published Friday, July 12th, 2013

Cook: The middle man

Years ago, Jose Perez went shopping at a local Walmart with a pocket full of drug money, probably so much he could have bought the whole store.

Perez, you see, was the middle man: the guy on the ground between the Hispanic drug dealers and their American clients.

There in Walmart, one thing, strangely, caught his eye.

"The Passion of the Christ," Perez remembered.

He bought it with drug money. That night, he lit a blunt, and put the DVD in. The film hit him like a bullet to the soul.

"It broke me," he said. "I hadn't cried in years."

This image of Perez is crucial. Before you read about Perez's life today, remember this: stoned, with drug money scattered about him like dead leaves from a tree, living in the middle of some purgatory of midnight drug deals and street violence.

That image of Perez represents so much of what our city faces.

So far this year, Chattanooga is averaging two-and-a-half shootings a week.

We've reached some social purgatory, on the edge where things can get far, far worse.

Or ... better. Much, much better.

Street violence does not have to happen. It's not gravity. Sitting before Mayor Andy Berke is a tremendous opportunity. Things can be done. Things are being done.

So consider the story of Perez as a small metaphor for what could come our way. The image of him today is completely different than years ago, and it is this hope -- the possibility that things can change, that those who do violence can one day wage peace -- that we should never forget.

"Let good overcome evil," Perez said.

Days before Christmas 2004, Perez went to deal one kilo of coke; undercover cops from Cleveland, Tenn., busted him. Pleading guilty to distribution, Perez went to jail, and whatever seed had been born that stoned night in front of the TV grew and grew and grew.

"Like the Jaws of Life cracked open my chest," he said.

In federal prison, he became a chaplain's assistant, leading church services and Bible studies between African-American and Hispanic prisoners, including some from the notorious MS-13.

Released after three years in prison, Perez is now a walking apology; all he does these days, he does to amend for the crimes of his past.

Mondays, he works with Chattanooga Sports Ministries, teaching life skills to teenagers, then goes to advocate for area Hispanics at court.

Wednesdays, he's in the Hamilton County Jail, using his MaxiMYze program to teach life skills to inmates. Then, to work with a domestic violence intervention program, teaching men how to change their behavior.

Thursdays, he walks the streets in Highland Park and East Ridge, talking with folks.

"Kids I'm after are the at-risk and marginalized. Kids without fathers," he said. "That's the issue. Structure, not gangs."

Saturdays, he helps coach a team of area athletes -- black, white and Hispanic -- playing in a rec league. Sundays, he runs a Bible study at Brainerd Baptist.

He speaks in schools and was selected to become an all-important "interrupter" with the former Gang Task Force.

"Let's create five scholarships for every at-risk school named in the gang assessment. Let's tell every kid with a 3.5 GPA, 'we will cover the electricity [bill] for your family for one year.'" he said.

Perez can't, and won't, do it all. Don't misunderstand these words as simplistic -- that if we all dump Mel Gibson films in troubled areas, gang violence stops.

What I am saying is this: Nothing gets solved without honest people loving kids in the most troubled parts of our city.

Or put it like this: When we have middle men, showing us how to go from violence to something more like hope, things can and do get better.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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LaughingBoy said...

I applaud Perez for doing his best to make up for his terrible past. He makes a statement about absent fathers, completely accurate, but when whites and especially white males talk about it they're labeled racist or at least anti-women.

The older teenagers already involved in the heavy gang lifestyle, some of them may already be ruined. The younger teens in it, they're at risk for being ruined. The preteens and young children being exposed to it directly or indirectly, the moms and if they're around, the dads, need to stop being lazy parents and start raising their kids.

July 12, 2013 at 9:47 a.m.
klifnotes said...

Both of you have to understand, billions and billions of dollars from the federal government, with little to no accountability, would be lost without the so-called WAR ON DRUGS and WAR ON GANGS. Even state and local government have no control over the billions that have been sent down by the federal government, and there's little to no accountability. Law enforcement isn't going to give up their cash cow and solve the issue, only to have all that money dry up. All those billions have led to police building up an arsenal. Even in small towns, they have military style equipment while the actual military has been downsizing and struggling for decades.

See: Radley Balko's: Rise Of The Warrior Cop


“They did their thing,” Taylor says. “Everybody on the floor, guns and yelling. Then they put the two kids in the bedroom, did their search, then sent me in to take care of the kids.”

Taylor made her way inside to see them. When she opened the door, the eight-year-old girl assumed a defense posture, putting her- self between Taylor and her little brother. She looked at Taylor and said, half fearful, half angry, “What are you going to do to us?”

*Taylor was shattered. “Here I come in with all my SWAT gear on, dressed in armor from head to toe, and this little girl looks up at me, and her only thought is to defend her little brother. I thought, How can we be the good guys when we come into the house looking like this, screaming and pointing guns at the people they love? How can we be the good guys when a little girl looks up at me and wants to fight me? And for what? What were we accomplishing with all of this? Absolutely nothing.”

Taylor recently ran into the little girl who changed the way she thought about policing. Now in her twenties, the girl told Taylor that she and her brother had nightmares for years after the raid. They slept in the same bed until the boy was eleven. “That was a difficult day at work for me,” she says. “But for her, this was the most traumatic, defining moment of this girl’s life. Do you know what we found? We didn’t find any weapons. No big drug operation. We found three joints and a pipe.”1

Nope! With all that billions at stake, police aren't going to solve the problems, even if they have to go in an light a few fires themselves.

And you have the the BYRNE GRANT PROGRAM CONGRESS started in 1988, and has since grown into a monster to thank for it. All the collateral damage, traumatized children, dead children, other adults and even elderly killed in botched raids. Lying C.I.s (confidential informants) and lying cops. All for the money. Money is not the root of all evil. But when it's used for greed, then it inspires evil.

July 13, 2013 at 4:38 p.m.
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