Serial killer stalks city; apathy is its own witness

Serial killer stalks city; apathy is its own witness

March 9th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Online: See an interactive map of city shootings by neighborhoods at http://timesfreepress.com/shootings.

There's a serial killer in Chattanooga.

The killer is apathy, and apathy strikes every day. Sometimes every hour, every minute.

Apathy strikes every time witnesses to crime will not own up to seeing anything, hearing anything, knowing anything. Apathy strikes every time a witness refuses to come forward about another shooting, another drug deal, another threat.

Over and over and over, apathy kills progress and values in this city that seems to have almost everything else going for it - everything except infectious, cancerous apathy.

Apathy is why shootings have increased in Chattanooga in recent years even though other crime here has trended downward. Apathy is why, since the beginning of 2013, about 160 people - 90 percent men and 92 percent black - have been victims of about 140 shootings.

And apathy, along with its cousin fear, are why nearly 60 percent of those shootings have gone unsolved. Since 2011, only two dozen people have faced prison time out of more than 300 shootings and murders here. Police and prosecutors - and even the victims themselves - say that's because witnesses won't come forward to tell what they saw, heard and know.

Some say they fear retaliation. Some just characterize it as the inner city's code of silence.

It's apathy. And the more this silent killer strikes, the deeper the burial pit for all of us.

In late February, one shaky teenager bucked apathy and agreed to be a witness in an execution-style gang murder that left 18-year-old Eric Fluellen lying in the street, shot multiple times through the head.

The witness said Lee Antonio Clements Jr. confessed the killing to him, and police said a Facebook photo proved Clements had been with Fluellen on the night of the shooting.

Clements was charged, but a Hamilton County grand jury declined to indict him. Details in the story the witness told in court differed from what he originally told police. His testimony came under attack, and the homicide charge was dropped.

Even Fluellen's mother, Shonda Mason, understands this apathy. For years she believed in and practiced the inner city "code of silence" she said. Now she feels differently. Now she believes violence in Chattanooga will never stop until witnesses start talking.

Apathy as a city and state growth killer is nondiscriminatory. Nearly three-quarters of Chattanooga's shootings happen in locations where only about 10 percent of the county's population live, largely in the east and south inner-city areas of Chattanooga. But these shooting numbers help paint the entire city and state with fear when headlines like this one in the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom: "Fearful of violent crime? Don't go to Tennessee, which tops the list of America's most dangerous states."

Yet even more frightening is this glimpse of the future: This handful of neighborhoods in the inner city that average six or more shootings a year also is home to 14 percent of the county's youngest children - those below school age.

These youngsters are growing up in this world where gunfire is as normal as heavy rain. And they are growing up where a third of adults did not graduate from high school, 21 percent are unemployed and 42 percent live in poverty.

Of course apathy lives here. And apathy is a teacher here.

But we must make no mistake: It is apathy that must come to feel unwelcome. Not the innocent residents, not the police, and certainly not the witnesses.