Two-thirds of the Chattanooga City Council has voted to approve a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis in the city.
According to Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, sponsor of the resolution, the action was a statement of health, economic and other social disparities affecting the well-being of Black Chattanoogans and offered a mission statement under which the council promised to address issues of racism.
"This resolution is a start of a continued conversation, a conversation that's very hard for us to have, but it's needed," Coonrod said. "No, it will not fix the hearts of people. That's something that they will have to work hard at. But I'm very hopeful that our council will continue to advocate for the changes that are continuously affecting Black, brown and poor white people."
Councilman Erskine Oglesby, who co-sponsored the resolution, said he "totally agrees" with Coonrod. Council members Carole Berz, Russell Gilbert, Jerry Mitchell and Anthony Byrd all voted in favor as well, giving the resolution six votes when only five were necessary. But not every council member agreed.
"I definitely recognize that racism is real and that we, as a community, must work together to promote equity and eradicate racism of all kinds," Vice Chairman Ken Smith, who voted against the resolution, told the Times Free Press after the vote. "However, this resolution is not worded in such a way that I can support it as a whole."
Smith declined to specify which parts of the language he objected to.
Similarly, Councilman Darrin Ledford said that he didn't support the resolution, but agreed that racism should be addressed by the council.
"I had hoped for a chance to provide additional context through conversation and for personal inclusion, but that opportunity was not afforded," Ledford said of the resolution, which mirrored similar action passed in Memphis on the same night. "I think it unwise for anybody to adopt copy-and-paste legislation without a complete legislative process. I love my community and my vote doesn't change my commitment to my colleagues and to improving the lives of every resident of Chattanooga."
Chairman Chip Henderson, who was not immediately available for comment after the meeting, also appeared to vote against or abstain from voting for the resolution, saying only "present" when called on for a vote, followed by declaring it passed with six yes votes, which did not include him.
While a majority of public speakers at the meeting called in to support different proposed legislation to address racism, one speaker condemned the resolution, which endorses some of the themes of the Black Lives Matter movement, which he says is an attempt to destroy America.
"It's an absolute moral truth that Black lives matter. Every single one of our lives have meaning because we're all made in God's own image," James Hyman said. "It's also an absolute truth that Black Lives Matter, as an organization, is a Marxist communist organization, desiring to destroy America from within, to disrupt the safety and prosperity of this nation and our city to destroy the ideas of faith and family, our country, including harming the Black lives that it gives lip service to."
On the other hand, speakers representing the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America echoed the meaning of the resolution and called for stronger action by the council. The group has been involved in organizing Chattanooga protests in response to the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.
"That's not to say that the things that have been submitted by people like Councilman Coonrod so far are useless. They are not, they are good things to do and you should do those too," Democratic Socialists of America Co-Chairperson Katie Keel said. "But what we want is going to materially change lives in Chattanooga and beyond."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.