Closure of convenience store on Chattanooga's Westside sparks calls for change

Closure of convenience store on Chattanooga's Westside sparks calls for change

Prosecutors play two surveillance videos in hearing against shop they say is a hotbed of drug deals, other illegal activity

May 3rd, 2017 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

The Westside Shop was padlocked after the District Attorney said it became a hotbed of criminal activity.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

An Open Letter to District Attorney Neal Pinkston

May 2, 2017

Mr. Pinkston:

Your order to shut down The Westside Shop is not justice served. It is reckless justice.

According to the teachings of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the Eternal Leader of the Nation of Islam, justice is a principle of fair dealing. The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, His National Representative, teaches me that there are times when justice has to be tempered with mercy.

Your method of meting out justice on the Westside amounts to carpet bombing innocent men, women, and children. You wiped out the only remaining food supply for the people in that area. You are starving the people out. The result is a fast lane to gentrification.

The innocents played no role in creating or being involved in “the public nuisance” or the “hotbed of criminal activity.” They are collateral damage; collateral damage that you didn’t even plan to properly secure during your war against crime. Your reckless justice has caused more harm.

According to an article in the TIMES FREE PRESS written by Zack Peterson dated April 27th, 2017, you are quoted saying the following words, “[Westside Shop] is the site of a disproportionate amount of illegal activity. Between Jan. 1, 2014, and April 1, 2016, officers from the Chattanooga Police Department have responded to the store over 200 times for complaints that include disorders, fights, narcotics violations, robberies, shootings and other criminal offenses.”

This amounts to a little over a two year period of time. So, let me try to get this right, you mean you patiently waited for over two years building your case before making your move. In the meantime, Buehler’s Market, after over a hundred years of service, closes leaving The Westside Shop as the only remaining store for the community; then, in steps justice to close The Westside Shop.

At any time, during your deliberate quest to serve justice, did it ever enter your thinking process to have a contingency plan to provide food to the residents once you shut the store down? Is this Justice Mr. Pinkston? Justice for whom? Justice for the developers who want this prime real estate?

For nearly two years, The Nation of Islam, Concerned Citizens for Justice, People United for Change and several residents have partnered to give-away, free of charge, thousands of pounds of quality vegetables, fruits and bakery products to the people on the Westside within a few feet from The Westside Shop. You, your office, nor anyone else claiming to be concerned for the people by reaching out to various agencies to provide a measure of relief have reached out to us. Surely your intelligence gathering apparatus knows we are there. Right?

There is a better way Mr. Pinkston. By God’s grace, we can help you clean up the mess you and the policy makers of this City have created. We love our people. It is our love for our people that motivates us to serve. We have a program and a track record to offer to our City. I look forward to hearing from you soon to discuss permanent solutions to the problems that our City is facing.

Lastly, humility is that quality we need in order for God to continue his exaltation of us. I offer you this simple first step. Humble yourself and do the right thing Mr. Pinkston.

Your humble servant,

Brother Kevin Muhammad

The Westside Shop was padlocked after the District Attorney said it became a hotbed of criminal activity.

The Westside Shop was padlocked after the District...

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

The Westside Shop was padlocked after the District Attorney said it became a hotbed of criminal activity.

The Westside Shop was padlocked after the District...

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

Some call it a battle for the soul of the city. Others describe it as a necessary crime-fighting tool. And some are just hungry.

Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston's shut down a Westside convenience store Thursday, drawing comments Tuesday from several community members who say prosecutors are criminalizing poverty, and they urged city leaders to start spending money on the oft-neglected, low-income area.

"Your method of meting out justice on the Westside amounts to carpet bombing innocent men, women, and children," Kevin Muhammad, local leader of the Nation of Islam, wrote in a letter Tuesday to Pinkston. "You wiped out the only remaining food supply for the people in that area. You are starving the people out. The result is a fast lane to gentrification."

The statement came hours after Pinkston and Assistant District Attorney Kevin Brown presented two surveillance videos in Criminal Court that depicted gambling and a fight outside the store, which is part of a handful of closed retail shops on Grove Street. Westside Shop is a hotbed of drug deals and other illegal activity, they argue, and must reform its behaviors before it can reopen.

"The state is also fully aware the shop provides a service to the community," Pinkston said during the hearing. "We're very mindful of that. There's not much access nearby for residents of that community, and we've discussed that with many people. But while it does provide a service, in our opinion, it needs to be more orderly."

Judge Tom Greenholtz moved the hearing to May 9 because Westside Shop's owner was not present to hear the evidence. The store has retained a lawyer, Douglas Cox, who focused Tuesday on whether the alleged criminal behavior was connected to the owner. In the meantime, Westside will remain padlocked.

Melydia Clewell, spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said Pinkston is not starving people and that several residents thanked him and the Chattanooga Police Department officers who boarded up the business last week.

"No one is sure how to solve the issue for the Westside," Clewell wrote in an email. "That was proven years ago, when the term 'food desert' first surfaced. Someone received a small business loan offered by the feds to open a grocery store in the 'Golden Gateway' building which sits across from M.L. King Jr. Boulevard from the Gateway Tower and College Hill Courts. It didn't stay open more than a year, if that. I don't remember the exact year, but it's been close to 20 years ago. The problem has gone unaddressed for a long time."

Other pastors and activists say that's intentional because the Westside is prime real estate near the convention center. But poor black families with diminished access to transportation, health care and local food options will take the deepest hit, they say.

That fear is compounded by Buehler's Market recently shutting down and a longtime neglect that has bred crime and dilapidation. There's a closed childcare center, a closed school that runs a few art programs, and a baseball field with muddy puddles near second base.

"There's a plan in this city for tourism, for people that live on the North Shore," said Brian Merritt, a pastor at Mercy Junction and the Renaissance Presbyterian Church, which is one block down from the shop. "If what happened on the Westside happened on the North Shore, we'd be doing food drops. But these are poor people. There are four, five thousand in a low-income area with low-voter turnout who can't sway the election or make contributions to political coffers."

The city did not respond to a request for comment.

Inside the Renaissance church, Merritt pointed to a wooden pantry with four cans of green beans, two red apples, two packets of lemon-flavored Jell-O, and a bag of tortellini pasta.

"This was full on Saturday," he said.

On the other side of the glass, a poster facing the road says, "Access to Food is A Human Right."

Outside, Merritt ran into Mendon "Jon Jon" Price, a handicapped man with one leg who lives in The Overlook, an apartment complex just up the hill from College Hill Courts and Grove Street.

"Thank God I get family to take me to the grocer," Price said, "because a lot of people here don't have that and are limited to this area."

Muhammad said the Nation of Islam, Concerned Citizens for Justice, People United for Change and several residents have partnered to give away thousands of pounds of fruit and vegetables to people outside the Westside Shop for the past two years. He compared that to Pinkston's petition, which says police responded about 200 times between January 2014 and April 2016.

"If they had intelligence for two years, you mean to tell me they didn't know the Nation of Islam and CCJ were giving out free produce for two years? They haven't called us," he said.

Muhammad said the next feeding is May 9, and that he's reached out to the Chattanooga Area Food Bank to see if it can double the amount of produce for the area. But the long-term solution, he said, is allowing people who have been working in that area to monitor the streets in their own patrol cars and start growing healthy food. Muhammad and other community leaders purchased a car and started a similar patrol program in summer 2016 to take back Alton Park from violence, news archives show.

"The government has a responsibility to open up our budget to fund us," Muhammad said Tuesday. "The police chief should donate us patrol cars where we patrol our own community. We love our own people and they respond to our love."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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