The men stand on the corner of Delavan and Grider, keeping a watchful eye over the steady stream of foot traffic in the heart of the East Side, ground zero for some of the city’s worst drug activity and violence.
Each afternoon, this intersection is a main thoroughfare for hundreds of young people trying to make their way safely home from school. The corner also used to be the turf of drug dealers, targeting those students as potential recruits or clients.
Murray Holman wouldn’t have it.
So the executive director of the Stop the Violence Coalition assembled an army of volunteers from several community groups to take back the city’s corners.
“Our main concern is stopping the drug activity and violence that is ruining this community,” Holman said.
The effort is just the latest outreach attempt by Stop the Violence in partnership with several other community groups, including Mad Dads and the Buffalo PeaceMakers.
The groups run programs to mediate disputes and prevent violence in the community. That includes several that specifically target students, who all too often get caught up in the crime that plagues Buffalo.
When those efforts fail, they offer counseling and support.
“We do all the funerals,” said Matthew Brown, a member of Buffalo PeaceMakers, noting that each year they minister at about 50 services.
“I’m tired of going to funerals,” he added.
This latest preventive outreach started at the beginning of the school year when Holman and others noticed the high level of drug activity in the busy corridors that students pass through either walking or catching city buses. They set up shop in six of the busiest.
On any given day, the stretch along Delavan Avenue bustles with hundreds of junior high and high school students making their way home.
The men know precisely when school dismisses at the nearby Math, Science and Technology Preparatory School because one boy runs down Delavan to catch the first bus out of the area. That way he can outrun any potential trouble.
Holman and his crew stand on the corner passing out chips and drinks to students, a small but kind gesture that helps build a relationship.
“Even the hardest kid will come up for one,” Holman said.
As the young people approach, he greets them and strikes up a conversation.
“What’s up gentlemen,” he says. “Stayin’ out of trouble?”
He asks one young man how he likes the principal at his school. With another, he inquires about a recent job interview.
Part of the effort is to set an example to counter the presence of the drug dealers. Men like Holman and Brown show the students there is another path they can take, and that there are people in the community who will listen to them and protect them.
There are times the men need to run interference for young people who succumb to poor decision making. Earlier this school year, a 17-year-old student got into minor trouble with police for stealing a packet of cookies from the nearby gas station. Holman intervened, de-escalating the situation.
“It could have turned into a Ferguson,” Holman said, addressing the potential for tension between young people and the police. “It could have escalated to that level.”
On one recent day, the men monitored a group lingering at the gas station, fearing they might try to start trouble.
One of the young men bristles as they approach, gesturing as if he wants to start a fight.
He quickly backs down, but this won’t be their last encounter. Holman suspects this young man needs more guidance than they can offer in this brief moment on the corner, with the young man’s peers around.
“We’ll head him up at the school and catch him off guard,” Holman said, “when he’s not trying to impress somebody.”
Months into the groups’ effort, those in the community are beginning to see changes. Older men having coffee at a nearby McDonald’s used to leave as soon as school let out, looking to avoid potential trouble.
Now, many linger a while longer.
“It’s getting much better,” said Morris Johnson, who has seen the toll violence takes in his five decades living in this neighborhood.
Just a few months ago, his nephew was shot a few blocks from the gas station where Holman and his crew now regulate.
“I’ve seen everything,” Johnson said. “It touches all of us. If you’re walking down the street, you might be a bystander.”
The students eventually trickle away, either on foot or on the last of the buses to come through the intersection.
Once they’re gone, the men have one last duty before leaving the corner. They link arms and pray together.
“We just keep hoping and praying,” said PeaceMaker Rudolphus Bones.
They pray for salvation of the most concrete kind, for themselves and the young people trying to make it through these streets safely.
They pray for the strength to continue this work they have started.
And they pray it will somehow have an impact on their city.