If selling drugs is the top crime committed by Chattanooga gangs, then legalize the drugs. Pot. Cocaine. Any and all dope.
This November, voters will decide in three states — Colorado, Washington, Oregon — whether to legalize marijuana.
Why not in Tennessee? Tax the fool out of every sale, and the bottom falls out of illegal street-corner hustling.
Former gang members could — legally — go door to door, selling gang pot, sort of like Girl Scout cookies. The joints are taxed, and proceeds of the legal sale go to build and maintain some sort of factory-business that hires, trains and employs people who want off the streets.
Don't like this idea? Me neither.
How about this one?
Instead of legalizing dope, this once-dirty city of ours that transformed itself within a decade into one of the most livable cities in the nation could create a simple job-training program that takes these kids, who are bankrupt in more ways than one, and mentors them into stable, local and positive jobs. And lives.
Which idea is crazier?
No one predicts a gangless Chattanooga. But if we want to hold the line and prevent Chattanooga Gangs 2.0 — when initiation killings are standard and influences creep in from out-of-state jails, turfs become truly defined and Christmas Day shootings normal — then something must be done.
Since the gang problem is really a poverty and relationship problem, legalizing pot won't fix it.
Positive employment will.
Positive influence will.
On Page 2 of the recently released gang study introduction, Gang Task Force Director Boyd Patterson asks a simple question:
"Have you taught a child to read?" he asks.
Maybe that's what it all comes down to. The widespread influence of Dr. Seuss.
Patterson says 70 percent of prison inmates can't read. Prisons are built near locations that contain high populations of elementary students with poor reading levels, he writes.
Which is sick, twisted and tragic. Not playgrounds. Prisons.
But it also means that fighting gang violence is as simple as volunteering to help tutor or teach someone to read.
"It comes down to action," Patterson writes. "Action is the difference. Action is critical. Action is needed."
There's a latent group out there that can fill this role. The church. All 563 — by my count — of them in the area.
"It's been estimated that 60,000 people will be in church this Sunday," said Joe Smith, director of Y-CAP, an award-winning program that may be the best anti-gang model around.
What if they each pledged to do something about this problem?
It's simple, really. Before and after school, every day of the year, Smith, his family and staff tutor, teach, train, feed, support and befriend kids on the edge. And their parents.
(What Smith won't say is how his budget remains on a shoestring, and how he needs volunteers and donations. He's too much of a gentleman to say this. I'm not.)
What if Chattanooga's contribution to the American gang problem was an active and engaged church? What if our city — one friend counted more than 20 churches on a six-mile stretch of Ooltewah Road — left the church in order to find the church? Not in the pews, but in the streets.
"Come on down and love on somebody," Smith said.
Maybe it's that simple.
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 ...