David Cook: What silence looks like

David Cook: What silence looks like

March 6th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

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?