Everyone Wants Freedom. Meet the Men Breaking Chains Across the City.

Welcome to Taco Tuesday.

Everyone Wants Freedom. Meet the Men Breaking Chains Across the City.
Jamichael Caldwell, Troy Rogers, Nate Carter, Dylan Bryant, Correy Craddock, Westside, Tenn.

Welcome to Taco Tuesday.

"I want to be free."

Once, Nate Carter begins, a man bought a birdcage. Inside, it was full of birds, but the birds were all locked up in this cage.

That's why he bought it.

Spent his own money, just to be able to release them.

So, he took the cage outside, opened the door. But the birds wouldn't fly away. They stayed in the cage. Scared. Why?

Because they didn't know anything else but the cage.

The man had an idea. He gently put his hand out. One by one, the birds perched on his hand, then, flew away.

Carter turns, looks straight at me.

"That's all it takes," he said. "A helping hand."

We are sitting on a bench inside the Westside rec-center when he tells this story. All around him, caged birds: teenagers, young Black males, good, smart kids, but caught in one of the poorest, most desperate zip codes in the city, if not the entire South.

When you live in a neighborhood with an average annual income of not even $12,000 and you can't name one nearby adult who's gone to college – not graduated, just stepped foot on the campus – and the prison pipeline flows like a river right under your feet, then what else is life but a cage?

Carter looked around at them, playing ball, cutting up. He paused again, knowing what's outside that rec center door.

"What happens if they don't have anyone to open the cage?" he asked.

Taco Tuesday, Westside, Tenn.

Every Tuesday night in the Westside, Carter and a group of men called the 423 Chain Breakers – "breaking the chains of negativity" – host an unsung, underground event called Taco Tuesday.

Teenagers come for dinner.


And fellowship.

Taco Tuesday, Westside, Tenn.

The food is rich, hot, loaded with cheese and meat, heavy in calories. It sticks to the ribs, especially when those ribs may only see $12,000 a year.

Beyond the burritos, spaghetti and hot chicken wings, there is something more nourishing. Something that sticks to the heart.

"Hope," said Carter.

Somebody's opening the cage.

Taco Tuesday, Westside, Tenn.

Taco Tuesday begins with Veronica Glasco, or, "Miss V."

"I cook every Tuesday," she said. "Tacos, chicken wings, fries, salad, chicken Alfredo, finger sandwiches, burritos, spaghetti. But I also like to ask: what do they like to eat?"

"Miss V" is a community center specialist for the city of Chattanooga. Last fall, the Chain Breakers approached her about this idea.

"There was a need," she said.

"Miss V" has that no-nonsense, boundless-heart and open-arms aura. Folks are drawn to her.

"Miss V" and Riley, Westside, Tenn.

And young Riley, too.

"I'm six and a half," she said.

Riley, Taco Tuesday, Westside, Tenn.

You won't see headlines on Taco Tuesday. No elected officials. But inside? Mighty, unyielding work is happening based on an old formula:

Attention and love can change lives.

Miss V emerges from the rec center kitchen.

"Hold the ball," she says ... and only says it once.

They all huddle up. "Most gracious God," she begins, "continue to watch over us. We thank you dear Lord and we are grateful for the ones here to tonight. Continue to watch over them and their families."

Then, she and the men – the Chain Breakers – begin to serve the food.

"We let them fill up their bellies," said Dylan Bryant, a Chain Breaker. "We give them enough food to also take home to their family."

The Chain Breakers are a group of Black men working all-day-every-day as violence interrupters for the city. They do many things, but all of them boil down to this: love and attention.

"Breaking the chains of negativity," said Bryant. "Striving for positive change."

Violence interrupters are used across the country; under former mayor Andy Berke's Violence Reduction Initiative, the city implemented violence interrupters as a form of focused deterrence. The Chain Breakers are the newest version of this work.

On Friday, the Kelly administration announced a new plan that would increase Chain Breakers' presence downtown during the summer months.

Food as a Verb thanks Tucker Build, our sustaining partner, for its generous support.

Tucker Build offers Chattanooga a commercial construction firm made up of design-build experts specializing in the planning, building and managing process.

"We all know poverty and violence are a powder keg. We hope these young men grow up with each other and that will bring peace," Bryant said. "With peace, we bring change."

These are the Chain Breakers.

This man, Jamichael Caldwell.

Jamichael Caldwell, Chattanooga, Tenn.

This man, Dylan Bryant.

Dylan Bryant, Chattanooga, Tenn.

This man, Nate Carter.

Nate Carter, Chattanooga, Tenn.

And this man, Correy Craddock.

Corey Craddock, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Each man came from these same streets; with a combined 50 years of incarceration, the Chainbreakers know – intimately, painfully – the feeling of the cage.

And freedom from it.

"They relate to us," said Bryant.

"A lot of us have been there," said Caldwell. "We know what broken promises are."

The details don't matter now except for this: each Chain Breaker, once imprisoned, is now transformed and free. Their cage door opened and today, they travel across town, wherever the need, like Batmen, phones blowing up non-stop: help.

"We had a call last Thursday. Some guys were about to load up. There'd been a homicide the day before," said Troy Rogers, the city of Chattanooga's public safety coordinator who oversees the Chain Breaker program.

"So, Dylan and Nate head over. They shut it down. Talk to the guys. No more bloodshed," Rogers said.

Troy Rogers, Chain Breakers, Westside, Tenn.

Nobody else could have walked into that scene. Not the mayor, not the chief, nobody else but somebody trusted, who once held the trigger, too.

"I've been in that situation. I know what it leads to. I try to bring out the best in who they are," Carter said. "You don't have to go down that path. I've been there, I know what's down there."

On Taco Tuesdays, food is a form of violence reduction. So is. basketball.

"We put these kids together on one common ground to peacefully resolve things. All different gangs, sets and schools," said Bryant. "They don't get to be on the same team. We split them up. They learn to work with other kids."

Basketball shifted to tug of war. Each side, pulling, straining over this one heavy rope; the moment felt symbolic, these young Black men caught in so many wars, so much tugging, so many forces trying to pull them across the line.

"We keep them out of jail," said Bryant. "We want to take their guns and give them jobs, resources, mental health. Certain life skills, building blocks, trades, auto mechanics, mental health. They can make honest living. An alternative."


The Chain Breakers call, text, visit, uplift, console, encourage, befriend, advise and enlighten. They work out, eat at JJ's Fish and Chicken, study.

They run grief groups. Discuss books. Lift weights. They speak at schools – Dalewood, McCallie, Tyner, UTC this fall – with such power, truth and heart.

Bryant mentors Jaquez Poole, a 17-year old.

"I put him up under my wing. I treat him like my own. If he's hungry, I feed him out of my own pocket," he said.

Jaquez was in a grief group at school when Bryant came to visit.

"It gives me a good feeling. He didn't even know me and he's willing to help me," Jaquez said.

I ask about college.

"Yes sir," he said. "I love math. Engineering. Real estate's in my future."

Nothing Jaquez can throw at Bryant will shake him; he's seen it all. The Chain Breakers' past is their superpower.

Jamichael Caldwell, Troy Rogers, Nate Carter, Dylan Bryant, Jaques Poole, Westside, Tenn.

"Selling drugs and robbing," said Bryant. "When I turned 17, I was locked up."

He spent more than 14 years in prison, with two full years in solitary confinement. His single prison cell was eight strides long with one window.

"I could tell what time of day it was by where sun hit the grass," he said.

He played both sides of a chess board. Read books, like The Alchemist and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Wrote poetry. Got his GED, started credits for associate's degree until funding ran out.

Allowed to shower twice a week. "Tuesdays and Thursdays," he said. Spent 23 1/2 hours a day in a cell, with 30 minutes of outside air.

Often, he wouldn't take it.

"They call it a dog cage, similar to what you see in a vet," he said. "I was always shackled."

Dylan Bryant, isolation, federal prison. (Contributed photo).

Those two years? He woke up.

"I got to know myself," he said. "It took that long to get my mind right."

Released in 2017, he came home, took showers whenever he wanted, went to the grocery store at all hours of the day. Red rose bushes, rain on the horizon, grated cheese on pizza. It all ... bloomed.

"My sense of smell was heightened," he said.

He met Rogers, who was already working with Caldwell, one of Bryant's old friends.

Join us, Rogers said. Let's save the lives of these young men.

Chain Breakers, Westside, Tenn.

Caldwell graduated Brainerd High and played football at Tusculum Univ. and now owns Caldwell Cleaning Solutions. He's a father to his daughter and a stand-in father to 100s of young men across the city.

"Why do I show up? I love the work," he said. "Just seeing you're changing lives. Being able to be somebody for them."

Caldwell prioritizes consistency. Sometimes, all it takes is one man to show up for that chain link to soften.

"They've had so many broken promises in their lives," he said. "I'm consistent. I show them that I care."

On the night before standardized testing in April, the Chain Breakers serve Domino's and wings inside Craddock's Gotta Eat Lounge on Glass Street. A dozen or so kids show up, elementary, middle and high schoolers.

Caldwell circles everybody up.

"We always start off with a check-in," he said. "How are you doing? How are you feeling?"

He goes first.

"Right now, I'm a 10. I'm here, I'm alive, I'm happy to be here with ya'll."

Some stay quiet, some open up, unloading stresses and fears: school work, peer pressure, family life. The adults discuss decision-making, impulse control, choosing the right kind of friends.

"When you see us, I want you to see a figure that you can admire and hold accountable," Bryant said. "I want you to see somebody acting noble. I want you to know you can rely on somebody."

The words are precious, diamonds in a desert. Everyone there – child to Chain Breaker – is affected.

"Means the world to me because I'm helping people," Craddock said. "I'm setting an example for other people like me."

"In my chest? In my heart? It feels wonderful. Being a good person."

This is the vision of Rogers, who knows that poverty, as Gandhi said, is the worst form of violence. Chain Breaker work allows everyone involved to be reborn and transformed.

"Nobody is born bad," he said. "But if all you see is violence and death, what will you do?"

All these shooters? Gang-bangers? Rogers begs Chattanooga to perform a "socio-economic autopsy" on their lives.

"A murderer is not born. He is manufactured. He is manufactured by what he doesn't have," he said. "Open him up. Love is gone. Fathers are gone. Trauma is there. Illiteracy is there. Mental illness is there. A lack of resources is there."

This is the cage.

"What do you think they'll do if that's all they know?" he asks.

Today, just like yesterday and tomorrow, four men will keep showing up across the city, doing whatever they can, wherever they can, to unlock and unbind the chains around them.

Then, he had an idea. The man gently put his hand out. One by one, the birds perched on his hand, then, flew away.

"I want to be free," said Carter.

All photography by Sarah Unger (sarah@foodasaverb.com)

All design by Alex DeHart

All words by David Cook (david@foodasaverb.com)

Story ideas, questions, feedback? Interested in sponsorship or advertising opportunities? Email us: david@foodasaverb.com and sarah@foodasaverb.com

This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

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