Chattanoogans gather at Harris-Johnson Park to lead young people away from gang violence

Chattanoogans gather at Harris-Johnson Park to lead young people away from gang violence

September 2nd, 2012 by Shelly Bradbury in Local Regional News

Javen Johnson, 8, and his father, André, pray with others at Harris-Johnson Park on Saturday. Local churches united to hold a Stop the Violence rally and picnic at the park. In addition to a chance to mingle with neighbors and eat, there were music and a voter registration booth.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

Food vendors, live music and the resources to get young people out of gangs - Stop the Violence brought all three together Saturday afternoon at the group's first Labor Day weekend festival in Harris-Johnson Park.

"The goal here is unification," Olivet Baptist Church pastor Kevin Adams said. "We're trying to bring the city together, churches together and people together. There are a lot of great things going on in the city, but we're not all doing it together."

Picnickers and volunteers dodged spurts of rain during the four-hour event, which aimed to help connect Chattanooga's youth with the resources to stay out -- or get out -- of gangs. Retired Chattanooga police officer Napoleon Williams said resources are key.

"With all this violence -- two shootings last weekend -- we're just trying to give some people some avenues for what they need to do," he said. "These gang members, all they want is a job. So for those who want jobs, we're on the telephone trying to find them a job."

People who attended the event could register to vote, learn how to earn a GED from Chattanooga State or figure out how to take advantage of a new Tennessee law that allows individuals to expunge certain crimes from their records.

"You can get a minor mistake wiped clean," Williams said. "They call it the Clean Slate law."

As of July 1, a person who has not committed any crimes in the past five years can pay a $350 fee to erase some nonviolent criminal convictions such as theft, fraud or vandalism from his or her record, if all penalties and restitution are paid.

Adams said the event was a way to reach young people beyond the walls of his church.

"This problem is not going to come to the church, but the church has got to go to the problem," he said. "We need to be visible in the community."

Chattanooga resident Elizabeth Jackson brought her three daughters and two granddaughters to the park, which is across from the Howard School.

"I think it's a wonderful idea that the churches came up with," she said. "We're here to support it, and we hope more come out next time."

Groups of people passed through the park throughout the day. With an hour left, about 50 people were in the park. But Adams said he wasn't worried about the turnout.

"It's a start, to be out here," he said. "It's not about the numbers. If we can touch one person -- that's always a success, if you can reach one person."