help.

“Sometimes I am afraid to go to school,” Orion wrote in his 7-year-old’s scrawl. “We little people need some protection from all gang violence and drug sellers.”

But others were more fatalistic.

“When a boy gotten shot I . . . tell God to help him, to let him be in your hands, let him be with you,” wrote 9-year-old Rennard. “Just like they say--the odds be with you and you be with the odds.”