Tonight can be a first step for Chattanooga to begin healing wounds and bridging a poverty gap.
Tonight at Bethlehem Center, the newspaper is sponsoring a forum on the heels of our Chattanooga Times Free Press special section last Sunday titled "Speak No Evil."
The forum is intended to be a discussion on race, reconciliation and rebuilding trust in a Chattanooga that really is two cities -- the one we aspire to be, and the one so divided by race and poverty that some streets and blocks are more like war zones.
The growing divide has been illuminated in the past year by a brutal police beating of a black halfway house prisoner by white officers and by well over 100 shootings (300 since 2011). Most of the shootings have been in inner-city neighborhoods and involve black shooters and black victims.
In the city's poorest communities, "Speak No Evil," examines the home-grown ethic of retaliatory -- even vigilante-like -- crimes as an enforcement of the community's own justice system; imposed there because many don't trust police.
Our stories, told by reporters Joan Garrett McClane and Todd South, show the struggle of a mother to get justice for her son in a part of town where "snitches get stitches, snitches get ditches." The mother plainly acknowledges that she herself grew up with a see-no-evil, speak-no-evil ethic. And she taught it to her son.
But make no mistake: This problem is not just one of race. It is a problem of poverty -- one of education and income gaps. And that stark social cliff has a resultant influence on trust and understanding. Moreover, even though the "speak no evil" shootings have occurred largely in the black community -- they involve just a sliver of Chattanooga's 35-percent black population. "Speak no evil" is not a culture borne out among the city's many middle-class black and mixed neighborhoods.
Here's a case in point: On Wednesday morning, a 39-year-old was shot at the intersection of North Terrace and Moore Road in Chattanooga -- an apparent victim of road rage. Witnesses talked. They said the shooter fled in a gold sedan. You could think of that incident almost as a drive-by shooting. But with witness help, by evening a 62-year-old was charged with criminal homicide and aggravated assault.
In contrast, in Chattanooga's inner-city, silence is so prevalent it affects citywide crime clearance rates. In 1991, a record murder year, police tallied 49 homicides, but cleared 93 percent of the cases. Now police say 58 percent of open Chattanooga homicide and shooting investigations are moribund because of witness silence.
Tonight's first step must be understanding. Following a national crime fighting model adopted by new Mayor Andy Berke, some call for a police and authority apology.
Frankly, everyone -- on all sides -- needs to make an apology.
But more importantly, everyone on all sides needs to put the past behind and make a new commitment to working together -- to building one strong, understanding, compassionate, diverse city that is too successful to harbor pockets of generational poverty.
The meeting is 6 p.m. at 200 W. 38th Street in Chattanooga.
We can do this.