David Cook: In Chattanooga, some sort of peace from gang violence

David Cook: In Chattanooga, some sort of peace from gang violence

March 26th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

The group of gang leaders had just walked out of the dining room -- a stack of pizza boxes on the table, makeshift ashtrays, extra chairs but still not enough for everyone -- and back into the gusty night.

A moment or two passed. About as long as it takes to light a cigarette. Or say a brief prayer.

Near the head of the dining room table, one man -- respected and feared by the younger men who had just left -- looked up and spoke.

"What time is it?" he asked.

7:18.

On Palm Sunday night.

"The truce has begun," he said. "You were a witness."

As the Sunday evening sun went down over the Chattanooga streets where 16 people have been shot this month, some sort of peace was struck among city gangs.

At different times during the night, leaders from some of the most visible and violent gangs traveled to one Chattanooga dining room, drawn there by a group of their elders, several men whose histories on the street give them a legitimacy and authority to pull off something that no one else in this city seems able to do.

A cease-fire.

It may be fragile. Like an infant born too early, or too late.

But it's alive.

"It's time to stand down,'' one of the elders said.

Call it the Palm Sunday peace.

There was little formality. The front door opened and gang leaders (different gangs came at different times) walked in. They all looked under 30.

Handshakes. Some laughing, but not for too long. Some wore colors, others did not. A few were drinking, most were not. Some carried a weariness in their eyes. Actually, most did.

All black males.

Yet just as easily: had you changed the background, clothes and setting, it could have been soldiers coming in from battle. Italians meeting around a Chicago back room.

The clothes of violence are not exclusive to our city. Or to one group.

Nor is the hope for peace. Or at least, less violence.

For 20 or 30 minutes, each group spoke about how this noise -- the retaliatory, back-and-forth, bap-bap-bap violence -- needs to stop. Getting out of hand. Getting crazy.

The older men spoke with a blend of love and anger. A sternness. Cursing, yet out of concern.

The younger men spoke about keeping folks in line, holding to the truce. They spoke about the other groups not present. How to walk out onto this fragile bridge being built.

How to trust the gangs they distrust.

And in the air hung the notion that seemed to be falling into the hearts and minds of everyone in the room in different ways, at different times, with a different gravity:

This way of living is not working.

"If I had a job, I'd be at home right now, getting ready for bed," one man said. He looked 20.

We -- the rest of us -- talk so much about crime. And how to stop it. Sitting at that dining room table, I thought about how small those conversations seem compared to this.

Gang members have this paradoxical relationship to power: surrounded by the social powerlessness of poverty, yet also able to call an end to the violence in a way that no other person or agency in the city is able to do.

Not the mayor. Not preachers. Not cops.

"They want to resolve the problems with the shootings and killings," said Skip Eberhardt, one of the elders, who also runs a GED program for men just like the ones there Sunday night.

The cease-fire was born out of two situations: the long, patient work of Eberhardt and other elders who are trusted and respected by younger gang leaders.

And second: the desire of those younger leaders to build something better than this.

This doesn't mean all crime ends. There will be shootings. But they may not be gang-related. And -- the leaders gave their word -- it won't be like this bloody March.

"They want the city to know,'' one man said to me. "That's why you're here."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.