Cook: Richard Bennett's tomorrow

Cook: Richard Bennett's tomorrow

July 2nd, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

It's been nearly a month since the arrest of Richard Bennett, the founder of A Better Tomorrow.

It was around midnight in East Lake Park when cops found him in a minivan with a small bag of marijuana, one-and-a-half hydrocodone pills on his key chain, two open Budweisers, a bottle of Patron tequila, and a woman who was not his wife.

Bennett's mugshot hit the news. City Hall cut ties with him, the man they'd counted on -- and financed heavily through the Violence Reduction Initiative -- to help in the rehabilitation of our young offenders. Financial backing shriveled. In our minds, many of us declared him guilty.

After all, what else could have been happening down there in that minivan?

Tuesday, Bennett was scheduled for an early court appearance before the heavier proceedings begin sometime later. Fast forward to the day when his judgment comes, and imagine this:

What happens if Bennett is found not guilty?

What happens if the charges against him are dropped?

Will Bennett be welcomed back into the fold, with renewed funding and full community support?

Chattanooga needs to start thinking about these questions, because I'll give good odds that Bennett won't be found guilty of a single thing.

Call it a hunch.

Anyway, I'm not so sure he did anything wrong that night.

The hydro pills: He's got a prescription for them.

The beer and tequila: The officer said he smelled alcohol on Bennett's breath, but was a blood alcohol test administered? If not, why not? If so, what are the results?

Is there any proof that Bennett was drinking, or just that he was in a car with open containers, which could have belonged to the woman he was with.

The woman he was with: There is no crime in sitting in a parked car with a member of the opposite sex. Period.

(Sure, it doesn't look good, especially for a married man. But Bennett's work often crossed the line between cultural proprieties into a real world where, well, sometimes you have to talk with folks who are drinking tequila and smoking pot at midnight.)

The pot: Was it Bennett's? Was it the woman's? I've heard Bennett was borrowing the van from someone. Did he even know the pot was there?

"Both parties denied knowing about [it]," the report states.

Anyway, would all the people in Chattanooga who have smoked pot in the last month please stand up? Thought so. Bennett's not the only one near a small bag of pot, is he?

Bennett's work is dirty work. Messy, complex. And incredibly important, for he's throwing lifelines to those Chattanoogans drowning in a sea that many of us know nothing about.

This does not happen in neat and tidy ways. It happens after midnight, with open containers. It happens in the places most of us dare not go. It happens because Bennett has a street power that comes from his own past.

Maybe a parable will help.

A man falls down into a hole, and can't get out.

A preacher walks by, sees him in the hole, says a prayer and keeps walking. Man's still stuck.

A doc walks by, tosses him some medicine down in the hole and keeps walking. The man is still stuck.

A teacher walks by, throws him a copy of the TCAP and keeps walking. The guy's still stuck.

Then, another man walks by and jumps down into the hole too.

"Dude, why'd you do that?" the first man says. "Now, we're both stuck."

"Yes," replied the second man. "But I've been here before. And I know the way out."

Bennett's been in those dark holes before, and he knows the way out.

Most of us haven't, and don't.

And since we can't imagine ourselves down in East Lake Park at midnight talking with folks who are drinking tequila and smoking pot (although I assure you the same thing happens in our wealthy 'hoods), we assume that his presence there must be a guilty one.

Like an inkblot test, we see what we want to see.

"The foundation of Chattanooga VRI is built on credibility and consequences," City Hall spokeswoman Lacie Stone said in an email Tuesday. "We must have the most credible mentors, police officers and service providers on our team in order for Chattanooga VRI to be successful in reducing violence."

Maybe Bennett was stoned and drunk, his credibility draining away like Bud from a bottle. Maybe he's guilty as sin.

But what if he's not? What if the court finds him not guilty?

Will the rest of the city too?

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