It is fitting that as the nation approaches this Martin Luther King Day holiday, Chattanooga is working to find the language of community peace.
In the midst of the city’s 2013 crime surge linked to drug, gang and turf warfare, city officials in November took advantage of a years-long local drug-violence investigation to embark on what Mayor Andy Berke dubbed the Violence Reduction Initiative.
The investigation resulted in the arrests of 32 men that former Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd called the “worst of the worst” local criminals.
The initiative — in part because of that “worst of the worst” characterization — early on also seemed to be divisive. All 32 of those arrested are black men — something the community and this editorial page called questionable when a front page graphic showing 32 black mugshots made a very visual statement.
In fairness to the authorities, most of 2013’s 122 shooting incidents that injured 139 victims were the result of black-on-black crime; so yes, the people targeted by the investigations and the people arrested would most likely be black.
But arrests aren’t the only tool or intent of the city’s initiative.
That’s where the Rev. Martin Luther King’s emphasis on non-violence and the language of community peace comes into play.
The 32 arrests are the stick, but the carrot is helping the next round of young men (and women) who flirt with gang or drug violence to find a way out of that life. The outreach promised? Family help, job opportunities, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, education options — alternatives to crime.
“This is difficult stuff,” Berke acknowledged last week. “Race and violence and poverty and alcohol and drug addition and culture. I’m under no illusions really about what it means to take those on. … It’s the fear of these very sensitive subjects that leads people to do nothing. If you sit around and wait for poverty to change, there are a lot of people who are going to get shot in the meantime.”
The 32 mugshots prompted an outcry of racism in the community. But this initiative — if there is real community follow-through — has the potential to be anything but racist.
It has the potential to be a game changer, and to heal the poor race relations of Chattanooga that date back for decades and began when fewer jobs made crime a vocation.
“What we’re trying to do is be honest about the issues that exist in our community and change the equation,” Berke says.
He believes to do that the city and its residents must break down divides, especially between law enforcement and the community, and do a lot of talking to build support within the community — black and white — until the clamor is not racism, but one of a “unified, moral voice of a community who wants violence to stop.”
To achieve that, the city’s public safety coordinator, Paul Smith, has held about 100 meetings in recent months with groups such as the Urban League, NAACP, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Chattanooga Lynx, Project Pull, Clergy Koinonia and different neighborhood associations. Still on his calendar are at least a dozen more meetings with groups such as 100 Black Men. Each invitee is asked to bring along two or three others who might be interested and have influence in their neighborhood, but who may not be known by city officials.
Berke, too, is pressing the conversation.
“I talk about it everywhere I go. Sometimes three times a day … I call people on the phone who I think are actively involved in shaping community opinion and have the pulse of what’s happening … and I hear what people have to say and their concerns. And people do have concerns. There’s a long history of concerns in the community when you talk about police. … and so it’s gratifying to me to explain what the purpose and goals are so they can understand.”
Berke says there are skeptics, but he has not become discouraged.
“I’m glad there is a community discussion about how we solve the problems of violence in our community. That’s healthy. I’m glad there’s a community discussion about the ways in which police see the community and the community sees police. That’s healthy. I’m glad that we’re talking about how it is that we help people who are involved in group violence have a different outcome in their lives. That’s healthy.”
Clearly there will be no magic prevention bullet without consistent follow-through. Even then, it may be months, even years before clear change can be tallied. But Berke and the partners he’s bringing on board are understanding of that.
“What I hate to hear is helplessness,” the mayor says. “I hate to hear people say crime goes up, it goes down; as if we’re all just passive participants. The police act a certain way, the community feels a certain way; as if we’re all just along for the ride — when we can change those things. And that’s what we’re doing.”
Martin Luther King Jr. would agree. As he once said: Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”