WHAT WAKES YOU: BIRDSONG OR GUNFIRE?

WHAT WAKES YOU: BIRDSONG OR GUNFIRE?

March 17th, 2013 in Opinion Times

It's Sunday morning in Chattanooga. Blue sky frames scattered clouds and the birds sing as most of you read this.

The same sky shines all over town, but in some communities the birds hush as gunfire erupts. Sooner or later today, odds are unfortunately good that someone will be shot -- or at least shot at.

This beautiful, and in many ways progressive, city has got to come grips with the class, education and financial gaps that have spawned increasing gang activity in what at times appears to be a combat zone in east and south Chattanooga.

It's time for action when "perpetual" lockdowns at the East Lake Boys & Girls Club drive the executive vice president to beg for help after she herds 60 or 70 youngsters into a room with no windows as bullets fly outside.

"We are pleading for your help," she wrote to her board members Tuesday evening while in lockdown. "There is gunfire in the area with people shooting at each other. It is the 3-4 [third or fourth] time within the last month and [a] half. Could you use your influence to talk with City Council, County Commissioners, police or any other official that has the authority to help provide a safe place for our children."

As Debbie Gray pecked out that message, police with military-style semi-automatic rifles were swarming the neighborhood looking for a man who stepped out of a group of 30 to shoot an officer responding to a help call.

The week before, it had been Howard School in lockdown for the safety of young people after a student was shot in a house near the campus. Both the student and the shooter had gang connections, according to investigators.

Imagine if this is your neighborhood. Your school. Your park or recreation area. Your children. Chattanooga -- all of Chattanooga -- is better than this.

But not unless all of Chattanooga begins to care about it in a way that doesn't embrace fear.

Not unless all of Chattanooga begins to think about repairing the broken links in our community: the class gap, the education gap, the jobs gap.

On the same day Debbie Gray's desperation spilled out in an email, a bill developed by Mayor Ron Littlefield's gang task force was being previewed in the Tennessee General Assembly in a House of Representatives Criminal Justice Committee meeting.

The provisions of the bill, sponsored by former police officer Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, are all law-enforcement related. Generally, the bill beefs up penalties for gang members or suspected gang members possessing a gun without a permit within 1,000 feet of a school, youth center or recreation center.

But the bill's summary makes it clear that it may very well include people who are not in a gang.

"Under this offense, it is not necessary for the prosecution to prove that the person devotes all, or a substantial part, of the person's time or efforts to the criminal gang, nor is it necessary to prove that the person is a member of the criminal gang."

In other words, anyone with a gun but no permit gets a tougher "gang" penalty if they're near a school or youth center.

A fiscal note on the bill anticipates that the jailing of these potential new offenders will cost the state $2.3 million a year.

But that could be far from the greater cost if this is the only sad Band-Aid the city, its six-month-old task force and state lawmakers can find.

Previous efforts to "protect" families in so-called dangerous neighborhoods have unseen collateral damage. Ask Kenyell Jefferson, who for a decade because of a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge, wasn't allowed to visit his grandmother, aunt, cousins, or the mother of his 2-year-old son and the toddler in College Hill Courts. His conviction placed him on the Chattanooga Housing Authority's criminal trespass list and banned him from the apartment property.

Jefferson is free now to go there after graduating from the Hope for the Inner City's Jobs for Life program and landing a job.

Is this tough love or is it just placing one more obstacle in front of an already overwhelmed community?

We'd like our law and policy fixes to be neat, but often they are not.

Just focusing on guns won't stop this. We also have to rethink our city to bridge its widening gaps of class, education and jobs.