published Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

David Cook: What silence looks like

It's been a bad week for democracy in Chattanooga.

Democracy? I don't mean the static, political science textbook definition.

I mean participation, citizen action, people power.

Not being a bystander.

Being a person of action and conscience who understands the old saying: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Just look at today's newspaper.

On Monday, in a grotesque distortion of justice, two gang-bangers -- on trial for first-degree murder -- saw their charges dropped faster than if they'd had the key to their own handcuffs.

It wasn't supposed to be that way; the DA was banking on the testimony of one woman who had told police she saw them pull the triggers -- no doubt about it -- and would take the stand and say that very thing.

But something happened in the weeks since she first spoke to police.

Something that snuffed out the courage of a good woman, and let evil triumph in its place.

When she took the stand on Monday, the eyewitness -- the one who told police she saw firsthand what happened -- went silent.

Changed her testimony.

Said she didn't know anymore what happened.

Said nothing.

And the 20 or so other people who were there that night and saw the people who shot and killed Terry Parker?

They went quiet, too.

Thanks to such silence, two men arrested on murder charges can now return to the streets.

I hate it. I hate such courtroom theft, where all the things we say we hold dear -- justice, protection of witnesses, the power of citizens -- were vandalized.

But Tuesday, many of us went silent, too.

Given the chance -- the privilege -- of voting, vast numbers of people stayed home. Too busy. Too bored. Too much rain. Too whatever.

In years past, the city mayor and council have been elected by fewer than 20 percent of registered voters.

Twenty percent. Not even.

Out of more than 100,000 registered voters.

People complain about government being run by a few well-connected members of a group?

Well, that's just what happened yesterday. And they're called: voters.

In 2011, Hamilton Place officials made the announcement that about 16 million people visit the mall and surrounding stores each year.

My math: this equates to about 43,000 people a day.

Which means that Tuesday, more than twice as many people went to the mall as voted.

Look, voting's not that dramatic. No fireworks. Kind of like a citizen's version of doing the laundry: not much fun, but has to happen to keep the house clean.

But voting has this contagious quality to it. If you vote, you're probably also going to read actively. And think critically.

And when you read and think, you're likely to speak out. To act.

And when people act out, the scales of power and people become more balanced. The threats to our democracy are held in check by a committed citizenry, and few things are more troubling than people turned silent.

So.

Maybe the glue is always found in 20 percent of people who seem to be involved in most of the work.

Because in every corner of this city there are people who do all and more that citizenship asks. Volunteer, protest, show up, organize, tutor, love their neighbor, question and question again.

People who understand that the Bill of Rights comes also with a list of responsibilities.

I dare say that some of those people were even elected into office Tuesday.

Perhaps my reports of democracy's slow death are greatly exaggerated.

After all, it comes back to this: you. What do you ... say?

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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AndrewLohr said...

The devil is the accuser of the brethren. Mr Cook has the same attitude. He should read "Blog and Mablog."

Sure, move the election date to save money and increase turnout.

But notice the advantages of economic democracy over political democracy. With economic democracy, I can vote McDonalds today and Burger King tomorrow; don't have to wait four years. With economic democracy, I don't have to pay for what I don't want to buy; but political democracy forces me to pay for things I oppose. With economic democracy, people who disagree can often all get what they want: burger, taco, pizza, sub, sushi... But political democracy makes winners and losers. So we need more economic democracy and less political democracy, especially the crony capitalism that protects insiders from competition by outsiders, by poorer people wanting to earn more and charge less. Moses Freeman told me he'd heard of the "Institute for Justice." Have you?

March 6, 2013 at 6:45 a.m.
TirnaNOG said...

Something that snuffed out the courage of a good woman, and let evil triumph in its place.the one who told police she saw firsthand what happened -- went silent. Changed her testimony.

Maybe it's just a case of art immitating life, Mr. Cook. Or in this case, citizens immitating authority. That code of silence or Don't Snitch knows no bounds.

March 6, 2013 at 9:24 a.m.
Leaf said...

Well, I think it's more likely that someone threatened her life and/or the lives of those she cares about. Her reaction is understandable.

March 6, 2013 at 10:23 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

David, a nice column. Some of your commentators don't appreciate that young woman has to live among the gang that is involved. How many of us would sacrifice our life to testify knowing the verdict is uncertain and the gang knows who you are and where you live; and has no fear about exercising violence because it is a badge of "honor" for them. We face an enormous societal problem of uncertain solution.

I feel we are living a life in Sartre's "No Exit" or maybe Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."

March 8, 2013 at 3:05 p.m.
TirnaNOG said...

Did anyone consider the possibility that if there were allege threats or change of mind on the wistness part it may not have come from any allege gang members? I'd think so-called gang members would have done everything in their power to prevent her from showing up to testify in the first place.

That was my point in the previous posts.

March 8, 2013 at 3:14 p.m.
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