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David Cook

On Palm Sunday night, 48 days ago, many of our city's gang leaders gathered around a wooden dining-room table, some of them sitting, some standing, all agreeing to put down their weapons.

The cease-fire came after days of back-and-forth-and-back-again violence.

Since that night, there have been at least 10 shootings in the city. Of those, two were homicides.

Wednesday afternoon, I sat down around that same dining room table -- that night it had pizza; this time it had cigarettes, tangerines, grapes and tomato-and-cheese sandwiches -- with the two main architects of the cease-fire, the men with enough street legitimacy and respect to be able to arrange and orchestrate such a gathering.

Skip Eberhardt.

And another man I'll call Joe.

"It's been individuals doing individual [expletive],'' Joe said. "There's been no gang activity.''

No gang activity. No ... gang ... activity.

"I could take you right now to the Westside and you'd see Bloods, Crips, GDs [Gangster Disciples] and Vice Lords, all enjoying the sun, males and females together,'' the man said. "Or East Lake. You could go there right now.

"It's on the strength of that [cease-fire].''

Sitting around that same dining room table, the two men explained how street violence takes different forms, and how we -- larger Chattanooga -- recklessly confuse individual violence with the collective.

Like this: A guy rolling with Gang A robs a member of Gang B.

Not gang violence.

Or this: A guy rolling with Gang A disrespects the girlfriend of Gang B member.

Not gang violence.

Individual violence -- robberies, shootings, drug deals gone wrong, done by members of gangs or wild kids on their own -- does not equate to large-scale gang violence or activity.

Instead, it looks like this.

"Gang activity is when I disrespect you and yours. Your house, your home, your gang,'' Joe said. "I shoot up your territory. I taunt. I start shooting up your spot. Flying colors. Taunting your crew.''

Gang activity is really about maintaining respect. When collective respect for the entire gang is dirtied, then, the city has the potential to explode. Back and forth. Back and forth.

It was getting that way before the cease-fire.

But not since.

"So far, it's good. It's holding up,'' said Eberhardt, who also runs a GED program for kids wanting to get off the streets.

Gang bangers are also kids, in a world of hurt, trying to stay alive. Yes, they commit massive violence, and yes, massive violence is committed upon them. They are both perpetrator and victim.

"Put it like this, like it's old cowboy days,'' Joe said.

Tonto and the Lone Ranger make a pledge, sworn in blood -- they will stand by one another through thick and thin. Someone comes after you, then I go after them.

Cowboys? Gangs, too.

This is an ethic and code that, in other parts of America, is applauded. Loyalty? Duty to a larger cause? One thinks of the days following 9/11, when revenge was nationalized.

"The cruelest are also the kindest,'' one woman, present Wednesday afternoon with Joe and Eberhardt, said. "You go inside a gang banger's home and watch them raising their kids, doing their homework with their kids. They have to do it [the violence] to hold the image for the streets.

"You get them around their parents and you can't get a curse word out of their mouths. But you just saw them at the store with a gun in their pocket,'' she said.

This is it, isn't it? That image -- the gun one moment, the polite child the next -- symbolizes the crux of all this. How do we turn a generation from one type of behavior to the other?

"We have to show them how to live life,'' Eberthardt said. "We have to force something on them.''

Last night, Eberthardt, who said he's supporting and looking forward to Mayor Andy Berke's work on crime, gathered black and white community leaders together at the Alton Park Development Corp. to roundtable talk and plan ways to "build unity.''

Joe, leaning in over that dining room table, puts it more directly.

"If I can put down my own [expletive] gun,'' Joe said, "they can, too.''

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.