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Forum focuses on inner-city violence

The shooting death of Trayvon Martin in a gated suburban community has galvanized people across the nation in recent weeks, while the challenge of preventing black-on-black violence in some of Buffalo's poorest neighborhoods persists.

"We can think about Florida, but we've got to clean our own backyard, too. We have to focus on Buffalo," said Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, chairwoman of the Erie County Legislature.

That was the premise behind a gathering Wednesday night called "Beyond the Hoodie," held in the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library on Jefferson Avenue and sponsored by the We Are Women Warriors community and family empowerment group.

About 35 citizens participated in an open discussion on the stubborn prevalence of homicides committed by, and mostly against, young black men in Buffalo's inner-city neighborhoods.

"For the last month, we have been focusing on Trayvon Martin of Sanford, Fla.," said Grant, a member of We Are Women Warriors.

Grant was referring to the shooting of an unarmed black Florida teenager dressed in a hooded sweatshirt who was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch leader whose father is white and mother is Hispanic.

Closer to home, there is much to focus on, too, Grant said.

"In 1994, there were 94 homicides in the City of Buffalo. Thank God, we are down to 30, but 30 is still too many. We're not at 1994 [homicide levels], but we should be at zero."

Grant was joined by speakers from local peace and nonviolence organizations, including Jackie Wells, who lost two sons to street violence; Pamela Clark of Stop the Violence Coalition, who also lost two children to homicides; former Masten Council Member David A. Collins; and the Rev. James Giles of Men Empowering Neighborhoods, or MEN.

Clark talked about the culture of street violence into which so many young people have grown up that is fueled by poverty, domestic violence and substance abuse. She joined Stop the Violence in 2002 after one of her sons was killed in street violence.

"When someone takes your child, the first thing you want to do is retaliate, but I had a God in my life. I had a God that said let Him do His will," Clark said."

"So I can go out to these young boys on the corner, and I can talk to them because of the respect that I had [and] because of the way that I carried myself in the street when I was using [drugs]."

Grant and Giles spoke of the need for ordinary citizens to reach out to idle young men, many of whom may be undereducated and unskilled and, as a result, traditionally unemployable and drawn to illegal ways to make a living.

"To try to reduce violence in this community, we've been working at this for a quite a while," Giles said. "One of the challenges we face in the community is [a lack of] unity. not [a lack of] resources, not [a lack of] special programming."

After the meeting, Grant expanded on Giles' observations.

"The one good thing to come out of this is [the idea] of supporting the MEN group run by Elder [James] Giles. That group comprises, maybe, 24 different organizations. They're meeting on a weekly basis in which they attend a breakfast every Saturday, and they're meeting to come up with solutions," Grant said.

"I'm glad to see MEN stepping up. One thing I'm encouraged by is the commitment of that group."

Grant said she thinks what has prevented a better strategy for addressing the problem of street violence among young black men is that every group looking to help fights for its individual piece of the effort instead of joining forces.

"They're all trying to get city, county and state funding," she said. "Some of them are in it for the wrong reason. They're in it for a job or a salary, as opposed to really helping the community."