Cook: We have a gang problem in this city

Cook: We have a gang problem in this city

December 8th, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

I never met VanDaryl Rivers.

He graduated from Brainerd High School in 2007. He was 22 and worked for Amazon. On the day of his burial, his family - a big one, with lots of aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters - honored his life at Westside Baptist Church.

VanDaryl was shot a few days before Halloween. He was standing outside, under a cold sky, on Walker Street. A bullet entered the right side of his head, exploding it onto the dark street.

Witnesses say the shooter was a man dressed in black.

Police say the weapon was an assault rifle. Authorities report that about 30 bullet casings found at the scene were .223 caliber, from a military-grade weapon such as an AR-15 or AK-47.

That night, four others were wounded, including a 2-year-old.

I never met VanDaryl Rivers. But I still believe his life mattered. Infinitely.

Just like the other victims of gang violence in our city.

"Gangs are not going away," said Boyd Patterson, Hamilton County assistant district attorney and the man in charge of directing our city's newly formed response to gang violence. "But they haven't completely crystallized yet."

When Patterson talks to people about the vital urgency of reducing gang violence in Chattanooga, he shows them a collage of pictures, all taken from school campuses inside Hamilton County.

In each picture, kids are dressed in school uniforms. Some are running across green campus lawns. Others are bunched together, arms draped over one another. They're smiling. Laughing. They are probably 9 or 10 years old.

And every child is flashing gang signs.

"These are not kids in Chicago," said Patterson. "This is happening right here, in Chattanooga."

How bad is gang violence in our city?

At the end of October, our city had seen 23 homicides. It's estimated 65 percent of those were gang-related.

Gang members outnumber uniformed police officers in our city.

More than 40 gangs with more than 1,000 members have been documented in our city by law enforcement. In contrast, the Chattanooga Police Department has 463 officers.

In 1997, our city had 10 gangs with fewer than 200 members.

"These kids are so at-risk," Patterson said. "If a gang is the only thing they see, they join just for survival."

What an odd word to use: survival. It is tragic that for some Chattanooga children, survival includes AK-47s.

When it comes to gangs, American cities typically are classified in one of two categories: entrenched or emerging.

Cities with entrenched gang violence have seen gang activity flourish and spread for many years. Gangs are well-established within certain communities with clear hierarchies, structures, borders, rules and boundaries.

No random shootings. No unpredictable Geiger counter spikes in violence.

Cities with emerging gang violence are different. Gangs are less mature. Less established. More reckless, shaky, prone to hot, compulsive violence.

"Everyone is a cowboy. You run into another gang member on the streets and the pistols fly," said Patterson.

Chattanooga's gang violence is classified as emerging, Patterson said, and gang violence is not entrenched here.

Yet.

Thankfully, our city leaders -- government, community and law enforcement -- have adopted a five-point plan to reduce gang violence and increase alternative opportunities for at-risk youth. It's worked in many other cities, and it can work here.

In the weeks to come, this column will devote much attention to the issue of gang violence, its many solutions and the courageous work being done to implement them.

And each time I write those columns, I'll glance over at the picture of my own kids that I keep nearby. Seeing them reminds me of the sweetness of life, the dignity we all deserve, the utter sacredness of each human body and soul.

Like theirs. And VanDaryl's.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org.