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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 1/18/16. Protesters circle a crowd during the $200,000 M.L. King Blvd. mural project dedication on January 18, 2016.
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David Cook

Why did the Unity Group boycott Monday's MLK Day parade, the very parade it has sponsored for more than four decades?

And why did Concerned Citizens for Justice protesters interrupt Mayor Andy Berke's MLK Day speech?

The better question is this:

Why do we keep calling ourselves the Best Town Ever?

Doing so is a distortion and half-truth. The title, along with the phrase "NoogaStrong," reflects only a part and portion of this city, our postcard face. Best Town Ever? It seems callous. When a man is clinging to a life raft, you do not keep speaking of the caviar onboard the yacht.

Within the Best Town Ever, many have unraveled into what has been called a permanent underclass.

Within the Best Town Ever, neighborhoods erode into chaos, and most are black. In some ZIP codes, every third person is out of work, according to the recent NAACP report "The Unfinished Agenda." On some streets, there are more dropouts than graduates. In Alton Park, 75 percent of households live on $25,000 a year or less. In the Southside, the average black family earns $50,000 less than its white neighbor.

Within this Best Town Ever, our talk of job creation and Gig-life has mostly been a white experience. Chattanooga, with our reliance on tourism, has yoked labor with low wages; our renaissance often grows on the backs of service-industry jobs — dishwashers, hotel workers, waiters — that are hourly, often part time, and contain little, if any, economic mobility.

While jobs have grown, the growth is not colorblind. Blacks are almost twice as likely to work in the service industry as whites.

"The highest-paying jobs that require more education and training are filled disproportionally by whites," wrote Dr. Ken Chilton in the NAACP report.

Tennessee has more minimum wage jobs than any state in the nation; Chattanooga seems like the tip of the spear.

"In Chattanooga, the prevalence of low-wage jobs has contributed to the high poverty rate: 27 percent of the city's residents live below the poverty line, compared with 15 percent nationwide," the New York Times reported.

This is NoogaWeak.

NoogaSegregated.

NoogaPoor.

Thursday, as Berke was helping unveil the new MLK Boulevard mural, protesters interrupted his speech, thus making real the activist history and ideals he was memorializing and invoking.

"Justice for Javario!" their signs shouted.

Last month, Javario Eagle was shot eight times by police outside the Emma Wheeler Homes development; police said he was holding a gun and knife. His young daughter was nearby.

Activists complain that the names of police who shot Eagle — unjustly, unnecessarily, they say — have not been released; they claim the city budget vastly over-funds policing instead of programs of social uplift.

Hours later, the Unity Group boycotted the annual MLK Day parade, out of the belief that MLK Boulevard is faux and gilded, an MLK-esque boulevard in name only.

"Our businesses, churches, homes and schools have rapidly dissipated from this once-thriving urban core under the guise of urban planning, renewal, and outright gentrification," Unity leaders said.

Such protest refuses to turn loose of the Best Town Ever, demanding this city match the ideals it espouses.

Such protest brings to light things we want kept in the dark.

Such protest? It can teach us.

So can the violence in Ooltewah.

For the last few weeks, our county has been jarred awake by Ooltewah athletic violence. We ask: How did this happen? How did our leaders allow this to happen?

Part of the answer: We reap what we sow. For years, we have allowed status quo leadership and passivity in the face of urgency and direness to define the ways we approach our schools. We turned a blind eye when we should have yanked the fire alarm.

We refused the warning signs.

It is like some law of social gravity: What comes up, must come down. That which we ignore will always come to light.

Neglect always comes home to roost.

Within our schools.

Within our streets.

David Cook teaches at McCallie School and writes a Sunday column for the Times Free Press. Contact him at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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