A local newspaper columnist in his Sunday column earlier this month questioned if last weekend’s two-day Peace Summit would work, largely because one of its key organizers was Sharif Willis.
Willis, who finished a 25-year prison sentence, hopes to resuscitate a “street organization” like United for Peace, which started in the early 1990s but fizzled out after a Minneapolis police officer was killed in a South Minneapolis restaurant and four gang members were later charged and convicted of the crime.
New Salem Baptist Church in North Minneapolis hosted last weekend’s summit, co-sponsored by several groups including His Works United, a group of local ministers and pastors that raised $35,000 for the event. Included were current and former gang members, clergy, children, and other community folk of all ages. Due to the audience’s constant movement in and out of the event, an accurate count of participants was not possible.
Something has to be done about street violence in Minneapolis, said Rev. Billy Russell, pastor of Greater Friendship Baptist Church and Minnesota State Baptist Convention president. “Our community is afraid. We got to deal with the issue and bring peace. If we don’t, people wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.
“Nobody should have to live in fear,” said Russell. “There are people in this community who are afraid to leave home.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who was quoted in the aforementioned article, said in an MSR phone interview prior to the summit that Willis deserves a chance to be a peace broker. “I got to know Sharif. I was hoping that United for Peace would work.”
National Newspaper Press Association (NNPA) head Ben Chavis and legendary singer Stevie Wonder both accepted invitations as keynote speakers at last week’s Peace Summit. Both spoke separately but delivered similar messages: It’s not just the police who are killing Blacks; Blacks are killing each other as well.
“If we all work together, we can find solutions,” Chavis told the MSR after his nearly one-hour speech. “We shouldn’t have divisions among organizations,” including the so-called “street organizations,” he pointed out.
Wonder, on the other hand, publicly offered a $1 million challenge to any community — Minneapolis or anywhere else — to stay violence-free for one year. “You are your brother’s keeper [and] your mother and father’s keeper,” he told the half-full New Salem sanctuary before his two-song mini-concert. “It is your responsibility, your commitment…to make a difference. If everyone thinks this way, it will happen.”
Afterward, the MSR asked Wonder where he got his optimistic attitude. “Because that’s how God made me,” he responded matter-of-factly. “There is always something more that can be said. I am excited that there are these peace conferences. We have to make a difference, and we will. I know we can. I say we will.”
“Saving our children” must be the goal, stressed longtime community activist Spike Moss, also a key summit organizer. “We shouldn’t be participating in our own demise. I will admit that the family breakdown is in the midst of this.
“Too many children without father figures. Too many women don’t know how to be mothers and take control. These children are growing up without church, without God, without Jesus… We’re facing a bigger problem. I never seen us at this level where we hate each other the way we hate each other now,” said Moss.
“We deserve genuine peace,” said Minneapolis Urban League President Steven Belton, who spoke at the summit’s opening session last Friday. That session was overshadowed by the Jeronimo Yanez acquittal early that afternoon.
Anthony Scott of St. Paul, a former gang member, said he joined a gang in Chicago at age 14. “It was more my environment. I chased these guys down and forced myself on them. I saw the love and the fellowship they had and I wanted that. I wanted to feel love.”
Scott’s life finally turned around after serving time in prison for second-degree drug possession, where he found God. He is committed to “see what the reasons are why these killings are going on” in both cities.
Freeman said, “We don’t always resolve things, but talking with folk and trying to jointly work for peace is good.”
Willis often stressed his commitment to resolution — sometimes forcefully — throughout the two-day summit. “We’re planting seeds,” he told the MSR. “You don’t resolve something that has been entrenched for such a long time in five minutes. Hopefully, we can start to grow a process, grow a movement, and instill confidence and a community in people.”
Responding to naysayers, Willis pointed out, “White folk think what White folk think. Does any one of these individuals live in North Minneapolis? They live in Edina or Minnetonka or someplace foreign.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.