Roy Exum: About ‘Speak No Evil’

Monday, December 16, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

“Snitches get stitches” is what we learned yesterday when the Chattanooga Times Free Press included an unprecedented 8-page section in its Sunday editions that peeled away one sordid layer after another on our city’s tragic black-on-black shooting epidemic. The marvelous work, entitled “Speak No Evil,” explains in a bold way why a staggering 58 percent of 300 shootings in Chattanooga since 2011 remain unsolved with no arrests made.

Even better, the epic coverage by writers Joan Garrett McClane and Todd South revealed how Mayor Andy Berke’s administration will utilize an initiative similar to what brought about a huge change in High Point, N.C., in a quest to find a common-sense solution in “a city where it’s not hard to shoot a person, even kill someone, and get away with it.”

In all the years I’ve read and studied Chattanooga newspapers, I have never seen anything to equal “Speak No Evil” and I believe it is a journalistic masterpiece. It took an exhaustive nine months to prepare, with more than 150 people interviewed, countless hours of study and research, and dogged determination by many other staffers, photographers, media experts and graphic designers.

Candidly, I have grown tired and callused of reading one story after another of gang members who seemingly ignore poverty and illiteracy while flagrantly shooting each other to pieces but I was so inspired by the newspaper’s achievement I believe it ought to be “required reading” in every junior high and high school in our region. It will become an invaluable tool for our city’s progress and its future.

The lead story centers around the desperation of Shondra Mason as she tries to find out who shot and killed her 18-year-old son, this just three years after he was shot in the stomach and steadfastly refused to assist any police investigation. There is an unwritten code in Chattanooga’s black community where any witnesses “don’t remember,” “don’t know,” or “didn’t see anything.”

The reason is harsh – the black community doesn’t trust the police. Instead the gangs dispense their own justice and the violence has become a top priority for Mayor Berke’s leadership team in its corporate-like approach to government. Now we know why the “worst of the worst” roundup just netted 32 criminals who definitely don’t need to be on the streets.

Now we can see what the next steps might be in building an aura of mutual respect, where churches and other groups can actually help those on the fringe to “join normal society like the rest of us. Get a job. Raise your kids.”

The newspaper, taking a hero’s step in the effort to confront the horror, will sponsor a “Forum on Race, Reconciliation and Truth Telling” this Thursday at the Bethlehem Community Center. Located at 200 West 38th St. near the Alton Park community, the meeting will begin at 6 p.m. and will address the divide between inner-city residents and the Chattanooga Police Department, as well as other law enforcement agencies.

“We expect the conversation to be honest and raw and perhaps uncomfortable,” the newspaper’s editor, Alison Gerber, wrote in her column yesterday. “It may not look pretty, but it is necessary.

“Shootings don’t happen in most Chattanooga neighborhoods. And it’s easy to look away, to say it’s not my problem and it doesn’t affect me. But when lives are being senselessly lost, when people are suffering,” she wrote, “it’s a newspaper’s responsibility to find out why.”

Pam Sohn, the Times Page Editor, pointed out in her Sunday editorial, “We really have two cities – the Chattanooga we aspire to be, and the Chattanooga so divided by race and poverty that the boundaries are even geographical” and she is right.

Part of her editorial read, “… Mayor Berke has put money and work on a problem that largely has just gotten lip-service from past administrations. Berke has even allocated money for the services of a special federal prosecutor.

“Berke says he knows the effort must be a sustained one. One or two roundups will make a dent, but replacement criminals will bloom and flourish if concentrated surveillance wanes … We have to do this and keep doing it, Berke says. And he’s right. Along the way,” wrote Sohn, “we’ll have the opportunity to knit our two Chattanoogas into one.”

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