NY Daily News, 12/08/11
Former Bronx gang members mark 40th anniversary of truce that led to decline of street violence in the 1970s

By Tanyanika Samuels | web link

The tension in the room was palpable. More than 100 members of the city's most notorious gangs had gathered, strutting in their street regalia, at the Hoe Avenue Boys & Girls Club in Crotona Park.

It was Dec. 8, 1971. Days earlier, Cornell "Black Benjy" Benjamin, a member of the Ghetto Brothers gang-turned-community group, was murdered and a gang war seemed inevitable. Instead, Ghetto Brothers leader Benjamin "Yellow Benjy" Melendez called a peace meeting.

"It was tense in the beginning, you could feel it," said Melendez, now 59, of Harlem. "But we had to let the steam out. All the turf wars had to stop." And after three dramatic hours, the gangs called a truce.

The 40th anniversary of the Hoe. Avenue Peace Meeting, a historic summit largely credited with the de-escalation of gang violence in the South Bronx and beyond, will be celebrated Sunday at the Bronx River Art Center, 305 E. 140th St.

"(Melendez) is one of those forgotten New York heroes," said Julian Voloj, who helped organize the event and is working on a graphic novel about Melendez. "With the anniversary, I thought it would be a good opportunity to give him credit for his influence on the Bronx and New York."

Melendez founded the Ghetto Brothers in 1967, after a brief stint with the Cofon Cats gang. "I didn't want to be under nobody's leadership," he said. "I did that for survival. In those days on every block, there was a gang. If you didn't join, you were forced to join."

At its height, the Ghetto Brothers were 2,000 strong in the Bronx alone. There were factions in other boroughs, as well as Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rico. In October 1971, Melendez met a young activist who would change his life.

Joseph Mpa, then a senior at William H. Taft High School, was a budding community organizer working with the Black Panthers. He and other politically-minded students were concerned with the unceasing gang violence.

"We thought we had to do something," Mpa said. " We wanted to try to make the gangs aware that they were fighting the wrong enemy. The real enemy was an oppressive system that was keeping all of us down."

So Mpa ventured into the Ghetto Brothers headquarters on E. 162nd St. off Prospect Ave. to deliver his message. "It was a wild and crazy scene, like something out of a movie," Mpa recalled. "I remember there was someone hanging upside down, someone drinking, someone throwing a knife at a board. People were just hanging all over the place. It was like total chaos."

"What impressed me about Melendez was his calmness in all this chaos," Mpa said. "He was nodding his head. I could tell he was listening."

That meeting had a lasting impact. Melendez later dropped the gang's "warlord" position in favor of "peacemaker." His first peacemaker was a charismatic ex-drug addict named Cornell "Black Benjy" Benjamin.

On Dec. 2, 1971, Melendez sent Benjamin to squash a fight between the Black Spades and the Seven Immortals at the park near Rogers Place and E. 165th St. Benjamin was knocked to the ground and beaten to death.

"I was very hurt," Melendez recalled. "The natural reaction of a leader is to seek revenge. All the gangs were ready for war. But that was exactly what everyone wanted us to do."

Bill Leicht, 76, who joined the Ghetto Brothers in 1969, said, "There had been enough funerals already. None of the leaders wanted to go to another funeral for their people."

By all accounts, the ensuing truce was mostly successful and lasted nearly a decade until the crack-cocaine era of heavily-armed gangs.

"In retrospect," Mpa said, "I feel the truce did contribute to the growth of hip-hop and graffiti, because of the climate that existed. You could travel from neighborhood to neighborhood, from block to block, without feeling threatened. It allowed for a more creative atmosphere."

Many Ghetto Brothers have gone on to become police officers, teachers, and other professionals, including Daily News business editor Robert Dominguez, who briefly served as president of one of the gang's factions.

Both Melendez and Mpa spent 30 years working as youth counselors for various non-profits. Mpa recently started his own group, Time to Rise Programs and Services in Harlem. And Melendez has a band, which he named "Ghetto Brothers."

Leicht became a neurochemist but left the sciences and later founded Urban Vision, Project in Nonviolence, a group that uses marital arts techniques for peaceful conflict resolution.

The historic summit is fresh in their minds. Melendez still drives by the park where his friend was killed. He hopes to memorialize Benjamin with a plaque and a spot on the Bronx Walk of Fame.

It is important, Mpa added, that youth today learn of "Black Benjy" and his ultimate sacrifice. "The youth today have too many pseudo-heroes in these rap stars and drug dealers," he said. "They need to... be aware of the real heroes that developed from these communities."

Leicht called the peace meeting a part of Bronx legacy. "It's a gift from the Bronx to the world."

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