published Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Cook: Arresting the man behind Chattanooga's gang truce

Monday morning, 32 men were arrested by federal and local agents for illegally selling or possessing crack, powder cocaine and guns. At a press conference later that day, one official called them the "worst of the worst" of our city's criminals.

Today at 4:30, one of the men will be escorted from his prison cell to then stand before a federal judge who will determine whether or not he can be released until his January trial.

His name is Reginald Dewayne Oakley. He is 39. His street name is Joker.

"Because I wasn't a joke," he once told me.

I first met him on a windy Palm Sunday night as he sat at the head of his wooden dining room table. Around him, some in colors and some not, were gang members from across the city.

It was the evening of the gang truce.

Reginald "Joker" Oakley was the man behind it.

"It's time to stand down," he said that night.

Beginning on the night of March 24 and continuing through the summer, I met with Oakley multiple times under multiple circumstances: at his home, in the car, at a barbecue, at a church. We spoke at length about gangs, crime, poverty, prison, the psychology of the streets, as well as the mundane: why Kobe is better than Lebron, which type of fish fries the best, how to fix a busted washing machine.

But most often, he spoke about this: how to stop the violence.

He asked me to keep his identity a secret.

Until now.

"I give full permission," reads the statement he signed Wednesday morning from prison.

The story of "Joker" Oakley is the story of a man with a most violent history and the years he spent as one of the most feared men in town. It's also the story of the same man who claims to have denounced his gang affiliation in prison and returned home to work for peace on the same streets he once criminalized.

"If I can put down my (expletive) gun, they can, too," he said.

Oakley -- who's 5-foot-8, braids the long goatee that grows off his chin, and is sometimes known as Reginald Woods -- grew up in East Chattanooga. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade, and during the 1990s, began to hone a wicked reputation on the streets, doing what nobody else would.

"I used to rob the dope men," he said. "I robbed drug dealers."

In 1998, he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and spent nine years in at least four different Tennessee prisons, one of which offered a gang rehabilitation program. Oakley said he entered, and denounced his affiliation with the Crips.

In 2011, he was arrested for shooting three people in a dispute at College Hill Courts, but charges were dismissed. Earlier this year, he made a phone call to Skip Eberhardt, who was organizing a GED program for kids on the streets. During that call, Oakley asked him a question.

"'Did I want to try to stop some of this violence?'" Eberhardt remembers. "I was with him. I know he was trying to change his life."

Not long after, Oakley called the Palm Sunday meeting. People there that night listened, and nodded in agreement.

"I ain't the only one," Oakley said. "The guys I talk to, they're ready to level this (expletive) out. They're ready for understanding."

So let's now bring up the obvious: the gang truce didn't hold.

Of course it didn't.

You can't erase and undo decades of urban violence and neglect in one night, and to think otherwise is to completely underestimate the vice-grip of influence that gang culture carries. Generational violence doesn't just suddenly up and pack its bags, here one day, gone the next.

But the truce was a start.

It was the opening of a door that no one else in town -- no task force, no police unit, no community leader or City Hall official -- could have opened. Oakley's power arises from his past; it is both his strength and weakness. The man able to cause such harm is the same man able to begin the process of stopping it.

"I can do the job of 40 men. I ain't got to lock nobody up. I'm the answer to this city. These gangs fear my past. When they see me telling how this is not worth it, it gives them a new outlook on things," Oakley said.

In the days following the truce, Oakley rode around town, trying to keep firm this fragile treaty. He spoke with different leaders, organized a cookout at Booker T. Washington State Park that brought gang members together and tried to plan a larger one that would unite more.

"Police can't stop this. If you lock up one, you've got three more coming," he said. "I can take you and show you 8- or 9-year-old kids waiting in line to bang. Waiting their turn."

Slowly, it fell apart. People started shooting each other again. Oakley had no car. A felon, he couldn't get work. Some nights, he sold fish to make extra cash. Utilities threatened to shut off service.

"We've been struggling," said his girlfriend.

The biggest lie we continue to tell ourselves is that punishment alone can stop crime. In the days following the truce, no help came from City Hall or the police. No news conference, no encouragement, no nothing.

It's as though they find it far easier to arrest someone than support a truce.

"Let the truth be known," Oakley said from prison Wednesday afternoon.

Here it is: for one chapter of our city's history, a man they're calling the worst of the worst emerged from great violence to craft some sort of peace.

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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aae1049 said...

Oh, it was a windy, balmy, dusky night in downtown Chattanooga, where bullets fly in all directions in the wild west. and I was wondering aimlessly as an inquiring liberal, and ran into this Gansta peacekeeper, thug, drug dealer, and former imprisoned felon, and all he was trying to do is call a gang truce. Then, out of nowhere came the new Berke Admin prosecutor with a total of one Gangsta case in her in entire career, and the po po to arrest this peace keeper who was responsible for most of the crime downtown. Why oh why are the mean people arresting this man, this potential streets of Chattanooga Nobel peace price, truce maker. Oh why do they have to arrest him? It is wrong I tell you, wrong.


November 7, 2013 at 11:20 a.m.
conservative said...

Mr. Cook is one Liberal flamer who never gets it and writes as though he never will.

His "No, no, umpteen times no. The God of Christians doesn’t hate homosexuality" is irrefutable proof of that.

November 7, 2013 at 12:28 p.m.
jesse said...

Apparently Mr.Oakley was only semi retired from a life of crime!!

Or maybe he's been singin too loud in church!!

November 7, 2013 at 1 p.m.
ChattanoogaVol said...

You appear to want us to feel sorry for this low life. Well, I don't. Also, it appears you are trying to justify your previous article(s) on this gang truce that had no chance in you know what of working out. Save it. I'm waiting for the article on this Jamoke Johnson gang banger you gave all this pub to awhile back. He was areested in this round up as well. He let everyone down too. I'm sure someone at the TFP has an article ready to go to try and make us all feel sorry for him and to justify their previous articles. Geez.

November 7, 2013 at 1:07 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Can we get a piece from Cook on the man serving 1 whole year out of 20 in North Georgia, who then killed a man recently? Maybe he planned to put his (expletive) gun down, too.

November 7, 2013 at 3:17 p.m.
johnboy said...

Has it occurred to Mr. Cook that the "gang truce" is actually an old tactic used since at least the early 1970's to reorganize, regroup, and shift alliances, and that it's possible that his angel may have been using that tactic?

I'm dismayed at how naive Chattanoogans are about gangs. I've lived most of my life in areas where gangs have been fully established for decades. For a quick, albeit incomplete, primer-here it is:

Most people hear about 2 gangs: Crips and Bloods. That's because they're from L.A., so people learn about them via Hollywood. The real gangs, I'm talking the ones that are true criminal organizations, are the older, much more organized Chicago gangs-the Vice Lords and the Gangster Disciples. I'm not saying the former groups are to be laughed at, but they are really regarded as farm teams for the Chicago boys.

The Chicago gang have extensive experience in hoodwinking well meaning fellows like Mr. Cook. Here's a couple of tricks that they do, some of which have already been tried here, and some that haven't: - The "gang summit". Usually organized by preachers or social worker types. Already discussed above.

  • Gang members as community leaders. Tom Wolfe debunked this in his early '70's essay "Mau Mauing the Flack Catchers". The Vice Lords actually increased their power exponentially with community grant money. They used a nice chunk of it to invest in weapons.

  • Gang member as Anti-Gang Counselor. Some are real, others have been caught using their position for recruiting.

  • the Journalist/Sponsor/Big Brother Figure- Goes back to Hunter S. Thompson's days reporting on the Hell's Angels. Not so much a gang tactic, but serves to "humanize" the gangster. Caution: often degenerates into the Stockholm Syndrome.

While I'm on this, I'll take the liberty of also addressing another common gang pathology- the Brutality Cycle. It goes something like this: Gang violence increases. Cops crack down. Community leaders hold anti-police brutality rallies. Cops lessen presence. Crime spirals out of control. Death toll rises. Same community leaders organize Stop the Violence rallies, calling for more concern about their community from city officials. Repeat cycle.

November 8, 2013 at 8:22 a.m.
jesse said...

Mr. Cook is the poster boy for naive! Hopefully he learned a LIFE lesson out of this!!

November 8, 2013 at 11:48 a.m.
TirnaNOG said...

Gang violence increases. Cops crack down. Community leaders hold anti-police brutality rallies.

That's because cops don't bother to make a distinction between innocent citizens in the community and criminals.

Cops lessen presence. Crime spirals out of control. Death toll rises.

Is it possible that some rogue cops may have a hand in the above?Spreading false rumors in the community? Even committing a few of the crimes (drivebys) themselves and blaming it on the opposite side?

Same community leaders organize Stop the Violence rallies, calling for more concern about their community from city officials. Repeat cycle.

I see nothing positive law enforcement has done in these communities. The way they respond and interact in them have only served to make the communities more volatile and explosive. Keeping the people basically in their place. The citizens in these communities are held basically in bondage by law enforcement. They will never rise above their situation and progress until police change their tactics. As long as there are criminals on the force going into these communities carrying on as they please, the communities will continue to deteriorate. As long as police interactions and actions in these communities are all about them (the police) getting promotions, bonuses and raises and not about serving and protecting the people within, there will always be mistrust.

As for as drugs and drug dealing, I dont' condone it, but I can understand an individual with a criminal record of selling drugs, getting back into the business when he can't find a job in to help pay for some of the most basic necessities needed to survive and take care of his family. Hell! You have cops who've gotten caught in the drug dealing and other illegal activities trying to maintain a certain lifestyles, and they have a job at least. So imagine having a criminal record and no one will hire you, but you have a family to feed! Hell! I sent a young man to apply for a job at Amazon through a temp. service, and the temp service was very impressed with his resume, education etc., but because he had a criminal record within the last five years, even the temp service wouldn't hire him. They told him he'd have to be crime free for FIVE YEARS!! Hell/BELLS! By then you're basically forced back into the lifestyle that got you in the mess to begin with just to survive. And OH YES!! The cycle continues. Around and Around and AROUND!!

November 9, 2013 at 11:47 a.m.
TirnaNOG said...

OH, and why is it that in certain neighborhoods the establishments (mainly minority) where people go to unwind, have a beer or two, and Chattanooga tries to shut down. Then in an adjacent neighborhood (predominately white) people can sit out in the open and drink all the beer they want? Openly walk around guzzling their beer from their beer cans? Have all the RAVE parties they want, and police will just drive right by. But a minority will get arrested on an open container charge?

Sycamore Row

November 9, 2013 at 11:51 a.m.
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