Z’yon Person, the lovely child who was killed three years ago on a late summer evening while traveling with his family for a snow cone, would have turned 12 this year.
Three years ago, the hopes and dreams of the nine-year-old were shattered by a barrage of gunfire during a drive-by shooting in North Durham, just one day after the child learned he was going to start at quarterback for his youth football team.
This month, the hopes and dreams of 27-year-old Antonio “Lil Tony” Davenport were also erased when a federal jury found him and an accomplice guilty of firing the gunshots that killed Z’yon.
Davenport was convicted on one count each of murder in aid of racketeering, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a violent crime, and discharging or possession of a firearm to commit a violent crime in aid of racketeering that caused Z’yon’s death.
Looking at a potential two life sentences plus 10 years in prison, life as a free man is pretty much over for Davenport, who had just signed a recording contract with Forever Rich Records, a division of Atlantic Records, as a member of the rap trio known as 83 Babies.
It’s as if Davenport were on the precipice of realizing his lifelong dream of fame and fortune as a member of 83 Babies and lost it all in a hail of senseless, retaliatory gunfire.
According to the meticulous nearly gavel-to-gavel reporting of the court case by The News & Observer’s Virginia Bridges, the rap trio, before Davenport’s arrest, performed a harsh brand of lyrics that glorifies Black gang violence in New York, Florida, California, and other places and posted photos on social media with girls, cash, and fancy cars.
Davenport, with the fleeting success he enjoyed as a rapper, was living a life he didn’t know was possible, he told Bridges during an interview.
”I had wanted to be a rapper since I was nine years old,” Davenport reportedly said.
Sadly, Davenport had already sold his soul to the Eight Trey Gangster Crips, a criminal street gang accused of racketeering activities that fund the enterprise through the sale of narcotics, bank fraud, witness tampering, “and other illegal activities,” according to an indictment filed in North Carolina’s U.S. Middle District Court in Greensboro on October 27, 2020, when the case went federal.
Federal prosecutors accused the street gang of maintaining control over illegal activities occurring within their “territory” by “keeping rival gang members and the public at large in fear of the enterprise, and in fear of its members and associates through threats of violence, and …. through the use of intimidation, violence, threats of violence, assaults, and other violent crimes.”
Two years ago, on September 9, U.S. magistrate judge Joi Elizabeth Peake denied Davenport’s request to attend his father’s visitation and graveside service.
Peake acknowledged that while Davenport’s desire to attend his father’s burial services was understandable, the charges filed against him were “extraordinarily serious and reflect ongoing gang-related violence.”
Peake also explained that given the evidence presented during a detention hearing, “even a funeral visitation could become a site for continuation of that gang-related violence.”
Davenport actually made it easy for police to charge him with the fatal drive-by shooting. Peake, in issuing her denial that prohibited Davenport from going to his father’s service, noted that Davenport was wearing an electronic monitoring device as a condition of his release from jail when he was involved in Z’yon’s death.
As the INDY previously reported, there’s an ongoing gang feud that started in 2017 between the Eight Trey Gangster Crips in Bragtown, of which Davenport is a member, and the nontraditional O-Block and 8 AM gangs.
“We’re seeing shootings involving these two entities that started with the shooting death of Kyle Fisher, whose alias is the letter O. O-Block thinks the Eight Trey Gangster Crips were responsible for Fisher’s death,” Maria Jocys, a retired FBI agent who is challenging Durham’s incumbent sheriff Clarence Birkhead in the November election, told the INDY in May.
Bridges has noted that since 2017, O-Block is connected with other gangs, primarily the United Blood Nation sets that include Southside, Brentwood, and Nine Trey Gangsters. Meanwhile, 8 AM members are former Eight Trey Gangster Crips who formed a new crew.
It’s hard to conjure up sympathy for Davenport, who thought he and two accomplices were taking aim at a Ford Escape occupied by O-Block members who had assaulted him days before at the Streets at Southpoint mall and then shared a video on social media to belittle him and the Eight Trey Gangster Crips.
And little has changed since Z’yon’s death. In fact, it’s worse.
On June 29, WRAL premiered a nearly 30-minute documentary, Durham Under Fire, that featured Z’yon as the face of violent crime in the city.
Z’yon’s grandmother, Sandra Person, who spoke with the INDY in 2019 after Z’yon’s death, was featured in the WRAL documentary.
“I can still see it to this day,” Person said in the documentary. “My baby, lying in bed with a hole in his head, and they even said he tried to hang on, but if he would have made it, he would have been a vegetable, you know? So, I guess God seen fit for Him to take him home.”
The documentary aired two days after jury selection for Davenport’s trial and painted a dismal picture of gun violence in the Bull City. Last year’s 50 homicides were the most in the city since 1995. Police have reported 1,100 shootings over the past year and a half, meaning the city experiences two shootings each day. There are 111 vacancies among the police department’s 537 sworn officer positions and, after George Floyd’s murder, no one is rushing to fill the open spots.
The documentary notes that during the Black Lives Matter protests, the word “DEFUND” was painted in giant yellow letters on East Main Street, right in front of the downtown police headquarters and remained there for 13 months before it was removed.
“I cannot imagine going to work and having ‘defund the judge’ or ‘defund the dean’ and people not being hurt by that and scarred by that,” said Durham mayor Elaine O’Neal, a former judge and retired law school dean before she was elected last year as the city’s first Black woman mayor.
At the heart of the documentary is the question: why is gun violence so bad in Durham?
The documentary focused on the law enforcement side of the issue, with the unstated axiom that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But little attention was focused on another axiom that’s gaining traction: the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good-paying job with benefits. It’s difficult to shoot someone at 7 p.m. if the perpetrator has to work a third-shift job that starts at 11 p.m. Durham district attorney Satana Deberry, interviewed in the documentary, points to “personal choices,” but she also points to structural poverty. It’s no surprise that much of the gunfire happens in the city’s most underfunded communities.
“You shove them into public housing and then you turn your backs on them,” says Paul Scott, an activist minister and founder of the Black Messiah Movement.
Deberry, who was first elected in 2019, promised criminal justice reforms that include opting to not aggressively prosecute low-level offenses that have resulted in mass incarceration and the over-policing of Black and brown communities. According to the documentary, she’s also wiped clean the records of hundreds of children who were charged as adults.
“Of course I’m tough on violent crime,” Deberry says.
Still, the word on the streets is if you want to get away with murder, do it in Durham.
The WRAL documentary reports that before Deberry was elected, Durham, in 2016 through 2017, had a felony conviction rate of 51 percent, excluding plea bargains. During Deberry’s tenure that number has dropped to 33 percent.
“We don’t prioritize conviction rates,” Deberry explains. “What we prioritize is working on the most serious and violent crime.”
But the documentary also notes that the Bull City’s current conviction rate for first-degree murder is 24 percent. By comparison, Wake County has a 67 percent conviction rate, and the statewide average is 45 percent.
Deberry says that gun violence is not unique to Durham.
“Violent crime is up nationwide,” she says. “And so this idea that Durham is exceptionally violent is simply not true.”
But that’s little solace for people like Z’yon’s grandmother, Sandra Person. City leaders, she says, have to “figure out a way to get the community back.”
Though Davenport’s actions that led to Z’yon’s death may prompt little or no sympathy, he and the child he was convicted of murdering still both represent the promise and potential that has been marred and destroyed by the glorification of gun culture.
Say their names, indeed.
“Z’yon Person,” city council member and mayor pro tem Mark-Anthony Middleton says at the documentary’s end. “The efficacy of this government, and the greatness of our city, will be measured by whether or not Z’yon can go get an icee.”
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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.