Segment from Let’s Make Up

Gang Related Reconciliation

BackStory producer Andrew Parsons has the story of a peace summit among gangs in New York in the 1970s.

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***This transcript comes from an earlier broadcast of this show. There may be minor changes to the audio version you hear above.***

BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re marking the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s destruction with an hour exploring the American history of reconciliation.

PETER: By 1971, street gangs in New York were grabbing national headlines. The South Bronxwas seen as the epicenter. The New York Times called it “the capital of teenage gang power.”There were at least 85 gangs there, the Times noted, with membership in the thousands.Violent turf battles between warlords routinely left young men dead in the streets.

But at the same time, a story was unfolding that’s not often told. Some of these feared gangswere attempting to settle their scores peacefully and in the process, ended up changing a lotmore than just the South Bronx. Our producer Andrew Parsons has the story.

ANDREW PARSONS: It all started with a guy named Black Benjy. His real name was CornellBenjamin. He joined a gang called the Ghetto Brothers in April 1971.

BENJY MELENDEZ: I see him interacting with young people in the community. And I said, I likethe way this guy conducts himself.

ANDREW PARSONS: This is Benjy Melendez, a different Benjy– founder of the GhettoBrothers.

BENJY MELENDEZ: We’re going to drop “the warlords,” and we’re going to make this guypeace ambassador of the Ghetto Brothers.

ANDREW PARSONS: Melendez had formed the gang a few years earlier, at the age of 13. Bythe early ’70s, it was one of the biggest in the South Bronx, with memberships stretching to allfive boroughs. And it was then, in the height of the turf wars, that a Black Panther approachedMelendez about using the Ghetto Brothers to help cut the violence.

So Black Benjy became the peace ambassador. One of his first assignments came thatDecember.

BENJY MELENDEZ: So a Ghetto Brothers scout runs into the Ghetto Brother’s club, and hesays, Benjy, there are three gangs coming down from Hunts Point. They’re coming around yourturf to get the Roman Kings. That was another club that was close to us.

And I looked at Black Benjy, and I said to him, Benjy, go. Take some Ghetto Brothers. He nevercame back.

ANDREW PARSONS: Black Benjy was reportedly beaten to death after trying to negotiate withthose gangs. The killing of an unarmed Ghetto Brother pleading for peace incensed gangsacross the borough. Many called for war.

BENJY MELENDEZ: I see all these gangs in front of the Ghetto Brothers club. I mean, theywere waiting for the biggest war. Yo, Benjy, we heard what they done to your boy. You give us the OK, and we’ll take these guys.

ANDREW PARSONS: Melendez didn’t take the bait. Instead, after a visit with Black Benjy’smother, the Ghetto Brothers announced that all the gangs in the South Bronx would hold asummit meeting to hash out the situation.

On December 7, 1971, more than 100 South Bronx gang leaders crowded into an auditorium ofa local Girls & Boys Club. Young men and women were frisked as they entered. Local reporterswere there, and police snipers set up across the street in case anything got out of hand. Theyweren’t the only ones concerned.

BENJY MELENDEZ: My eyes kept on roving around every member of that place. I kept onlooking around. And I was walking in circles and looking– looking at their hands, looking attheir legs, looking on the side of their jackets.

ANDREW PARSONS: So what were you worried about?

BENJY MELENDEZ: That somebody there must have snuck in with a gun and do anassassination thing– oh yeah, these are the guys. Boom– shoot the guy right there. And thenall hell– all hell would’ve broke loose.

ANDREW PARSONS: The meeting was tense. It lasted for hours. But before long, thediscussion had turned from who had wronged who to the root causes of gang activity. In thetape of the event, you can hear passionate testimonies about the lack of social services in theSouth Bronx, the crumbling infrastructure, the feeling of abandonment.

BENJY MELENDEZ (ON RECORDING): –this district. The whiteys don’t come down here, man,and live in the (BLEEP) up houses, man. The whiteys don’t come down here, man, and have noheat in the (BLEEP) wintertime, you understand? We got to make it a better place to live, youunderstand? We do, Jack. So therefore, like wh–

ANDREW PARSONS: Towards the end of the meeting, Melendez took advantage of the mediaattention and made a passionate and very public plea for peace.

BENJY MELENDEZ (ON RECORDING): The thing is, we’re not a gang anymore. We’re anorganization. We want to help black and Puerto Ricans to live in a better environment. Youdon’t want us to become a gang again, right? Because I know–

ANDREW PARSONS: Venting and mediation worked. The gangs agreed to a truce.

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: It helped to slow down a lot of beef.

ANDREW PARSONS: This is Afrika Bambaataa, one of the founders of hip-hop in an interviewwith photographer Joe Conzo a few years back. He was at the peace meeting in 1971 and saysthe truce actually improved the situation in the Bronx. It wasn’t easy. There were still smallfights, but overall, it held.

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: So it took a lot of stress and sticking together to keep all these differentgroups under their whole family the truce that the Ghetto Brothers’ brother Benjy has putforward for everybody to come under.

ANDREW PARSONS: A survey of teenage gang activity by the US Justice Department confirmsby the mid-1970s, violence in the South Bronx had declined. But the peace meeting hadanother legacy, says Julian Voloj, author of a graphic novel about this period. One of thetreaty’s rules required gangs to loosen restrictions on walking through others’ territory.

JULIAN VOLOJ: For the first time, if you were a member of a gang, you could leave yourterritory, go to a territory of another gang, and not be beaten up, not have your colors takenaway. Your world widened, in a way.

ANDREW PARSONS: One of those ways was music. You see, the Ghetto brothers weren’t justa gang. They were a band.


JULIAN VOLOJ: The Ghetto Brothers were starting their own street parties. Benjy and hisbrothers loved music. They were playing music all the time. And they invited others to the streetparties.

They were making their music. People came. They danced, had a good time. So if you were aGhetto Brother, you could hang out with a girl from the Black Spades and not get beaten up forit. So that really started it.


ANDREW PARSONS: There had been street parties before the truce, but they were mostlyattended by members of the same gangs throwing them. Suddenly, these street parties wereallowing for a new kind of musical cross pollination.

In the lore of hip-hop, there’s one infamous party that supposedly started it all. West of wherethe Ghetto Brothers ruled, DJ Kool Herc spun records at two turntables back and forth, whilekids from across the borough danced and took in a new blend of sounds. This was only a yearand a half after the peace treaty.


JULIAN VOLOJ: Basically, the foundation of hip-hop was created, thanks to this peacemeeting. There was this exchange of ideas, exchange of creativity. And hip-hop– everythingdeveloped during that time– Bambaataa, in the east.


JULIAN VOLOJ: Grand Master Flash, further north.


JULIAN VOLOJ: They could travel there and see what was happening there.


ANDREW PARSONS: No one knows what would’ve happened if the Ghetto Brothers hadn’tcalled that peace meeting in 1971. The ’70s were still rough. These were the years thatspawned the line, “the Bronx is burning.”

Then the crack epidemic of the ’80s brought a new generation of violent gangs. But even then,you could hear the influence from the truce years. Yes, the lyrics echoed the concerns of thegangs in Benjy’s meeting, but the tone reflects the result. It’s fun– almost relieved.


PETER: Andrew Parsons is one of our producers. You can read more about this story on ourwebsite, where we’ll link to Julian Voloj’s forthcoming graphic novel, Ghetto Brother– Warriorto Peacemaker.