They walk the Walden Galleria on weekend nights, looking for roving clusters of teens getting out of hand.
They patrol Chippewa Street on some nights, keeping an eye on the young people who may be up to no good.
They work the Gus Macker basketball tournament as well as the Juneteenth Festival, stopping to talk to young people and keeping tensions from rising.
They are not cops. They don’t carry badges or weapons.
But they have been instrumental over the last eight years in curtailing violence in Buffalo and some inner-ring suburbs, according to local police. They call themselves Buffalo Peacemakers.
They are primarily fathers, but some mothers, too, who patrol potential trouble spots to help curb the behavior of sometimes-unruly teens.
“There may be 200 kids out here,” Dwayne Ferguson said, his eyes on a few stragglers entering the Galleria’s Regal Cinemas on a recent weekend night. “They come in early and buy tickets for a later movie. We make sure that once the movie starts, there is no movie-hopping. If we see them texting or changing seats while the movie is on, we’ll give them one warning.”
On this Saturday night at the Galleria, there were no incidents, and Ferguson, who is 52, spent much of the time with two fellow Peacemakers, the Rev. Derren Young, 56, a Baptist minister, and Evelyn Vazquez, 34.
“When they see us, they know,” Young said. “They’ve been seeing us do this work now for some years. They know we’re not about trouble, but we’re not about nonsense either.”
Police welcome the Peacemakers and say they’ve made a difference.
“They recognize the players and intervene before the situation boils over,” said Cheektowaga Police Capt. James Speyer Jr. “They know the people from the street, their signals and their colors. They understand who is feuding, who gets along and the dynamics of the street.”
“They’re like the United Nations,” Buffalo Police Lt. Steve Nichols added. “They can slip right into a crowd to make sure things don’t get out of control and nobody gets violent. It’s really kind of cool to watch. It seems to be working for everybody.”
What’s more, many of the teenagers also welcome the Peacemakers, who are easily identified by their brightly colored T-shirts and black jackets with Peacemaker insignia.
“We’re safer when they’re here,” said 16-year-old Tiara Johnson, a student at Maritime Charter School, who was one of three young women on their way to the movie “Ride Along” Friday night at the Walden Galleria. “I’d rather have a lot of them here. Everybody is not in their right mind. Everybody is not stable.”
Leonard Lane, one of the Peacekeepers, said the beauty of the partnership is that the youth often consider elders like himself, Ferguson, Young and Vazquez as non-threatening authority figures who are “part of the fabric” of their community – like parents away from home. That helps them to relate ... and, to pay them mind.
“It’s like they’re coming over to your house without their parents,” Lane said of the youths – many of whom flood the Cheektowaga mall and theater areas from the City of Buffalo on the weekends. “By us knowing our own kids, who can best help them?”
Buffalo Peacemakers is a coalition of six anti-violence groups – Back to Basics, Buffalo United Front, F.A.T.H.E.R.S., MAD DADS, No More Tears and the Stop the Violence Coalition. The coalition was loosely formed in the early 2000s, patterned after nationally recognized gang intervention programs in Boston, Providence, R.I., and Stockton, Calif.
Its 150 members are leaders in their own neighborhoods – mothers, fathers, pastors, laborers – who quietly make a difference in the lives of teenagers and their families. Ferguson is president of MAD DADS. Young and Vazquez are associated with Stop the Violence Coalition, and Lane is associated with F.A.T.H.E.R.S.
“Right now we’ve got them on street patrols, talking to people,” Lt. Nichols said. “They have a lot better tie with the community, so they’re out there to see if they can find out what’s going on.”
The Peacekeepers first appeared in 2005 at Buffalo’s Juneteenth Festival, which marks the Emancipation Proclamation.
“It had gotten to the point where no one wanted to work Juneteenth because it was too violent. It was nonstop,” said Nichols, who heads Buffalo’s Community Police Division. “Then one year, we wound up with three or four shootings. Juneteenth was the place that gangs went to strut in front of a crowd.”
Buffalo police invited the Peacemakers to Juneteenth in Martin Luther King Park to help stop the violence. The group attended their first Juneteenth en masse, arriving 50 strong to patrol the park. They identified 90 troublemakers, who were then escorted off the grounds, Nichols recalled.
“We made a really big dent in Juneteenth,” Ferguson said. “Right in the park during the parade there used to be shootings, stabbings and people getting robbed. That doesn’t go on anymore at Juneteenth.”
Since then, Peacemakers have been a calming influence at many other public events, including First Night and at the Independence Day celebration in Cheektowaga.
They are also called by relatives of murder victims to provide security at crime vigils and at graveside services.
The Peacemakers’ connection to the community allows them to “hear things” on the street and intercept trouble before it starts, Ferguson said.
They even get approached by youths with advance information of possible problems, so they can avert trouble early.
The key mission of their presence, whether at Juneteenth or the Galleria, Ferguson stressed, is “safety.”
It’s what they want. It’s what the police want. It’s what the youth want.
“They want to be safe, too,” Ferguson said of the youth. “That’s the most important thing.”
And the teens interviewed at the Galleria for this story agreed.
Tiara and schoolmate Kayla Gray McKnight, 17, are aware of the horrors that have befallen movie theaters around the country – and even some of the nasty melees that have broken out locally in the recent decade.
It’s what makes them appreciate the Peacemakers all the more.
“It makes me feel comfortable because we know they can handle the situation,” Kayla explained.
Added Imani Alexander, a 16-year-old student from Global Concepts Charter School: “They keep calm.”
Once-rowdy youth are now few and far between because the Peacemakers are on sentry Friday and Saturday nights as well as on major holidays, explained Eric Westmoreland, an 18-year-old Bennett High School student.
“They aren’t going to do nothing because they don’t want to go to jail,” Westmoreland said of sometimes-rowdy teenagers.
“You come up here and there are no problems or nothing. They don’t have problems anymore.”
Some of the Peacemakers have a presence of their own. Like Murray Holman.
Holman stands 6 feet, 7 inches and goes by the nickname “Six.”
He is a big man with a lot of heart who knows firsthand the sting of losing loved ones to violence.
His brother Lamont “Monty” Holman was 45 when he was killed in a bizarre accident last April, when a car he was hanging onto crashed in a drug-infested block on Cambridge Avenue.
In August 2010, Holman’s 61-year-old father-in-law, Joseph Washington, was fatally shot in the 1400 block of Main Street near Glenwood Avenue.
As a teenager growing up on Goodyear Avenue, Holman said he had a peace maker in his life. It was the 1980s, and Holman was ready to join the newly formed Goodyear Crew, which would become one of the city’s most notorious gangs.
“I was in the midst of joining, but I ended up playing basketball at South Park High School. Pastor [James] Giles was my mentor. He was a key in my life. He actually passed the torch on in a way. The same stuff he taught me I’m using now.”
Giles, who founded Back to Basics Outreach Ministries in 1994, is administrative director of the Peacemakers. Like many of his colleagues, Giles believed much of the recent violence is caused by gang retaliation.
“When there is a disagreement or feud between different groups in a neighborhood, this retaliatory thing seems to happen,” Giles said. “When we find out it is gang-related, we reach out to the individuals to resolve the conflict. Even if the homicide was drug related, we try to get them to cooperate with police. We try and give them alternatives. It offers them a way to save face.”
Fourth of July, Gus Macker
Gang violence marred Cheektowaga’s Fourth of July celebrations a couple of times in recent years, according to Speyer. But the last few years were without incident. Peacemakers were at least part of the reason.
“We were having problems until we got the fathers’ group involved,” Speyer said. “The fathers’ group has been instrumental in heading off violent situations before they even happen.”
It’s not just a point of pride for Lane and other Peacemakers, it’s their mission.
“We want to make sure what happened in Los Angeles ... in Colorado ... in Florida doesn’t happen here,” Lane said. “The only way to make that happen is to be pro-active.”
The Gus Macker basketball tournament – the two-day, three-on-three competition in late June that draws thousands of players and spectators to downtown Buffalo – also has been marred by some fights, but then experienced the mitigating influence of the Peacemakers.
“We do Gus Macker every year,” said Holman, who is also executive director of Stop the Violence.
“And we walked Chippewa on New Year’s Eve until 2:30 a.m. We pick out the guys who might cause trouble."
But Peacemakers do more than patrol.
Grief counseling, job placement and dispute resolution are services offered by Peacemakers.
“They listen to us because we have credibility in the neighborhood from going to prayer vigils and homicides,” Holman said.
Formerly an all-volunteer organization, Peacemakers staff members now earn a stipend, thanks to funding announced by Mayor Byron W. Brown in August 2013, when he formally launched the violence prevention program. The funding plan provides for $200,000 from the City of Buffalo, $200,000 from the John R. Oishei Foundation and $100,000 from the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation.
At the Galleria
Over the years, some movie houses in the area have become magnets for teens bent on mischief or worse. Christmas Day in particular has attracted sellout audiences of youth to multiplex cinemas in Niagara Falls, Cheektowaga or Buffalo, and sometimes the movie theaters were marred by brawling teenagers.
“Usually in the months of January, February and March – the winter time – when kids really have nowhere else to go – there used to be roving packs of loosely knit gangs that would kind of intimidate the shoppers and put people in fear,” Speyer said.
Much of that stopped when Buffalo Peacemakers stepped in.
At the Galleria, Peacemakers act as a buffer between Cheektowaga police and city teens who may face arrest if they act up at the theaters, Holman said.
“This year on Christmas, we didn’t have incidents like other places did,” Holman said. “These kids don’t care about the movie. All they want to do is raise havoc.”
Matt Bader, general manager at the Galleria, described the service provided by the Peacemakers as exceptional. On one recent Saturday evening, a handful of Peacemakers stationed by the ticket-taker watched as young moviegoers made their way into the cinemas.
“We’re looking for underage youth who act up,” Ferguson said. “What we do is stop them and ask them to behave like ladies and gentlemen. We check backpacks for weapons or liquor. If they were being unruly or disrespectful, we would ask them to leave.”
If the disruptive teens do not leave, Cheektowaga police step in and remove them.
“The Peacemakers single out the leaders and tell them they can’t be there,” Speyer said. “We ask them to leave the mall if they won’t comply with the rules.”
News Staff Reporter T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org