Healing and truth-telling: Forum passions show reconciliation will take concerted effort

photo Larry High speaks during the panel discussion for the Times Free Press story "Speak No Evil" on Thursday at the Bethlehem Center in Chattanooga.

"Violence is violence. It has no color," said Gretta Bush, who leads an anti-violence nonprofit in High Point, N.C, during a Times Free Press sponsored forum Thursday billed as a discussion on race, reconciliation and truth telling.

But the crowd would have none of it. "Yes it does," people shouted back at her when she said color doesn't matter.

Years -- decades -- of pain, resentment and distrust swelled and overflowed the gymnasium of Bethlehem Community Center in Chattanooga's Alton Park Thursday night.

The forum -- intended to answer why the inner-city residents have developed a code of silence that deepens the community's isolation and breeds retaliatory vigilantism in black-on-black crime -- came on the heels of a year with more than 100 shootings, a city announcement of a new "violence reduction initiative" and the roundup of 32 black men that city authorities labeled "the worst of the worst." The paper ran the 32 faces and that label on the front page -- something else that outraged the community.

"There's [also] a code of silence in the white community," belted Kevin Muhammad, a Nation of Islam youth worker. "The guilty ones are the ones who cause the darkness. ... People have died in this community in custody at the hands of police and the District Attorney Bill Cox has not indicted anyone. ...You cannot ask something of us that you do not do yourselves."

There were other angry voices.

"Will Chattanooga make a real commitment to end poverty and racism?" asked Janelle Jackson.

"Our kids need jobs. It used to be the kids could always go to the factories, like U.S. Pipe. But they left town. [Now] what's our young people to do?" said a man with a booming voice.

"The same blighted conditions we had here 27 years ago are still here today. Who's allowed that to happen? You!" Kurt Robinson told the crowd. "You're the ones who allow the same people to get elected over and over, and they get in their offices ... and get fat."

"My heart hurts," said Judy Corn, who is white. "If we don't love each other we cannot win," The crowd applauded. But then she took on Muhammad. "Hate will never win. I hear you question motives. What is your motive? Do you come to heal or do you come to incite?"

Charmaine Goins, a former gang member who now helps community members start businesses, spoke up: "I'm a former gang member. I've been in prison. ... We've got to stand up. ... What changes the world is hope."

Cynthia Stanley Cash said the "think tank" people who are behind the new violence reduction initiative needed to include the community. "They don't live where we do," she said. "It's insulting when they don't include longtime groups here."

"Where is the mayor? Where is the police chief," someone screamed out.

The passions surprised many. And not just the white people in attendance. Even former Howard High School principal and new public safety coordinator Paul Smith said it's clear the city has it's work cut out to repair the lost trust.

"What this has done is rip the Band-Aid off a gaping wound," said Ash-Lee Henderson, a member of Concerned Citizens for Justice, who questioned the forum's goal.

Perhaps she's right. And her imagery is dead on. For decades, Chattanooga has put a Band-aid on race relations, poverty and classism. But Band-Aids can't do much to heal gaping wounds.

It's time for more than just the newest shiny initiative, offered to the community by a police round-up, a press conference and a one-man city ambassador who is a former high school principal.

Mayor, if you want buy-in on this program, you may have to take it to the streets in person. And you'll have to stay long enough to listen.

You gained high marks when you went to bat for Patten Towers residents last spring after they were left on the street when the smoke cleared from a fire in a ridiculously neglected century-old hotel turned low-income apartment house. Your visits to those residents as they sat on cots at the Salvation Army showed Chattanooga a caring face with the power to make improvements.

If you want this to work, if you want Chattanooga to heal, if you want this to be a place peaceful enough to lure new jobs (and we know you want all of those things), then it's time for that Andy Berke to come out of City Hall again.