It looked so good.
Hundreds — probably six times the number at Mayor Ron Littlefield's final State of the City speech — came to Andy Berke's crime forum Thursday night at Tennessee Temple University.
Heads of foundations, next to officers with badges and guns. Fathers with young kids, older folks resting on the bleachers (all the folding chairs were taken), mothers patting infants.
Many, many folks who live nearby. Nonprofit leaders who don't. Community activists. A few gang-bangers.
It was Obama-esque in its youth: most of Berke's volunteers and staffers -- in pressed shirts or blue "Renew Chattanooga" T-shirts -- looked under 35.
It could have been the most integrated, well-attended civic event in the last decade.
And it looked -- and sounded -- so good.
Near the end of one of the most violent string of days in recent history, Berke, in a gray suit with blue tie, began the night with a few-minute speech that started with one loud declaration:
"I am angry," he said.
Angry about violence. About the shootings that don't stop. About the fear folks feel.
Then, in the other half of the gym, where volunteers were hustling to bring in extra tables and extra chairs, Berke invited people in the audience to form small groups, where they could discuss problems and solutions while volunteers recorded their answers.
(The night seemed organic, grass-rootsy, yet also had a very controlled feel: more than enough Berke handlers and staffers. The media was told to remain in one spot only. No questions from the audience. Each media outlet told they'd get 60 seconds for news conference questions.)
And for the next half-hour or more, people talked. And talked. It looked good and democratic. Like some magic apple, the event seemed so alluring and intoxicating.
And that's the problem.
We have talked this to death.
All of these words have been said before. The Gang Task Force produced perhaps the most comprehensive study in the nation about gang violence. Parents, mayors, teachers, cops, kids themselves have all talked these same words before.
We know what needs to be done. We've known for years what needs to be done. We don't need another new program.
"I've experienced this before," said Terry D., a local actor and community volunteer. "It's protocol."
Since all of the tables were full, a few of us -- Terry D., Big Mike "Mic" (local singer making a documentary about Chattanooga violence) and LaToya Holloman (founder of Stop the Violence) -- formed our own group, pulling up spare chairs in the corner of the gym as 10 yards away, Berke stood before a gray semi-transparent screen near the exit talking with someone.
And in those 20 minutes, we talked hard about the uncomfortable things.
A still-segregated Chattanooga.
How some kids have futures that stretch to the moon, and others can't see past the end of their block.
"It may be extreme and not comfortable," Big Mike said. "But if it's for the betterment of Chattanooga, we'll be willing to sacrifice some things."
We can't talk about social economics only in a sanitized way. It has to be honest, and messy, because none of this is going away until resources are shifted -- reallocated -- into the poorest communities in our town.
"We have to protect our present so that it doesn't kill our future," Holloman said.
Berke may be able to do just that. Last night indicates he has massive support from across the city. Which is promising. And I applaud that.
"The purpose of tonight's forum," he said, "is to hear from the community."
But what are we willing to hear?
And how far are we willing to go to act?
"If anybody is not on that page, and beating to that drum, we're not going to see any change," said Big Mike. "We'll be fighting against a system that doesn't want to change."
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 ...