published Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Cook: We have a gang problem in this city

I never met VanDaryl Rivers.

He graduated from Brainerd High School in 2007. He was 22 and worked for Amazon. On the day of his burial, his family — a big one, with lots of aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters — honored his life at Westside Baptist Church.

VanDaryl was shot a few days before Halloween. He was standing outside, under a cold sky, on Walker Street. A bullet entered the right side of his head, exploding it onto the dark street.

Witnesses say the shooter was a man dressed in black.

Police say the weapon was an assault rifle. Authorities report that about 30 bullet casings found at the scene were .223 caliber, from a military-grade weapon such as an AR-15 or AK-47.

That night, four others were wounded, including a 2-year-old.

I never met VanDaryl Rivers. But I still believe his life mattered. Infinitely.

Just like the other victims of gang violence in our city.

"Gangs are not going away," said Boyd Patterson, Hamilton County assistant district attorney and the man in charge of directing our city's newly formed response to gang violence. "But they haven't completely crystallized yet."

When Patterson talks to people about the vital urgency of reducing gang violence in Chattanooga, he shows them a collage of pictures, all taken from school campuses inside Hamilton County.

In each picture, kids are dressed in school uniforms. Some are running across green campus lawns. Others are bunched together, arms draped over one another. They're smiling. Laughing. They are probably 9 or 10 years old.

And every child is flashing gang signs.

"These are not kids in Chicago," said Patterson. "This is happening right here, in Chattanooga."

How bad is gang violence in our city?

At the end of October, our city had seen 23 homicides. It's estimated 65 percent of those were gang-related.

Gang members outnumber uniformed police officers in our city.

More than 40 gangs with more than 1,000 members have been documented in our city by law enforcement. In contrast, the Chattanooga Police Department has 463 officers.

In 1997, our city had 10 gangs with fewer than 200 members.

"These kids are so at-risk," Patterson said. "If a gang is the only thing they see, they join just for survival."

What an odd word to use: survival. It is tragic that for some Chattanooga children, survival includes AK-47s.

When it comes to gangs, American cities typically are classified in one of two categories: entrenched or emerging.

Cities with entrenched gang violence have seen gang activity flourish and spread for many years. Gangs are well-established within certain communities with clear hierarchies, structures, borders, rules and boundaries.

No random shootings. No unpredictable Geiger counter spikes in violence.

Cities with emerging gang violence are different. Gangs are less mature. Less established. More reckless, shaky, prone to hot, compulsive violence.

"Everyone is a cowboy. You run into another gang member on the streets and the pistols fly," said Patterson.

Chattanooga's gang violence is classified as emerging, Patterson said, and gang violence is not entrenched here.


Thankfully, our city leaders -- government, community and law enforcement -- have adopted a five-point plan to reduce gang violence and increase alternative opportunities for at-risk youth. It's worked in many other cities, and it can work here.

In the weeks to come, this column will devote much attention to the issue of gang violence, its many solutions and the courageous work being done to implement them.

And each time I write those columns, I'll glance over at the picture of my own kids that I keep nearby. Seeing them reminds me of the sweetness of life, the dignity we all deserve, the utter sacredness of each human body and soul.

Like theirs. And VanDaryl's.

David Cook can be reached at

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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Lr103 said...

In each picture, kids are dressed in school uniforms. Some are running across green campus lawns. Others are bunched together, arms draped over one another. They're smiling. Laughing. They are probably 9 or 10 years old. And every child is flashing gang signs.

The above is interesting. They were all flashing gang signs. As if in told to for the camera's sake? Given examples of what gang signs look like prior? Who's controlling this picture and why?

December 9, 2011 at 3:27 a.m.
Walden said...

We do have a gang problem in this City, a terrible one. The biggest obstacle to overcoming the problem is political correctness. People, we have to call it what it is, and fight it fiercly. Denying it for the sake of City image or fear of classifying it for what it is (a black inner city problem), will only allow it to grow to the point of no return.

December 9, 2011 at 10:21 a.m.
Legend said...

And if all Chattanooga is going to do is send police in to crack heads, Taser, shoot, roundup everyone and jail them the problem will only worsen. If you don't address the why you will never correct the what. Addressin the sociology behind why young people join alleged gains, and why and how they came to exist in the first place is the key to solving the problem. And not, I repeat NOT locking everyone up.

The California Crips and Bloods were originally formed as a means to protect themselves and their communities from the harsh and brutal actions of L.A. police. They're original stance was also was to help their impoverished communities during harsh economic times. It was the California Crips and Bloods that came up with the idea of the free lunch program in schools. They were turned against one another in an effort to fragment and divide them, and that's where and how the violence began.

L.A. Confidential was fictional based on true events taking place during that time.

It's not at all surprising that as law enforcement has become more militarize in America, operating as an occupying entity rather than peace officers, so has so-called gang activity has equally been on the rise.

Why would law enforcement want to fix something that has become one of their primary sources of income, promotions, pay raises and more dollars from the federal government?

December 9, 2011 at 11:49 p.m.
Rtazmann said...


December 17, 2011 at 10:20 a.m.
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