Community activists — including a Vice Lords leader who spent more than two decades in prison — say they will hold a peace conference next month in north Minneapolis to reach out to young people and discourage them from engaging in violence.
The gathering, they say, will address some of the root causes of violent behavior — including poverty and unemployment. And it will encourage a greater role for both local churches and families in dealing with violence.
Organizers say that legendary musician Stevie Wonder has committed to serving as keynote speaker, while civil rights leader and former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Chavis will be among the guests.
“Hopefully we will be able to impact some of what’s plagued not just Minneapolis, but other parts of country,” said Sharif Willis, who is back in Minneapolis after serving a 25-year prison sentence on drug and weapons charges earned while serving as “chief minister of justice” of the Vice Lords, a street gang once behind drugs and violence in Minneapolis and other cities.
Willis, now 66, co-founded United for Peace with Rev. Jerry McAfee of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church. The organization tried to stop gang-related warfare in Minneapolis in the early 1990s.
That group, which gained considerable publicity and had the support of key figures in the Minneapolis Police Department, fell apart after the execution-style murder of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf in 1992 at a pizza restaurant in south Minneapolis.
Four men, including Willis’ nephew, were caught and convicted in Haaf’s slaying.
Willis, McAfee and several community and religious leaders said Wednesday that they no longer refer to the groups as “gangs” but rather as “subcultural organizations.”
They said the violence was not being perpetrated by organization leaders, most of whom are older people in prison or released after many years, but by cliques and unaffiliated individuals who seek to resolve their differences or commit violent acts of retaliation without considering the consequences.
Willis said leaders of organizations from around the country who are also working to end the cycle of violence among young people are planning to attend and learn from the gathering.
Willis said that the conference will deal with issues of violence, poverty and hopelessness “that affects the psyches of people.”
The gathering will take place June 16-18 at New Salem church.
McAfee said young people in the community are encouraged to attend, adding that many of the workshop leaders have served prison terms themselves and will have a valuable message — that of “We understand what you’re going through; we’ve been there, we’ve done that, don’t follow in our footsteps.”
Other speakers will include Steven Belton, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Urban League and Alfred Babington-Johnson, president and CEO of the locally based Stairstep Foundation.
Chavis, who is currently president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents black newspapers, said in an interview that he is a strong supporter of the conference’s mission.
“I think that having this particular gathering will be helpful and provide some constructive pathways to establish conflict resolution and end the presence of violence in our communities,” he said.
A publicist for Stevie Wonder did not respond to a message seeking comment.