Cook: Grief and the violence of July 16

Jala Smith, left, and Asia Smith embrace at a roadside memorial on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn., in the aftermath of a Tuesday night shooting in the 800 block of North Willow Street that killed their brother, 20-year-old Frederick Jordan Clark.

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photo Blue is the predominate color at a roadside memorial seen Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn., in the aftermath of a Tuesday night shooting in the 800 block of North Willow Street that killed 20-year-old Frederick Jordan Clark.

The five servicemen killed on July 16? Their lives mattered. Immeasurably. Indescribably so.

Yet I must confess: My grief over their deaths has outweighed my grief over other local shooting deaths. It's as if, for some reason, their deaths mattered more than other deaths, as if their lives were somehow more valuable than the lives of others killed in our city.

And that simply isn't true.

Even my statement - "five servicemen killed on July 16" - is an act of forgetting, for there were six, not five, deaths that day.

Thomas Sullivan.

Skip Wells.

David Wyatt.

Randall Smith.

Carson Holmquist.

And Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who, however bound up he was in violence and destruction, was still a human being.

And human lives matter.

How else can we explain the huge outpouring of collective, #NoogaStrong grief in the days that followed? Thousands lined the streets as hearses drove by. Lee Highway was transformed into a land of 10,000 flags. So much money donated. The vice president got involved. So did an NFL quarterback. All said, it may have been the largest civic act of mourning in our city's history.

Yet such tremendous and public grief stands in stark contrast to the way we mourn - or don't - other deaths in the city.

Like the deaths of young black men.

The way we mourned the July 16 violence had racial implications. Our grief seemed to unify white Chattanooga, but not all of Chattanooga. We were horrified at Abdulazeez's drive-by violence, as if somehow forgetting that drive-by violence is a normal part of daily life for many black Chattanoogans.

We were stunned and shocked with rage at how unsafe our world suddenly felt. "What has happened to America?" many of us said. Bills to arm military recruiters rushed through state legislatures. Yet for many black neighborhoods, safety is an abstraction, a mirage in a landscape of trauma and neglect. What of their safety? I can't remember the last time a politician rushed to pass a bill designed to make black families safer.

We acted as if Abdulazeez's violence was a crime against the city.

It was.

Yet so are the repeated and commonplace acts of urban violence: both the hot violence - drive-bys, the gunshots - and the slow violence of generational poverty, dysfunctional schools, police saturation, a nihilistic pipeline that directs more men to prison than college.

Those, too, are crimes against our city, and even deeper ones, for they implicate the daily workings of our city - the hows and whys - in ways Abdulazeez never did.

Where is our rage? Our public grief? Our 10,000 flags?

In his book "Between the World and Me," Ta-Nehisi Coates makes the same argument about the 2001 terror attacks, comparing the national grief that surrounded the 9/11 violence with the lack of national grief over the countless black men killed each year.

Like his friend Prince Jones, who was unarmed when he was shot and killed by police.

"My belief then and my belief now was that the life of Prince Jones, the body of Prince Jones, was as valuable as anybody who died in the World Trade Center," he told NBC's Chris Hayes. "And, yes, I had a tremendous, a tremendous amount of anger, tremendous amount of rage at watching the national grieving that came out of that, or turning on the football games the following week or two weeks after and seeing, you know, this great sort of martial display and fighter jets."

Can we in white Chattanooga find the empathy to understand that?

I have to wonder: Did we wave too many flags? Did we allow too many politicians to give speeches? Did we praise our police and military too much, deaf to the national protest movement - from Ferguson to Baltimore to Texas to here - against police abuses? I fear we crossed a line, from memorializing into nationalism, hero adoration and militarism, as if the mourning became more about us and our fears and needs than what actually happened.

Please understand, I am not trying to dictate how our city mourns, or what is proper, and what isn't. There are many different meanings emerging in our post-July 16 days; we shouldn't hide from them, or fear discussing them, even in these still-raw moments.

Yes, the July 16 violence was different: a direct attack on military personnel by a young Muslim we thought was one of our own.

But 364 other days of the year, the violence is not different: it is normalized, felt most acutely among our black brothers and sisters, and made bitterly worse when it goes unnoticed.

Like the death of Jordan Clark, shot and killed five days ago in a drive-by. He was the 64th black man shot in the city this year, the eighth killed.

"His life mattered," said his mother.

Immeasurably. Indescribably so.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.