There were 20 chairs in the middle of the room waiting to be filled by young men who were ordered to attend by their probation officers.
Behind them sat police officers, social workers and clergy members. In front, almost a dozen speakers waited. Their family members watched on a video feed at a remote location. Before they came in, Public Safety Coordinator Paul Smith instructed the community members in attendance to stand silently and respectively.
The men walked in. We all sat together.
It was the fourth call-in for Chattanooga’s violence reduction initiative, an open-ended initiative where police officers, community leaders and prosecutors confront the individuals thought to be responsible for much of the city’s violence.
The men, all young and black, who filled the chairs saw familiar faces. They saw mug shots of friends and rivals serving time in federal prisons. Prosecutors recounted the names and reputations of each one they had already put behind bars. The attorneys described the unforgiving path of each prosecution: high bond, minor charges rolled together in a federal sentence and no plea deal.
Lt. Todd Royval knew most, if not all, of the men by name. He recounted the recent enforcement actions the police department took against members of the Gangster Disciples. For almost two months this year, GDs were arrested and charged repeatedly for relatively minor offenses because of the group’s role in the city’s rising body count.
“Our message is simple,” Mayor Andy Berke said at the meeting’s outset. “The violence must stop. And if you put down your weapons, we will help you. If you don’t, we’ll go after you and everyone in your group.”
Though planned in advance, the call-in occurred the same week as the fatal shootings of 20-year-old Apprentice Dequan Berry and 24-year-old Kenny Breylon Hall. Two unidentified teenagers were also injured in a Wednesday afternoon shooting outside Washington Hills Recreation Center. And it comes in a year where the number of homicides is up in Chattanooga. Most are the result of black-on-black crime.
The hour-and-a-half-long presentation was staged and rehearsed. Each speaker had a different role to play. Law enforcement spoke of consequences. Community members spoke of redemption.
One speaker was the same age as many of the men. He spoke of the fear he had when he was involved in a gang. He carried guns in his car for protection. And he described the isolation he felt after his younger brother died from stab wounds. The mother of a 2010 shooting victim told them of her daily grief. In intimate detail, she described how their families would be affected by their actions if they continue. She shook their hands; told them, “I love you”; and hugged one.
Some of the men hung their heads. At least one looked unfazed.
One slide that kept reappearing read: “Our community will not tolerate violence. Our community needs you.” It was the same message reiterated by Smith throughout the call-in. The former principal of Howard High School calmly reminded the men that they too are part of that community.
Smith handed them cards with a phone number to get help if they choose to. Since the call-ins began, 61 people have gotten a job. Twenty-three have enrolled in a mentorship program. Nine are taking classes to earn their GEDs.
Later in the evening, the young men ate pizza and compared the information they were given. A police officer nodded in their direction. They’re comparing the intel that’s been gathered on them, he explained. I looked over. Two seemed both amused and alarmed by what they were seeing: a list of offenses they could presumably be charged with.
It’s a cliché, the officer said, but he’d be happy if just one of them calls in for help.
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