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Let the conversation begin, and continue

I know the world didn’t drastically change late Tuesday afternoon. There was no bump in the earth’s rotation or sudden eclipse of the sun.

But I think we took a small step forward for humanity. Placed a dab of salve on our national wound. Fostered a shared sense of community and togetherness among the hundreds who gathered in Niagara Square.

They came to mourn and honor all of those killed – civilians and police – last week in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas. They came, from all walks of life, to talk, to mingle, to, by their simple presence, make a statement for hope and peace. The idea of #WNYHealsTogether was to reach across the superficial but significant barriers of looks, dress, color, creed, age and orientation that often blind us to our commonality. I think it did.

“This isn’t the answer to everything by any means,” said the Rev. Darius Pridgen. “I think it’s a start to how we need to interact, in order for there to be positive change.”

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Countless people were shocked and distressed by last week’s events. Video of the two black men shot and killed by police under questionable circumstances were emotionally wrenching. Despair doubled down in Dallas, when a black sniper – reportedly in retribution for the earlier shootings – killed five white police officers after a peaceful rally and wounded seven others. America cannot keep traveling down this path.

I felt a need for people to stand together, united against violence and for better mutual understanding. I wrote about holding such a gathering in my Sunday column. I reached out to renowned unifiers Pridgen, Buffalo’s Common Council president, and longtime social justice leader Lana Benatovich to make it happen.

They did, beautifully.

People came to Niagara Square from all walks of life – richer and poorer; black, brown and white; cop and civilian; straight and gay.

In a master stroke, Pridgen declared there would be no speeches, no microphones, no pronouncements that might provoke division instead of cohesion. Just conversation, encouraged among those who’d never met, about who they are and what brought them there.

“It made sure that everyone here was equal,” said Pridgen. “Not black and white, not Republican or Democrat, not Baptist or Jew. Just people, mourning the deaths of other people.”

Shaded by a big-shouldered City Hall, on a sweltering summer afternoon, it seemed to work.

“I think it’s fantastic, we should do these more often,” said Buffalo Police Capt. Steve Nichols, after shaking hands with a woman with a Black Lives Matter button on her shirt. “Just to get a chance to talk to people. We may not remember each other’s names two weeks from now, but knowing and talking to people can only help to defuse situations.”

The sentiment echoed throughout Niagara Square.

“It almost brings me to tears,” said Buffalo’s Danetta Reed, 54, “to see everyone get together like this.”

I don’t want to get too kumbaya about it. An hour of shared conversation – at what essentially was a melting pot of a cocktail party without the alcohol – won’t dampen the suspicion and parse the paranoia that often fosters fear, distrust and violence. But reaching across the usual lines might, just might, make someone more willing to cut others some slack, ease up on the gas, look not at someone else’s clothes or color but into his or her eyes.

“No matter who is right or wrong, every death is a tragedy,” said Cheektowaga Police Lt. Brian Gould. “Coming here, talking to people we don’t know, it brings everyone together, and that’s nothing but a good thing.”

Not only do I think social harmony is possible, I think it’s the reality we – save for sporadic bursts – live with every day. We pass on the street, swarm in hivelike offices, gather in parks and playgrounds, mingle at concerts, rub shoulders at the grocery store. We may not do it hand-in-hand, skipping and clicking heels, but by and large, millions of people go about their business without incident or injury. It’s worth remembering, even as we strive to be better.

What happened last week can either further divide us, or bring us closer together.

Enlarged photos of those killed last week were displayed in the square. At 6 o’clock, the names of those killed in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas were read – in alphabetical order – by separate people, as a bell tolled. Lorne Ahrens. Philando Castile. Michael Krol. Michael Smith. Alton Sterling. Brent Thompson. Patrick Zamarripa. The reading was preceded by an a cappella rendition of “America the Beautiful” by Pridgen’s wife, Monique, with many in the crowd joining in.

Co-organizer Benatovich, president of National Federation for Just Communities, placed what amounted to a benediction on the evening: “Remember yesterday, live for today, and trust each other tomorrow.”

It sounded like words to carry forward, from Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, all the way to Buffalo.