Three students are defying threats of violence and shootings by painting over gang graffiti in Chattanooga neighborhoods.
The group, made up of three home-schooled students, spray-painted over the graffiti on buildings in Highland Park, Avondale, East Lake and East Chattanooga this month after the city experienced 14 homicides and more than 60 shootings this year. Police have said several shootings were gang related.
"If we let this continue to decline to a point where nobody cares, then the crime rate is going to increase," said Lt. Eddy Chamberlin of the Chattanooga Police Department.
Asked if the students are concerned about retaliation, shy 13-year-old Arianna Israel responded, "No."
"God's watching over us," she said.
Police and community leaders Olga de Klein of Highland Park and James Moreland of Avondale organized the effort to reclaim vacant buildings marked by gang tags.
Chamberlin said he wants to organize more paint-overs this summer.
"Not only are we building positive relationships, we're working together to solve a problem," he said.
Most people don't want graffiti in their neighborhood, Chamberlin said.
"It sends a bad message in our city. It says, 'This is a community that is out of control,'" said Moreland, president of the Avondale Neighborhood Association.
Chattanooga ranks ninth among the 10 most dangerous cities in the nation with populations under 200,000, according to Lawstreetmedia.com. The list said Chattanooga has an officer-to-population ratio of 1:377.
"We [law enforcement] alone really can't accomplish much, and that's the sad truth of the matter," Chamberlin said. "But what's really impressive is not only do these youth not participate in the negative stuff, they did something positive to take the community back."
Moreland said he wants to get young people so committed to the idea that he can go with them to ask the City Council to hire them as contracted workers for graffiti clean-up.
Arianna sat at a table at the Avondale Youth and Family Development Center, on Friday with hands across her mouth, unsuccessfully trying to cover a smile so wide it made her eyes squint shut. Her 12-year-old brother Chemi and 11-year-old sister Sarayah sat smiling with their hands in their laps.
Chamberlin is following in the footsteps of Capt. Brian Cotter, who is retiring in June. Chamberlin said Cotter started driving years ago with spray paint in his car and painting over graffiti and later got some youth to do it with him. Chamberlin wants to make sure the cleanups don't end when he retires.
"It started like a one-man show, but that got infectious within the group," Chamberlin said.
Lowe's even donated some paint, he said.
The younger officer said he hopes to generate more youth participation in the future.
"This is the first one we've had this year and the first group we've had," he said about the young people. "I envision this growing and getting more people on board."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6431.