Two dozen residents gathered in Chattanooga's Westside Park softball field on Saturday for the Grove Street Justice Rally, an event held in memory of 37-year-old Labrecia Dews and 21-year-old Keniqua Hughes, two women who died in a shooting on Grove Street last month.
Together with folks watching the rally virtually, they raised more than $7,200 to be used as reward money for any information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. An additional $3,000 has been pledged.
Leaders at the rally called for an end to gun violence and a new beginning for "atonement, reconciliation and responsibility," a call back to the Million Man March on Washington, D.C. on Oct. 16, 1995.
Community Haven Chattanooga president and local Nation of Islam leader Kevin Muhammad, one of the organizers for Saturday's rally, went to the 1995 march. He said he hoped to encourage Black men to accept their roles as leaders of their families and communities, as the march inspired him and others in the community to do the same 26 years ago.
"We took two buses, and we went up there," Muhammad said. "We have to bring that energy here today. We have to be there for our women. When someone comes in our community and starts gunning them down, we can't stand for that. We are supposed to be the leaders. We can't allow this. Enough is enough."
Westside resident Cassandra Robertson, one of the organizers of the Back to the Westside reunion that the women shot on Sept. 25 attended just before the incident occurred, said her cousin was grazed in the stomach and shot in the foot during the Grove Street shooting. She said her daughter was an innocent bystander during the Hamilton Place mall shooting earlier this year.
Neither incident should have happened, she said, and she called on men to take the lead in fighting gun violence locally. She said they should be leaders so young people in the community can look up to them for guidance.
"I'm one of the original ones who started Back to the Westside. Do you know how it felt when I got a call that seven women were shot? That didn't sit well with me. Seven young ladies have been gunned down at a function we started, at a Back to the Westside reunion. This should never have happened," she said. "I'm asking today: all of our young men, be the head and not the tail of your household. People are looking to you."
Robertson said she noticed that some of the chairs placed out on the softball field for guests to sit in weren't full.
"Just because it's not full here today, don't think they're not looking. Their shades are going up and down," she said with a gesture toward homes in the neighborhood surrounding the park. "You best believe they're looking. They're not coming out because they don't want to be seen. But I want to be seen. I want to be heard. I'm one of the original ones on this field, on the battlefield for my God, and I am not afraid."
She said people were afraid to come out and be seen taking a stand against those responsible for the deaths of Dews and Hughes. Muhammad said the same.
"We remember what happened to Bianca Horton after the College Hill Courts killing," he said. "We know retaliation is real. I don't blame anyone for being afraid, but we can't let this happen. We have to stand up and protect each other. We have to say that this is our neighborhood and we're not letting it go out like this."
Horton was 26 when she was found dead on the side of the road in the 2100 block of Elder Street in 2016. The mother of four had been a witness in the case against the men accused of shooting her 1-year-old daughter, and police at the time said they suspected her murder was likely gang-related and related to her daughter's case.
State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, encouraged anyone with information to come forward so that Hughes' and Dews' families can begin to heal.
"Talking about justice isn't enough. We have to be willing to give of ourselves," Hakeem said at the rally. "Somebody needs to come forward with what they know so that we can't start the real process of justice. That is the first step. Make the first step."
Betty Maddox Battle, a native of Chattanooga who graduated from the Howard School, is an advocate for those who have lost loved ones through homicide, work she took up after her son was killed in Atlanta in 1993.
As a former law enforcement officer and as a mother who has lost a child to violence, Battle said she believes it is vital for anyone with information that could lead to the capture of those responsible for the Grove Street shootings to come forward because healing often can't happen for families until that step has been taken.
"It's hard. People don't talk enough about what the families need after something like this. Getting justice and then getting resources like counseling or grief support is vital," she said. "To whoever did this: you cannot commit these crimes without justice. We have to send that message."
Chattanooga police are asking anyone with information about the Grove Street shooting to call 423-643-5100 or submit a tip through the police department's mobile app. Tipsters can remain anonymous.
Those looking to donate to the Grove Street Justice Fund can still do so by visiting communityhavenchattanooga.org and clicking on the "Grove Street Justice" tab. Donations also can be sent via Cash App to $grovestreetjustice.
Contact Kelcey Caulder at email@example.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.