published Sunday, August 26th, 2012

David Cook: Dreams of a gang member

Josh is 25. He started smoking dope when he was 13, never graduated high school and last week was in trouble with the law, again.

He's got a "G" tattooed next to his left eye, a "D" next to his right. The letters, almost like tears, represent Gangster Disciples, a Chattanooga gang.

His eyes contradict the tattoos. His eyes are not aggressive -- he rarely makes eye contact -- and carry a weight, a depth in them. Even a goodness and kindness.

Next to him is a young man nicknamed "Queal." The 20-year-old is wearing a white T-shirt, pants sagging, hair braided in small dreads that point straight up, like black stalagmites. He sings while he's riding his bike up the street.

Between them are Ronald, 24, who says he can make $500 a day slinging dope, and Quon, 18, who trumps that.

"I just broke into somebody's house the other day to get three TVs and a Playstation," said Quon.

He sold it off for about $1,000.

"In 10 minutes," he said.

When we talk about gangs in this city, we imagine black males like this. The dope. The tattoos. The guns.

What we don't imagine is how quickly they'd leave it all for one thing.

"Jobs, man," said Josh. "We need jobs."

Each of them said there's one solution -- like a vaccine -- that will get them off the streets: a legitimate job.

"When can I start?" asked Ronald.

"I don't want to have to keep looking over my back," said Quon.

"It gets old doing the same thing every day," said Queal. "Eventually, we'll get robbed or killed."

We're talking on the front porch of Skip Eberhardt, who lives on Rawlings Street, a block or two off Dodson Avenue. Eberhardt can point in any direction -- north, south, east, west -- toward a spot where someone has been shot. Violence is as common as the blowing wind.

Eberhardt, 62, wrecks the perception that I have -- and perhaps you, too -- that these kids would rather be making $1,000 a weekend slinging dope than flipping burgers at McDonald's for $9 an hour.

"Ninety-five percent of these kids would rather have a job," he said.

Eberhardt knows this dead-end life. He knows what a midnight bullet sliding through a chamber sounds like, the weight of a bag of rock in his pocket, and the color of blood as it drains from a body.

"Half these kids don't even know what I did," he said.

But years ago, Eberhardt started carving out -- like chipping away the rock wall of a prison cell -- an honest life. A job. A degree. Now, like a street version of Saul who became St. Paul, he's trying to save these kids' lives.

He calls Bojangles'. McDonald's. Roofers and plumbers. Folks he knows and those he doesn't. All to get these kids a job.

Last year, there were 25 homicides in Chattanooga; police estimate half were gang-related. As of Friday afternoon, this year has seen 55 shootings and 12 homicides.

Eberhardt's goal: By next summer, twice as many people employed than shot. Twice as many jobs as dead bodies.

"If we had a dozen businesses willing to do this," he said.

There's a risk, hiring them. But what is the larger risk of simply responding to the violence with handcuffs and jail?

"Everybody wants to better their life," said Josh.

It is raw, the razor's edge that these young people walk. Talking with them is like trying to distinguish a sunrise from a sunset -- their life is either just beginning or close to ending.

As he stared down at the concrete front porch floor, I asked Josh what a long and happy life would look like.

"I can't even imagine it," he said. "I may not even live to see tomorrow."

That's why he'd take the Bojangles' job. Not just for the safety of knowing the police -- or somebody across town -- aren't after you, but because it's a passport, a half-crazy promise that maybe, just maybe, some kind of life is out there.

"They're crying, man," said Eberhardt.

If they won't walk away from the violence, the blood is on their hands. But if they're willing to work -- to try -- then the responsibility shifts somewhere else.

To us.

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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holdout said...

And yet $9.00 per hour jobs go unfilled and crops rot without being picked. Try looking for a job, showing up for work when you get it, and actually putting in a day's work for a day's pay. Mostly remember that you are owed NOTHING, but the opportunity.

August 26, 2012 at 11:58 a.m.
allGODSchildren said...

And above all means, treat your employees fairly and with respect Don't short change them out of their wages. The greatest reasons for high worker turnover are employer and management abuse and having to work in a hostile environment. The same reason many students drop out of school.

Mr. Cook, these young men don't only need jobs, they need job skills where they can move up and earn a decent enough living to provide for their families. Chattanooga State offers a wide variety training in the fields of welding, brick mansory, truck drivin, construction and other vocational training that use to be taught in many local high schools. Some of the fields can be finished up within less than a year. Most students taking these classes are actually hired by employers while they're still in training. Many don't require a high school education either. Chattaooga State will help them earn their GED while the students are training for their line of work.

Please pass the information on to Mr. Eberhardt

August 26, 2012 at 12:55 p.m.
gomab576 said...

David, good article, unfortunately I am in the war zone of these kids and experience on the grass root levels the problems and concerns of these families. I routinely attempt to be an advocate for these kids at school and the community, but there are obstacles placed fairly and unfairly. Hamilton County schools have an unwritten policy not to work with "troubled? Problematic youths" by suspensions, evening school, or expulsion from school. Our children need the encouragement from parents and educators to remain in school, but because of the lack of information and non-support from parents, our children are forgotten. Once a kid is involved in a negative act in school they are suspended and or expelled and the family has a certain number of days to make the appeal with the Central Office to have a hearing to allow the students to return. Lower income students and or inner city students may not have a phone for contact, may not have transportation to make appeal session, which in turn forces this child to remain out of school which leads to more negative acts and activities. Gangs then become family for our youths by offering more to our children than the school and friends. Once these children have experienced an arrest or involvement with the legal system, they in turn feel there are limited opportunities, which leads to more illegal acts to survive and provide for their family. The truth to the matter is that Chattanooga needs a school that targets youths to be able to gain working skills, changing oil, laying carpet, painting, lawn service, mechanic, plumbing, ect. We live in a FALSE WORLD, if people believe that all kids (lower income? inner city) are created equal, THAT'S JUST NOT TRUE!! There are kids that have an IQ that border M R,THERE ARE CHILDREN THAT ATTEND CERTAIN SCHOOLS IN THE COMMUNITY THAT ARE NOT EQUAL,, THAT IN FACT ARE NOT ALLOWED TO CARRY HOME BOOKS IN FEAR THAT THE BOOKS WON'T RETURN, but we as educators attempt to teach the same, ONCE THESE YOUTHS STRUGGLE IN A SCHOOL SETTING AND UNDERSTAND THEIR LIMITATIONS, THEN THE NEGATIVE BEHAVIORS BEGIN, DEFELECTING ATTENTION FROM NOT BEING CAPABLE OF UNDERSTANDING CERTAIN MATERIAL, so once again, the easy route, QUIT SCHOOL!!! ONCE OUR KIDS QUIT SCHOOL OR FORCED FROM SCHOOL AND HAVE LIMITED ABILITIES AND OR EDUCATION TO GAIN EMPLOYMENT, THEY THEN BEGIN ATTEMPTING TO FIND EASY WAYS TO MAKE MONEY, SELLING DRUGS, BREAKING IN HOMES, JOINING GANGS FOR PROTECTION, and monetary gains. ALTHOUGH I'M AN AFRICAN AMERICAN MALE WITH KIDS IN COLLEGE, I UNDERSTAND THE MOST IMPORTANT FACT ABOUT OUR COMMUNITY, WE WILL NOT REACH OUR FULL POTENTIAL AS A COMMUNITY OR CITY UNTIL THE LEAST OF US ARE STRIVING AND GETTING STRONGER!!!

August 26, 2012 at 3:45 p.m.
biofish said...

Mr Cook, you have been had. I have spoke to Josh on many occasions and can tell you those eyes have no kindness or weight. Just contempt and selfishness. He is out for HIS needs and no other. Let's look at his record, shall we? Robbery, trespass, resisting arrest, selling drugs. He sits in his girlfriend's apartment all day while I can see 3 or 4 help wanted signs within 2 miles. Those gang tattoos on his face?.. he did it only 3 months ago. Hardly a guy "looking to get out" huh? I would love to help him get a job and straighten up, he however needs to -WANT- to do that. At this time of his life that is NOT something he wants to do. Who could blame him?.. his girlfriend's apartment is in the projects and they pay $50/month in rent. You and I pay the rest in taxes. Why shouldn't he sell drugs?.. It is easy and you don't even break a sweat. (unless you have to run from the cops). It is the PIMP life for him and if he were to answer honestly, we would be the suckers in this fairy-tale of yours.

But hey, it makes for a great story.. Congrats on pleasing your editor and selling ad space.

August 26, 2012 at 4:05 p.m.
shen said...

I realize many Chattanoogans despise their mayor, Ron Little field. However, if I recall correctly when I lived in Chattanooga around the latter 1960s or 1970s, he was some kind of city leader back then who was part of an initiative that organized a program where many of Chattanooga's young males, some young veterans straight from Vietnam and from poor communities, who sent them off to Oak Ridge Tennessee to be trained in the fields of electrical work, pipefitting, construction and plumbing. They were housed in dorms of some kind while attending classes there, only returning home occasionally on weekends. When they completed their schooling in Oak Ridge and returned home, they were placed in apprenticeship programs alongside the masters. Master plumbers, pipefitters, many were hired by EPB toget enhanced training as electrical linemen. Many have likely retired now, or are close to retirement age. However, over the years they became masters in their field of work. Often sought after in other states for their expertise when natural and even man made disasters struck. You just have to get the right people in who know what they're doing. Locking everyone up and shipping them off to jails and prisons aren't the answers. You're just busting and tearing down the family structure. Most of the grant money and private donations thrown in so far were ill spent, and the people placed in charged had no skills or training themselves to offer. Much of the funds were just used to spread around and create one committee after another that had no intentions of getting anything done. Just keep spreading the money around to committe members. You need dedication, committment, knowledge and skilled hands involved. Along with some compassion and understanding in what these young folks are going through. They're no different than most any other kid that screws up. They just pay a higher price when they do screw up. Society expects them to fail.

OH, and many of those guys retired pretty wealthy. As they're companies invested their savings wisely. They were required to put a certain percentage of their income into company savings, which was invested.

August 26, 2012 at 4:08 p.m.
Haiku said...

Unless the black community wants this negative image to continue to be their legacy generation after generation, it is up to them to step up to the plate and change their destiny by reaching out to their young more and criticizing them less. When one of their own work so hard to get elected to high office just to get a law passed against saggy pants, I find that tragic. Other racial and ethnic groups work to get elected to bring jobs and training to their people and communities to help lift themselves up out of poverty. Why work to get a law passed that makes your own people a target for even greater profiling and racial stereotyping than they already are? We're still shaking our heads over the lunacy of that one.

August 26, 2012 at 10:08 p.m.
elk11060 said...

If a job would solve the gang banger problem all you need to do is have given this young man a copy of your Sunday edition classified section. He doesn't want to work, cause all he wants to do is gangbang all night long. He's going to end up dead or in prison for killing someone, maybe a gangbanger or just a civilian. No matter, it is what he wants to do, or he would work is way out of the life he has chosen for himself. What really galls me is that I'm suspossed to feel something other than loathing for him. I pity him and his lack of moral fabric to change.

August 27, 2012 at 10:19 p.m.
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