Cook: What do we owe Keoshia Ford?

LeKeshia Matthews {CQ} smoothes down daughter Keoshia Ford's {CQ} eyebrows Friday morning. Ford's family rose bright and early to take her to a doctor's appointment at Erlanger on Friday morning.
photo Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press - June 22, 2012. David Cook

View other columns by David Cook

How to help

Keoshia Ford Expense Fundc/o Olivet Baptist Church740 E. M.L. King Blvd.Chattanooga, TN 37403Online donations can be made at

There have been too many funerals like this in our city. Mostly black folks in the pews. The body in the coffin too young. Prayers from the pastor about new life and resurrection, yet nothing but death out in the streets. And the cause of it all? Gang violence.

Friday afternoon, another funeral. Outside Temple Baptist Church, as the silver hearses idled in the cold, the slightest of snows began to fall, as if the heavens were saying there was something different about this death. About this life.

There was.

In 2012, a midnight party poured out of a rented house on Bennett Avenue, a thin road in Highland Park. Threats led to gunfire. A bullet traveled where it never should: into the body of a girl playing innocently nearby.

Her name was Keoshia Ford.

She was 13.

Before that night, she was a hands-on-hips kind of girl, head cocked to one side, as quick to sass you as love you. Keoshia - KeKe to friends - was the center of the room, the life of the party.

After that night, she would spend the next five years in and out of hospitals, paralyzed, mostly unresponsive, requiring medical care estimated at $320,000 a year. All because of one stray bullet. All because of gang violence.

Twelve days ago, she died. Police arrested the man who fired the gun that night.

But how do you arrest poverty?

How do you arrest despair?

"Long live Keoshia," pastor James Rushing said Friday, speaking from the pulpit above Keoshia's white coffin.

Some 150 mourners were there. Photos of Keoshia - in some, before the bullet, she's dancing and laughing, with big hoop earrings; in others, after the bullet, she's in a wheelchair, breathing with help from a ventilator - flashed on the overhead screen.

Keoshia has long represented something larger to me, a tragedy on top of tragedy. In whatever memory or archives we keep on violence in this city, her story deserves some special chapter, some lasting distinction. Keoshia was a child. Innocently playing. Who wound up losing everything.

Her shooting, many thought, was a wake-up call for our city.

Her paralysis, many thought, would call us out of our own.

Her death suggests otherwise.

"It hasn't changed," said her mom, LeKeshia Matthews. "All this gang violence."

Will it ever?

During the funeral, I looked over at Boyd Patterson, assistant district attorney, sitting a few rows away. Patterson first met Keoshia when he was Gang Task Force director. Back then, the city had just released its Comprehensive Gang Assessment, the 173-page study that provided more of an in-depth look at gang violence - its causes and solutions - than any document in our city's history, and some say the entire nation.

It was written with a tone of immediacy and hope, as if once the city reads this, with all its business-to-schools-to-churches-to-nonprofits solutions and action plans, surely things will change.

Now, five years later, it's mostly forgotten.

Yes, gang violence is a complexity of local and national influences, originating both inside prison and out, and when connected with drug trafficking and gun availability, it is a large-scale problem no locality can solve on its own.

And no, this is not a slight on the Chattanooga police, who often represent the only aid, the only cavalry that shows up in the dark nights of high-crime, high-poverty Chattanooga.

But gang violence is never solved through police.

It is solved through community. That's the singular message Patterson - still speaking with immediacy and hope - tries to convince us to hear. Put it this way:

Do you have a school-age child or grandchild in Hamilton County?

Do you dislike criminals who make good people live in fear?

Do you care about how gang violence hurts Chattanooga's image and economy?

"If you answered yes to any of these, here's your takeaway message," Patterson said. "Chattanooga's gang problem is your problem."

David Cook writes a Sunday column at [email protected] or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.