Cook: Arresting the man behind Chattanooga's gang truce

Cook: Arresting the man behind Chattanooga's gang truce

November 7th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Reginald Dewayne Oakley

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Monday morning, 32 men were arrested by federal and local agents for illegally selling or possessing crack, powder cocaine and guns. At a press conference later that day, one official called them the "worst of the worst" of our city's criminals.

Today at 4:30, one of the men will be escorted from his prison cell to then stand before a federal judge who will determine whether or not he can be released until his January trial.

His name is Reginald Dewayne Oakley. He is 39. His street name is Joker.

"Because I wasn't a joke," he once told me.

I first met him on a windy Palm Sunday night as he sat at the head of his wooden dining room table. Around him, some in colors and some not, were gang members from across the city.

It was the evening of the gang truce.

Reginald "Joker" Oakley was the man behind it.

"It's time to stand down," he said that night.

Beginning on the night of March 24 and continuing through the summer, I met with Oakley multiple times under multiple circumstances: at his home, in the car, at a barbecue, at a church. We spoke at length about gangs, crime, poverty, prison, the psychology of the streets, as well as the mundane: why Kobe is better than Lebron, which type of fish fries the best, how to fix a busted washing machine.

But most often, he spoke about this: how to stop the violence.

He asked me to keep his identity a secret.

Until now.

"I give full permission," reads the statement he signed Wednesday morning from prison.

The story of "Joker" Oakley is the story of a man with a most violent history and the years he spent as one of the most feared men in town. It's also the story of the same man who claims to have denounced his gang affiliation in prison and returned home to work for peace on the same streets he once criminalized.

"If I can put down my (expletive) gun, they can, too," he said.

Oakley -- who's 5-foot-8, braids the long goatee that grows off his chin, and is sometimes known as Reginald Woods -- grew up in East Chattanooga. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade, and during the 1990s, began to hone a wicked reputation on the streets, doing what nobody else would.

"I used to rob the dope men," he said. "I robbed drug dealers."

In 1998, he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and spent nine years in at least four different Tennessee prisons, one of which offered a gang rehabilitation program. Oakley said he entered, and denounced his affiliation with the Crips.

In 2011, he was arrested for shooting three people in a dispute at College Hill Courts, but charges were dismissed. Earlier this year, he made a phone call to Skip Eberhardt, who was organizing a GED program for kids on the streets. During that call, Oakley asked him a question.

"'Did I want to try to stop some of this violence?'" Eberhardt remembers. "I was with him. I know he was trying to change his life."

Not long after, Oakley called the Palm Sunday meeting. People there that night listened, and nodded in agreement.

"I ain't the only one," Oakley said. "The guys I talk to, they're ready to level this (expletive) out. They're ready for understanding."

So let's now bring up the obvious: the gang truce didn't hold.

Of course it didn't.

You can't erase and undo decades of urban violence and neglect in one night, and to think otherwise is to completely underestimate the vice-grip of influence that gang culture carries. Generational violence doesn't just suddenly up and pack its bags, here one day, gone the next.

But the truce was a start.

It was the opening of a door that no one else in town -- no task force, no police unit, no community leader or City Hall official -- could have opened. Oakley's power arises from his past; it is both his strength and weakness. The man able to cause such harm is the same man able to begin the process of stopping it.

"I can do the job of 40 men. I ain't got to lock nobody up. I'm the answer to this city. These gangs fear my past. When they see me telling how this is not worth it, it gives them a new outlook on things," Oakley said.

In the days following the truce, Oakley rode around town, trying to keep firm this fragile treaty. He spoke with different leaders, organized a cookout at Booker T. Washington State Park that brought gang members together and tried to plan a larger one that would unite more.

"Police can't stop this. If you lock up one, you've got three more coming," he said. "I can take you and show you 8- or 9-year-old kids waiting in line to bang. Waiting their turn."

Slowly, it fell apart. People started shooting each other again. Oakley had no car. A felon, he couldn't get work. Some nights, he sold fish to make extra cash. Utilities threatened to shut off service.

"We've been struggling," said his girlfriend.

The biggest lie we continue to tell ourselves is that punishment alone can stop crime. In the days following the truce, no help came from City Hall or the police. No news conference, no encouragement, no nothing.

It's as though they find it far easier to arrest someone than support a truce.

"Let the truth be known," Oakley said from prison Wednesday afternoon.

Here it is: for one chapter of our city's history, a man they're calling the worst of the worst emerged from great violence to craft some sort of peace.

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