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At the Catfish Corner, I ask a foursome at one of the tables, “Does anybody here believe that it was suicide?”
“Hell no!” says Chuck Harris, a 79-year-old community activist and writer. “You ain’t gonna find nobody nowhere on the West Side [who believes that Scott killed himself]. You can go from the river to Mannheim, from Fullerton to 31st Street. You ain’t gonna find nobody!” The other diners around Harris’s table nod vigorously in agreement.
When they talk about Scott’s death—“the assassination,” as some truth seekers refer to it—they typically start with the obvious tropes: Scott was black, and black people don’t commit suicide; he was Roman Catholic, and Catholics don’t kill themselves; he had a lot to live for—a happy family life, an enviable career, countless friends and admirers—and such people don’t take their own lives.
Once the initial notion of implausibility is established—“He would never do it because of X, Y, and Z”—conspiracists usually move on to the second part of the argument: challenging and contradicting the police investigation (a whitewash, a stonewall) and the medical examiner’s autopsy (a rush job, a cover-up).
“The official story was a script,” declares Harris.
“Oh, man, please! They’re all involved with it,” Davis interrupts, adding that the authorities must have fabricated evidence to cover up the truth.
“What’s the truth?” I ask.
Davis stares at me dubiously, the way Jack Nicholson looked at Tom Cruise in their famous exchange in A Few Good Men, like I couldn’t handle the truth. Then he loosely sketches out the scenario that he and his fellow travelers believe: Scott was killed by a rogue police officer—or unit.
“They killed him,” he says animatedly.
Who are “they”?
“They,” in the universe of Scott conspiracists, are the secret squad of unnamed killers who are somehow connected politically to the Daley administration. “I’d start with the fifth floor and go to the graveyard and shake the grave,” says Davis, referring to the mayor’s office on the fifth floor of City Hall. Nate Benson, a longtime West Sider who was one of Scott’s close friends, agrees: “I do believe this goes up to City Hall. I’ll make that statement anytime, anywhere.”
One thing is clear from talking to the Catfish Corner crowd: Many of the folks there share a distaste—even a burning disdain—for the former mayor. They believe that Daley was so powerful and corrupt that he got away with murder—literally. Davis, for one, is so confident that Daley had something to do with Scott’s death that, at Scott’s funeral service, he recalls, “I walked up to him and told him, ‘Job well done, man.’”
Even if they agree that Daley wasn’t the triggerman, connecting the ex-mayor to Scott’s death is a scurrilous and audacious charge, unsupported by any evidence. But around Scott’s home turf, it’s given a lot of credence.
For those who believe that Daley somehow had a murderous hand in Scott’s death, the mayor’s announcement in September that he wouldn’t be seeking another term, his seventh, was the smoke that suggested fire. Scott’s killing had to be the reason, they figured. “You don’t walk away from that kind of authority and power,” says Davis. “Michael Scott was going to be wrapped around [Daley] like you would not believe, if he chose to run for reelection, ain’t no question about it.”
Others are more circumspect. Hunched over a plate of cabbage and greens, Danny Davis, the veteran West Side congressman (no relation to Wallace Davis), shakes his head and sighs. Scott’s death, he finally says, in between bites, is “stranger than fiction.” Davis continues: “It’s strange that two guys who cracked the political inner circle and were doing quite well at it, too”—meaning Scott and Orlando Jones—“ended up committing suicide.” At the same time, Davis is also of the view that people’s veneration of Scott could be getting in the way of accepting the facts about his death. “Some of our judgment,” he says, “is probably clouded because we don’t want it to be true.”
It also seems possible that people buy into a grand conspiracy because it allows them to blame Daley and the police—the city’s entire political apparatus, for that matter—for all of the real-life problems that have ravaged Scott’s home turf for decades. It’s easy to see why this narrative has endured. In North Lawndale—and across the West Side as a whole, for that matter—many residents don’t trust the government or the media, and they most certainly don’t trust the police. “It’s a total mistrust,” says Barnett. People here, he says, feel threatened, harassed, and discriminated against by law enforcement authorities, and they believe that police misconduct, even fatal police shootings, is virtually never punished. “Too much stuff happens in our community,” he says. “There’s an anger here.”
Much of the anger stems from feelings of neglect. North Lawndale is located just five miles west of the Loop, though it could just as well be 50 miles—even 500 miles—away, say longtime residents. Once a working-class neighborhood anchored by the world headquarters of Sears and several other big industrial facilities, North Lawndale today is plagued by homelessness, joblessness, and high crime. More than 45 percent of North Lawndale residents live in poverty. As the Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington observed: “For decades, the denizens of the city’s West Side have felt that they were the second-rate, also-ran stepchild of black Chicago.”
Many of the blacks here, especially the old-timers, recall the various black leaders in the city who rose to political prominence only to be killed or die unexpectedly in office. And the younger generations have heard all of the stories. Benjamin Lewis, a promising West Side alderman, was brutally murdered in his ward office on February 28, 1963, the night after he won reelection. Lewis was found bound in handcuffs, a smoldering cigarette still between his fingers, with three bullet holes in his head. (His murder remains unsolved.)
Lewis’s successor in the City Council, George Collins, died years later in a freak plane crash near Midway Airport that claimed the lives of 44 others. At the time of Collins’s death, in December 1972, he was serving in Congress. Then, of course, there’s Harold Washington, who more than a few in the city’s black community still believe was a victim of foul play, not a fatal heart attack. His sudden death on the morning of November 25, 1987, almost immediately gave rise to conspiracy theories that he had been poisoned—his murder then covered up by the police. Never mind that the 284-pound mayor was severely overweight and a longtime smoker.
To the Catfish Corner crowd, Scott’s death is merely the latest atrocity. “For many of us, Michael was our voice,” says one prominent West Sider, who did not want to be named in this article. “He was a voice for the voiceless.” Or, as Barnett puts it: “Michael was our guy.”
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