Monday evening, just hours after holding a press conference in which he discussed multiple shootings over the weekend, Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher arrived at the East Lake Youth and Family Development Center and began shaking hands.
He smiled, gave each extended palm a firm grip, and took selfies with grinning pre-teens.
Fletcher was there, along with City of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, City Councilman Chris Anderson, members of the Chattanooga Fire Department, church leaders, and dozens of local citizens to take part in the April CommUNITY Walk through the East Lake neighborhood. The press release announcing the event said the walks, organized by Fletcher, “bring police and citizens together to learn more about one another and to build stronger relationships.”
But it was more than a meet-and-greet, it was a statement. In March, East Lake was the location of a shooting police believe was part of an ongoing gang dispute. Like other neighborhoods throughout Chattanooga, East Lake is no stranger to violence. But Monday evening, it became acquainted with hope.
Before the walk began, Mayor Berke stood before the crowd and articulated the purpose of the event. As he often does, he used words that captured both the truth of the moment and the bigger picture in Chattanooga. “The people who choose to disobey the law don’t own this city,” he said, “we do, and that’s what makes this city great.”
It was then time for everyone to take to the streets. What a sight it was. Policemen, firemen, and city officials walked alongside teens, the elderly, African Americans, whites, and a mother pushing a baby in a carriage. They ambled down the center of the street that runs past the Development Center, chatting about how the rain had stopped just in time, and how the violence needs to end.
During his brief speech, Mayor Berke mentioned how gang shootings are down. Progress has been made. But he also said the job isn’t done. “It’s not enough to have three shootings in a neighborhood this year instead of the four we had last year,” he said, speaking hypothetically. “We have to make sure everyone feels safe.”
The people of Chattanooga aren’t there yet. Shootings still take place at an alarming rate. Week after week, someone has the audacity to point a gun at another human being and pull the trigger. Life is cheap; drug turf is sacred.
But with each step, the people who took part in the walk reclaimed lost ground. They said, “This street, and the neighborhood, belong to us. This house we’re walking past belongs to the people who live inside of it. It belongs to the children, the parents, and the grandparents who made it their home, not to the criminals who turned these streets into a warzone.”
Will the simple act of walking down a street make it safer? Probably not. But a community joined together in singular purpose can, and to that end, the CommUNITY Walks are a success. They’re more than an act of protest; they’re an expression of optimism and courage, and within that communal experience, a bond is being formed that someday could have the power to stop bullets.
So, when the next CommUNITY Walk rolls around, join in, no matter where it takes place. Chattanooga isn’t a collection of isolated compounds, divided by community lines; it’s one city, united in intent. Go, walk beside your neighbors, and help them take back the streets.
For more photos, pick up a copy of the Hamilton County Herald.