Study after study blames violence and social dysfunction in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods on a roster of causes, from extreme poverty to environmental pollution to segregation itself, but the elected leadership of old South Dallas has insisted for 15 years that their crime problems are caused by a car wash.
Dale Davenport is the white man who owns Jim’s Car Wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the principal commercial artery through the black neighborhood near Fair Park called South Dallas. Davenport insists he has always fought crime in his area as hard as anybody. Now he has the proof.
After a two-year tooth-and-nail battle with the city, Davenport’s lawyer, Warren Norred, recently forced City Hall to cough up the official record of 911 calls Davenport has been making all along, begging police to come to his place of business. In the abrupt cop-speak of police reports, the documents the city fought so hard to suppress tell a story the city did not want anyone to hear. Sometimes frightening, sometimes comic, the reports paint the picture of a small businessman struggling to keep his nose above water in a roiling sea of crime:
“Complainant sees about ten people about to fight, blocking complainant’s entrance to his car wash. Two black females and eight black males. No weapons seen. Suspects blocking front of car wash and up on the grass, about ten vehicles blocking front of car wash. The manager also wanted the people who were not doing business at the location to leave.”
“Black male unknown clothing shooting paintball gun at people and complainant’s business. Responding officer observed possible signs of paintball splatter on walls at location.”
“Complainant advised that a group at listed location (were) in a white Ford pickup with barbecue pit attached. They didn’t have a permit to sell food and complainant advised them in the past not to do so on his property. He wants them removed.”
“White 4-door Crown Vic hanging around in back of car wash with four skinny males, weapons unknown, intentions unknown, not washing vehicles.”
On and on the 911 reports go for 414 single-spaced pages (see below). And that covers only 20 months from 1/5/18 to 9/25/19. Dale Davenport and his father, Freddy Davenport, have been calling the cops to their property for 27 years.
The record of Davenport’s calls in only one 20-month period puts the lie to the city’s charges against him. Egged on by City Council members and some neighborhood leaders, city officials have spent the last 15 years going after Davenport on charges that he is the cause of crime in the area around his car wash.
A Dallas judge forced the closure of Davenport’s business last year after the city argued he was operating a public nuisance. He still pays taxes and gets ticketed by the city if he so much as puts a bag of trash on the curb too early or late, but his business is barricaded and closed.
Neighborhood leaders have been licking their chops on social media talking about what they’ll do with his two large corner lots when the city finally squeezes him hard enough to make him sell.
Norred, who pried the police reports from the city as evidence in a lawsuit, thinks no one should have needed to see the reports anyway to understand that Davenport has always been a crime fighter. He points out that Davenport led the way in establishing a special surtax on neighborhood businesses to pay for extra policing.
“How many people say willingly, ‘I want you to put an additional tax on me, and I am going to go to multiple public hearings and testify and say please put higher taxes on me and do this?’” Norred asks. “Nobody does that.”
Davenport admits he has had reservations about calling the cops so often, mainly because of his sympathy for the cops: “Most of the police, in their defense, when they would get there, they would be four pages back, four computer sheets behind on their calls, and they would say, ‘You called us out here for this when we’ve got stabbings and shootings?’
“And I would kind of feel guilty. But it was my responsibility to do it to protect myself, my customers and my business.”
Davenport had another motive for calling. That reason probably has a lot to do with the city’s stubborn reluctance to release his 911 records.
Fourteen years ago, Davenport was a key witness before a state legislative investigative committee looking into misuse of state public nuisance laws by Dallas. In its final report, the committee lambasted the city for running what the report called a protection racket.
Davenport says key state legislators back then gave him a personal assurance: “I was told in Austin by state senators and state representatives that as long as I had statutory proof that I was calling and reporting crime, that I had nothing to fear. Not only did I want to be a good business owner, but I wanted to have statutory proof by calling 911.”
I’m sure the city got the same message and knew the 911 calls were a smoking gun. The calls prove that as soon as the dust settled from the legislative hearings, the city went right back to its old persecuting ways.
Davenport says he took extra precautions to assure that his 911 calls were based on solid observation and would be confirmed by responding officers. But in a neighborhood where drug sales and shootings are not uncommon, calling the cops on drug dealers is not without risk:
“Once the police got there, they would say (to the drug dealer), ‘Are you the one back here selling drugs?’”
Davenport has explained to me many times — and shown me — that the streets around him are lined with drug houses that seem to go untouched by police. Drug dealers trying to sell on his property typically sent runners back and forth to the drug houses to fulfill orders, so that the dealer was never in possession of drugs when police showed up.
“The police didn’t find the drugs,” he said, “and they’d say, ‘We don’t see any drugs,’ and then they’d leave me there with the drug dealer.”
One of the stubborn anomalies in this story, I have found, is that people in this very segregated city, whether they are white or black, cannot for the life of them understand why a white man would try to run a business on MLK. The assumption is always that something nefarious has to be going on.
Davenport and his father bought the car wash almost 20 years ago with a retirement settlement his father got from a steel mill in East Texas where he had worked for many years as an electrician. Davenport is kind of a typical East Texas guy, country on the surface, savvy enough beneath the surface to serve on bank boards and to own multiple businesses.
My own observation is that he gets along a lot more easily and informally with poor and working-class black people than most white people do. My other two-bits worth is that the same thing tends to be truer generally of white people from East Texas than it is of white people from the city. I have no proof for that. Call me a liar.
But I think he has always run his car wash on MLK for one reason. To run a car wash. Someone once said to me, “Come on, Jim, don’t be naive. Why do you think all those people keep going to that one particular car wash? There’s got to be a reason.” So one time I asked.
What I got from Davenport in response was a long, very proud speech about the brand-new high-pressure water pumps he had just installed at significant expense, about the quality of soap he uses and especially about the length of time his sprayers stay on for a buck.
It was bound to happen someday, really. In a city where all the white people stayed obediently on their side of the line for a century and all the black people obediently on theirs, sooner or later there had to be one odd duck who just didn’t get it. He waddled over to the wrong side of the line to run a car wash, so, naturally, all the white people and all the black people had to join forces and use the full power and glory of city government and the courts to rub him off the face of the earth.
But, again, he’s from East Texas. And, in my experience, East Texas people, white or black, don’t rub. They tend to stick it.
You must wonder why I keep writing about a car wash. I think the car wash story is emblematic of everything that keeps this city stuck. It tells the story of a sick co-dependency between the city’s old white leadership and the old black leadership.
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It’s an arrangement that allows black leaders to keep lying to themselves about the true nature of their community’s problems, blaming crime on a car wash instead of on people’s values. And it allows the traditional white leadership to go on not giving a damn what happens south of downtown, as long as the white leaders can harvest black council votes for their real estate boondoggles up north.
That cynical, cowardly co-dependency defeats any chance at really making things better. Nothing tells that story better than the campaign against the car wash. For anything to change, for a better day to come, the city would have to be full of Dale Davenports.
We need an army of odd ducks, white and black, waddling over where they’re not supposed to be, thinking they’re right where they belong, expecting everybody else around them to figure it out, and, if somebody doesn’t like it, well, quack-quack.