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MARCHING IN D.C. IS ONE THING; PUTTING MUSCLE BEHIND A HOMETOWN PROJECT IS ANOTHER

Two years after the Million Man March emphasized black economic self-help, the most visible local effort to put that philosophy into practice remains one that predated the massive rally.

Yet if blacks commemorating the march's second anniversary today were left with anything more than rhetoric, they have yet to demonstrate it in any massive way when it comes to Our Market, the project that most epitomizes what the march was all about.

Staying home today and "atoning" is one thing. Showing up Friday and Saturday when organizers of the cooperative supermarket project try to demonstrate community support and apply pressure to City Hall is another.

Not that nothing has happened. Since kicking off a membership drive in June, organizers have gotten more than 100 people to buy the $25 memberships, with the money held in escrow. That's a start.

And after meeting with organizers last week, Mayor Masiello has promised $5,500 to at least keep their effort going. For an organization that has survived for more than two years on nothing more than members' contributions, any little bit helps.

But that election-eve expenditure is a long way from the $2.5 million needed to build the market or the $2.1 million needed to equip and run it. And 100 members is a long way from the minimum of 2,700 needed to make the project fly.

After all of the hoopla surrounding the Oct. 16, 1995, march and its call for self-help, a larger membership might have been expected for the project at Fillmore and East Ferry. The hesitancy indicates many are still trapped in a mind-set that views success as impossible simply because stores in that area failed in the past.

"When I'm out in the street, that's what I hear a lot," says James Blackwell, a Buffalo State College senior whose outlook is not chained to failures of the past.

Blackwell is one of the students handing out flyers on the streets and doing other work to support the project. He's part of Buffalo State's Resurgent City Research Group, a collaboration of urban researchers and their students pushing cooperative economics. The group has been assisting the Our Market board.

Marina McCulley, a Buffalo State graduate student and RESURGE member, hears much the same thing as Blackwell. She finds that she has to explain the cooperative concept and that Our Market "will be our own" and doesn't have to be plagued by the same problems -- real or imagined -- that prompted other stores to abandon the area.

Such community doubts indicate Louis Farrakhan, who organized today's "Day of Atonement," isn't far off when complaining that African-Americans have been brainwashed into viewing black-controlled ventures with the same skepticism that some whites have toward them. That lack of faith in their own people remains one of blacks' greatest sins.

But it's not too late to atone. A second message of the 1995 march was the need for blacks to get politically active to get their fair share. The two -- economic self-help and political equity -- go hand in hand. With that in mind, a voter-registration drive was a key part of the effort.

But voting is not the only way to make politicians respond. Political pressure can be applied in other ways, such as by turning out in force for the Our Market town meeting from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday in Evening Star Church, 1552 Fillmore Ave.

Organizers have invited Masiello, Masten Council Member Byron Brown and other officials. The public will get its chance to question them and find out exactly where they stand on the project. But the meeting is a two-edged sword. It also will be a chance for the politicians to see where the public stands. If the church is empty Friday night, City Hall may well consider itself off the hook.

If that happens, residents will keep paying rip-off prices at delis or driving miles to shop in other neighborhoods. And they will forgo the jobs and spinoff development Our Market would bring.

Of course, since its inception, the project has generated periodic talk of other stores looking at the area. Now, Masiello says, another company is doing so again. But the community has heard that many times before. As Masiello notes, "the only legitimate business plan we have right now is Our Market's."

Project organizers have done their part. They've volunteered time, money and facilities and met weekly for two years to move the venture. Their latest effort is this weekend's Harvest Festival, featuring Friday's town meeting and activities at the site Saturday, including a farmers' market, games and a noon "speak-out" rally.

That will be followed by cultural activities and a cooperative community dinner and membership meeting at the Community Action Organization, 735 Humboldt Parkway, and a live jazz fund-raiser Saturday night at O'Boy's, 3250 Bailey Ave.

All of these events will occur between today's commemoration of the Million Man March and the Million Woman March scheduled for Oct. 25.

That provides ample time to ponder what blacks have been marching for. If the East Side doesn't get behind Our Market, it might as well just march out to North Buffalo or the suburbs and hand its money to the merchants out there.

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