They have to leave their neighborhood to play their home games because it’s unsafe. Yet it’s where they have to return to at night.

This sort of put the troubles in the East Knoxville community around Austin-East High School into perspective for me.

Last night, Scott High and Austin-East played a softball double-header at Caswell Park in East Knoxville. The park (which was once the home of the Smokies before they moved to Kodak) is where A-E is playing their home games this season. In light of the recent spate of violence in the vicinity of Austin-East, opposing coaches are understandably reluctant to take their teams to A-E to play. So A-E moved its games a couple of miles away to the edge of the city’s business district near downtown.

The games aren’t being played in the Austin-East neighborhood because A-E realizes opposing coaches (including some from other parts of Knoxville who have refused to play at A-E this season) fear for their kids’ safety if they have to go to that neighborhood to play.

Yet, when the game was over last night, and every other night, those kids from A-E have to go back to that neighborhood that everyone else is increasingly reluctant to go into. They don’t have a choice.

Keon Smith, a senior standout athlete at Austin-East who is headed to Campbellsville University to play football, tweeted something profound after the most recent shooting last week. He said: “Pray that I make it out of Knoxville and onto campus before it’s to late.”

Let that sink in.

Obviously Knoxville isn’t the only city that deals with violence and that has violent neighborhoods. But Knoxville is relatively small, as metropolitan areas go. It isn’t like New York City or Chicago or even Memphis.

Yet something is amiss in East Knoxville. It didn’t start with the spate of deaths involving young people from A-E this year. When the Christian-Newsom murders occurred more than a decade ago — probably the most notorious and gruesome torture-homicide case in Knoxville’s history — they took place on Chipman Avenue just off Cherry Street. When I was a teenager more than 20 years ago, everybody knew that you steered clear of Cherry Street and parts of Magnolia Avenue and other parts of East Knoxville.

But now the violence there has reached a pandemic. And the truest victims are the youth of that neighborhood — the ones who have to leave the neighborhood to play “home” games because their neighborhood is deemed unsafe, yet have to return home to that neighborhood when the sun has set and the game has ended. The ones who are praying that they can get out before they’re the next to wind up dead of a violent crime.

I don’t know what the solution is. It certainly isn’t that police are ignoring East Knoxville. For years, some residents of the neighborhoods on the east side have complained that there is too much of a police presence.

But clearly it’s a problem that the Knoxville Mayor and her administration have to deal with. It’s sad that kids on the west side of town are flourishing while kids on the east side are increasingly afraid to even go to school. And as more and more law-abiding, stand-up citizens who have the ability to move out are getting fed up and doing so, East Knoxville is increasingly left to be run by the gangbangers and drug dealers who have ruined it in the first place.

Some would blame easy access to guns, and that’s obviously a problem. How did 17-year-old Anthony Thompson get a handgun to carry into school last week? Some would blame gang violence, and that’s a huge (and growing) problem. Most crime in East Knoxville is gang-related. Some would blame community and family structure, and that’s a problem, too. East Knoxville is low-income, and way too many kids in those neighborhoods are basically raising themselves.

But, realistically, it’s a combination of all of the above. I don’t know how it’s fixed, but what I know is that those kids at Austin-East High School are just that: kids. They’re kids just like our kids at Oneida High School and Scott High School. When our kids play their kids in basketball, they’re some of the nicest and best-behaved kids we compete against. They aren’t hoodlums and thugs. Some are. Most aren’t. And even those who are, those who are or are becoming part of the problem, they’re kids, too — victims of circumstance; of their surroundings.

And when you look at how kids across town at schools like Farragut and Hardin Valley and Sequoyah and Bearden are absolutely thriving, and compare that to Austin-East where kids can’t even go to school without worrying about being shot, can’t even play a softball game on their own campus because it’s too dangerous … that’s heartbreaking, and it deserves a solution.

I don’t know what that solution is, but I sure am glad I live in rural Scott County, Tenn. It’s a 1-hour drive from Alberta Street to Cherry Street. It might as well be a thousand miles. It’s a different world. And too many who are trapped in that world can’t see hope … they can’t find a way out, don’t have a way out, and so they let that world consume them.

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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