Dozens of residents from Hamilton County and Chattanooga gathered at the Kingdom Center at Olivet Baptist Church on Tuesday afternoon to offer suggestions for addressing the issue of gun violence in the community following a string of violence in recent weeks, including the shooting of seven women on Grove Street nearly two weeks ago.
Before the Stop the Violence community meeting began, Hamilton County Commissioner Warren Mackey — who hosted the event — said he understood no one individual has the solution that will end gun violence all at once.
Instead, he said, the city and county want to hear from the people and families most affected by that type of violence so they can work to put in place systemic solutions that hopefully result in a less violent future.
Tuesday's meeting was the first of those conversations. A second will be held at 6 p.m. on Nov. 16, at a location to be announced later, Mackey said.
"We have to come together. There's no other way. We need answers and solutions that protect innocent lives and provide for the needs of these families," Mackey said. "Violence happens in the city. It happens in the county. It is an everywhere-and-everyone problem, so all of us need to be involved with this. All of us need to stand up and say enough is enough. We need to be the change. It is time for us to get involved. It is time for us to step up and do the job we were elected to do. So, I am asking each one of you to keep your eyes and minds open to the needs of the families and to understand the fear that they live in daily."
Chattanooga Public Safety Coordinator Troy Rogers said he was tired of hosting community events on similar topics without seeing any follow-through after the fact. Like Mackey, he called for systemic changes that address the needs that eventually lead many to commit acts of violence, such as a lack of access to education and a lack of mentors "showing up and leading the way."
While coming to community forums to call for action is a good start, he said showing up after a shooting has occurred and disappearing again a few weeks later was not a good way to show children violence isn't the answer.
Instead, he called for "loving consistency."
"Nobody is born bad. There is no kid that wakes up one morning and says, 'I'm going to blow your brains out.' These are things that happen to them when they are in elementary school," Rogers said. "If a kid cannot read in elementary school, he's going to prison. He's going to struggle. If he grows up in a poverty house, that's going to be hard for him. If he grows up without a father in his home, he's going to have issues. Everybody sitting here with their mouth on the ground knows this is real.
"You can't have a systematic issue, not do anything to change it and expect solutions. For a systematic problem to be solved, we gotta have systematic change and a systematic plan that starts when kids are in kindergarten and follows them through graduation. Quit playing with us. When you play with us, our kids keep dying."
Chattanooga resident Audrey Ramsey spoke about the shooting death of her brother, Donald Cornelius Ramsey. She said she misses him daily and that the recent shootings brought back all of the emotions she has struggled with since his death. She drew a parallel between the Grove Street shooting, in which seven women were shot and two were killed, and the recent manhunt for James Michael Farris in Soddy-Daisy, and she questioned why one received such a large police response when the other, in her view, did not.
"The message is clear to me. Black women in this city are not respected," Ramsey said. "I grow angrier and I get sadder. Here we are nearly three weeks after and we still don't know who the perpetrators were or are," Ramsey said. "There was, of course, that recent manhunt in Soddy-Daisy. We know during that time the TBI, the Chattanooga Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office were brought out. I wonder if the same attention is being given to the case with these seven women and to another shooting that resulted in the murder of a man on that same day."
Montrell Besley, who grew up in Chattanooga's Alton Park neighborhood, said he wanted to see things like recreation centers and after-school programs continue to grow because "positive exposure" to good influences is the only thing he knows of that is proven to keep kids out of trouble. Being present in communities, seeking out opportunities to mentor youth and developing real relationships with children that aren't just about teaching them violence is bad are all things he said were key in creating change. To get children to listen, he said it was important first to listen to them.
In his own life, he said the people who were present in the community on a daily basis were the ones who made a difference.
"If I didn't have positive exposure when I was growing up, I'd be like a lot of these men around here," Besley said. "But I had people who gave a darn about me. We have to get our butts out from behind a desk. We have to get our butts out into the streets in the communities we serve. I've been in youth development for 16 years. Some of us have been working in community development or on the commission for 16 years, and things are still the same as when I was in high school. We are going to have to do better. We have to invest in the people doing the job."
Trey Suttles, a Chattanooga native and Tyner alum who went on to play basketball professionally, said he hopes to be a figure providing mentorship and opportunities to young people in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.
That is why he founded Moc Valley Prep, a post-graduate program that helps athletes find scholarships. The program also provides free housing, meals, tutoring, mentorship, entrepreneurship classes and community service opportunities to participants.
"This kind of program is what's going to help these kids get to know us and trust us so that we can help them back," Suttles said after the meeting. "We have to invest in them, and they'll make this community better."
Contact Kelcey Caulder at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.
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