published Sunday, August 17th, 2014

A picnic for peace at East Lake Courts in Chattanooga

Roderick Braswell, right, gives lemonade to his neighbor's son Jalen as June Hammonds, left, watches on Saturday during a stop-the-violence community picnic at East Lake Courts in Chattanooga.
Roderick Braswell, right, gives lemonade to his neighbor's son Jalen as June Hammonds, left, watches on Saturday during a stop-the-violence community picnic at East Lake Courts in Chattanooga.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

Yellow police tape and handcuffs were replaced with hot dogs and lemonade at the East Lake Courts on Saturday evening.

Uniformed officers strolled around the grassy lawn between the red brick Chattanooga Housing Authority apartment buildings. They weren't interrogating people or making arrests, but instead were shaking hands and stopping to chat with residents.

"Events like this remind everyone that we are one community," said Tracy Arnold, assistant chief for the Chattanooga Police Department.

The picnic that brought more than 100 residents of the East Lake Courts out to the lawn was sponsored by East Lake resident Latoya Holloman and her organization, Loving my Community.

Holloman hosts events like this because she has seen them make a positive impact among her neighbors.

"People say 'this is the hood' and 'this is just the devil's playground' as an excuse for violence," she said. "I want to set a different example."

Many residents at the picnic said they hear too many gunshots in the neighborhood and they're tired of people they know getting shot or stabbed.

Holloman invited fire and police members to the picnic in support of stopping the violence in the neighborhood. "It is important for these officers to interact with us in a different way than normal," she said.

The scene offered a contrast to the violent confrontations between residents and police in Ferguson, Mo., over the shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white officer.

Fireman led a group of eager kids on a tour of a firetruck and young girls cheered and squeezed each other's hands when the lights and siren were turned on.

"We are normally called out for bad things. It's nice to be here for something good," firefighter Chad Williams said.

Police officers stood nearby, laughing, as young boys piled into the front seat of a police car pretending to be in the middle of a high-speed chase.

"The police are good to have around," said Naterriona Plummer, a 9-year old who has lived in the courts for as long as she can remember. "When the cops are out here like this, they make me feel safe and not afraid."

Residents who said they rarely come out of their houses to socialize were standing next to their neighbors in line for hot dogs and nachos, some meeting each other for the first time.

"This picnic brings everyone together," said Patrick Armour, a resident of the courts. "This offers a way for people to settle differences in a good way."

Before standing on a front porch with a mic to offer the kids an encouraging message, Connie Hatten leaned over and whispered, "See, we are all going to pull it together and stop this violence."

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6592.

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