CCJ speaks out about “Speak No Evil” Series and Forum and the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative
On Thursday, December 19, The Times Free Press will host a forum titled “Speak No Evil: Race, Reconciliation, and Truth-telling” where they promise the opportunity for community members to ask tough questions of city officials from Chattanooga and High Point, NC about the High Point Initiative Model that is being replicated as a crime reduction strategy in Chattanooga and what they believe to be a perception problem between the community and police. We encourage people to attend the forum which will be held at 6 pm at the Bethlehem Community Center in Alton Park, but we also want to be forthright in our opinion that the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative is an extension of the failed “War on Drugs” that has devastated Black communities instead of addressing the systemic roots of crime—poverty resulting from a wholly unequal and unjust economic system with firm roots in white supremacy. More incarceration of Black bodies will not end poverty and may only end crime temporarily as economic inequality continues to worsen and every day the news brings another example of why Black lives have no value to this system.
Many in our community were angered by the Times Free Press’s front page feature article that was accompanied by the mug shots of 32 Black men that Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd had labeled Chattanooga’s “worst of the worst.” At a subsequent NAACP membership meeting, the Times Free Press asked to be given the benefit of the doubt and promised a special upcoming, unbiased investigative series that would be titled the same as the upcoming forum, “Speak No Evil.” It turns out that title of the forum and series, which has it’s own special website, refers to the “no snitching culture” of Chattanooga’s inner city communities and it is on that culture that all blame is placed for violence in those communities. We recognize that there was some surface mentions of the past and recent racist history of Chattanooga and racist actions on the part of the Chattanooga Police Department in the series, but those things are framed as isolated, individual incidents that served to sour relations between the community and police rather than what they really were and are—-part of a larger system that produces and requires economic and racial injustice.
We find it very troubling that the “War on Drugs,” racial sentencing and arrest disparities, police brutality, income and access inequality—racism and poverty— were scarcely addressed while the bulk of investigation and blame fall on the community’s “code of silence.” Will there be a follow-up series on the “Blue Wall of Silence” that results in the overwhelming majority of Internal Affairs investigations of excessive force and police misconduct being found in favor of the police? Even when the series acknowledges past history of police abuse and racism in Chattanooga as a reason people might not trust the police, it comes across as a paternalistic lecture about how the police want to help you solve crimes, but you won’t help them do that because you have a false perception of police as bad people based on the past actions of a few. The problem is that it’s not all in the past and it’s not just a few. It’s systemic.
The tendency to not snitch is not a recent development in a country where the historic roots of police are to be found in the slave patrols of the South and where membership of the Ku Klux Klan and police often over-lapped during the Civil Rights era. The tendency to not snitch did grow in reaction to police infiltration and sabotage of social justice organizations and movements, exemplified by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Project (COINTELPRO). Additionally, the tendency grew in response to police use of false information from snitches in exchange for lesser sentences, a result of “War on Drugs” policies that gave police pay and promotion incentives for more drug arrests. The lack of substantial inclusion of systemic roots of violence and “no snitching culture” leads us to view the “Speak No Evil” series as propaganda for the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative being implemented by the Andy Berke Administration and the Chattanooga Police Department.
And what about the High Point Initiative Model? Essentially, the model works like this: Round up the “worst” drug offenders with records of violent crimes and fast track them to harsh prison sentences with the help of a special prosecutor. Then, gather evidence about the next level of drug dealers under them and offer them interventions and support from the community in exchange for discontinuing crime—we’ll get you groceries and a job if you stop dealing. And data from High Point shows that crime went down and has stayed down, but are there really enough living wage jobs and people willing to give people who want out those jobs in order to offer a real, sustainable, and long-term alternative for large numbers of people trying to survive in an unjust economic system? Even as the social safety net continues to be slashed? Or will crime stay down just long enough for property values in a community to go up and for the current residents to be pushed out through gentrification which history tells us is likely to happen in Chattanooga’s inner city communities? Who specifically are the employers willing to hire and train these young people? Will industries being recruited to Chattanooga be required to assist with this in exchange for the millions in land and tax incentives they are doled out? Or, is this merely a crack-down to alleviate the safety concerns of those companies who want to locate to Chattanooga? If it’s not just another crack-down on Black communities, then when will the city budget reflect that? The Berke Administration’s budget kept the same percentage of the budget for policing as past administrations—more than 25% of the entire city budget. The administration did shift several million dollars in the budget towards his new focus areas and half of that money went to more police and the special prosecutor.
Another aspect of the High Point Model is improvement of police and community relations. The “Speak No Evil” series and a subsequent opinion piece by David Cook, suggests that apologies from the police and shifts of perception will improve relations. The system doesn’t change by merely improving police and community relations. David Cook is on the side of social justice and he rightfully states that the weight of the American criminal justice system is behind police officers and that they should acknowledge that. However, acknowledgment of that power does not change that power. This system doesn’t work for Black people or poor white people and no amount of apologies or niceties alone will change that. Police should apologize. The city should apologize. Make that apology mean something by meeting the community’s demand for an independent Civilian Review Board; by ending the criminal trespassing list that makes communities in public housing feel they are living in apartheid.
Shonda Mason deserves justice for her son. Black lives matter. We all want the shooting to stop. But do we have the will as a city to deal with the truth of poverty and racism and to work on the economic and social justice that is required before crime will stop and before reconciliation can happen? The answer to that question will tell whether or not the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative comes from a deep-seated concern for the loss of Black lives or if it is just another venture in improving Chattanooga’s image and economy at the expense of it’s inner city Black communities.