Passions run high: Forum on crime elicits hurt, anger in black community (with video)

Passions run high: Forum on crime elicits hurt, anger in black community (with video)

December 20th, 2013 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

ABOUT HIGH POINT

The High Point Initiative, created by nationally known criminologist David Kennedy, centers on the belief that most violent crime comes from a very small pocket of the community. That means police must first identify the criminals responsible for the most violence in the city and identify where those criminals live. Police target those individuals. They are told to stop the crime, get help from local service agencies, whether it's help getting a job or continuing their education, or go to prison for a long time. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has vowed to re-create the High Point program here.

One thing was clear by the end of Thursday night's community forum to discuss how to make the city's streets safer - city officials have their work cut out.

More than 200 people turned out at the Bethlehem Center in Alton Park to hear panelists and fellow community members weigh in on our high number of unsolved murders, the code of silence in the community and the divide between police and residents.

But discussion quickly turned into a diatribe about prejudice and racism in Chattanooga. A number of comments revealed a strong belief that the black community has been treated unfairly by whites. Several speakers referred specifically to the November arrest of 32 black men that police called the "worst of the worst" criminals in Chattanooga.

"Don't just single out our kids," one black man said, speaking into the microphone. "Are they the only ones that commit crime?" he asked to cheers and hollers.

Cecilia Peters asked police why her 15-year-old son's murder hasn't been solved. Then her wailing could be heard throughout the gymnasium. She wasn't the only person in the crowd who had lost someone to street violence.

The forum was sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press on the heels of a nine-month investigation that resulted in a special report entitled "Speak No Evil."

Before the evening was out, some speakers had denounced the city's plan to bring the High Point Initiative to the city to help address the shootings and heal the rift between police and residents. Some also criticized the Times Free Press for putting the pictures of 32 black men on the front page, and said the problems in the inner city are caused by poverty, racism and apathy on the part of policymakers.

The hurt and anger that echoed through the auditorium suggested that Mayor Andy Berke's new violence reduction initiative faces an uphill battle among the very people it's intended to help.

Photo by Maura Friedman/Times Free Press.

Berke's public safety coordinator, Paul Smith, said the passion he saw at the meeting was good. But he said he has to have support from the community and needs leaders to step forward who are willing to partner with the city.

"From this meeting you're probably going to see me at a lot more neighborhood association meetings ... and you'll see us at a lot more churches," Smith said. "This will give us the opportunity to do more with people at a grass-roots level."

But Ash-Lee Henderson with Concerned Citizens For Justice, said the meeting had only ripped a Band-Aid off an old wound. The community needs reconciliation with the police, she said.

Gretta Bush, who leads an anti-violence nonprofit in High Point, N.C., and made the trip to Chattanooga to answer questions about the program, said this crime initiative only works if the community stops blaming others. It's not about race, she said.

"If you have something that works you share it," Bush said, referring to the High Point Initiative. "We tried it and it works."

But the public must make a commitment, she said. They have to step up or they can't expect to solve the problems.

"It doesn't matter about the color," Bush said.

"Yes it does," people in the crowd shouted back to her.

Kevin Muhammad, a Nation of Islam youth worker, said the white community also has a code of silence. He also compared the High Point Initiative to the days when police would round up slaves. When he did, much of the crowd cheered.

Then June Corn, the only white person in the room to ask a question, stood.

"I'm very, very glad that I came. I find myself in a situation wanting to weep because I'm hearing mothers who lost their babies," she said. "I can't apologize for the past, but I can make the future better."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.