Editor’s note: This is the first installment of an occasional series we’re calling “East Side Stories.” In the series, we examine issues that affect the residents of the East Side, told through the lens of people working to address the problem. Companion stories will air on Channel 2. Today, we focus on violence and the work of John “Tubbs” Smith and his colleagues in Buffalo Peacemakers.
John Smith became a Peacemaker the hard way.
Born in a prison — his mother was an inmate — he was given a generic name because his parents weren’t available to name him or sign his birth certificate. As a youth he bounced around “every foster home on the East Side,” then killed a bystander in a botched hit job at the age of 17. Instead of attending college on a basketball scholarship, he spent 27 years in prison.
“My background, definitely different. From the streets to prison to now,” he told Investigative Post.
“I’ve been cut, stabbed, whatever you can think of. Beat up by police, the whole nine,” Smith said. “But the most beautiful thing about all of that is that the journey brought me here. The journey brought me back to where I started, just with a better outlook about where I came from.”
After he was released from prison two years ago at the age of 48, Smith joined the Buffalo Peacemakers, formed in response to a 2007 shooting at a Juneteenth celebration. It’s an umbrella organization of six groups that employs 34 on a part-time basis, along with up to a dozen volunteers.
Officially founded in 2012, the Buffalo Peacemakers Youth Violence and Gang Intervention Program evolved from monitoring community events to establishing a presence at schools, transit stations, libraries and the streets of some neighborhoods.
Peacemakers like Smith work to mentor young people, monitor public spaces and diffuse potentially volatile situations.
“They’ve definitely stopped many fights at the train stations with a lot of kids, they stop a lot of violence, help the community out,” said Myah Durham, 16, a student at the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School.
Indeed, the Peacemakers have their work cut out for them. As Investigative Post reported in 2021, Buffalo is one of the most violent mid-sized cities in the nation.
Buffalo’s violent crime rate — murders, rapes, assaults and robberies — ranked 12th worst among 79 cities with a population between 200,000 to 500,000, according to FBI crime data.
While crime occurs citywide, much of it happens on the East Side.
Schools are not immune, as evidenced by a shooting and stabbing last year at McKinley High School, where Smith interacts with students outside the school five days a week. While located on Elmwood Avenue on the West Side, many of its students live on the East Side. Fifty-five percent of students are Black, 20 percent Hispanic or Latino.
Nearly one in four students have been suspended this year alone — and McKinley’s suspension rate is only the fifth worst in the district. (During the first half of this school year, 2,423 students were suspended across the district.) The most common causes of suspensions at McKinley are cutting class, defiance of authority and fighting.
Smith said he and his younger brother spent their childhood in numerous foster homes on the East Side before being reunited with their mother – for a spell.
“I went to school one day, came home, she left,” Smith said. “[She] left a note for me and my brother, and she slid. Once she left, we had to fend for ourselves, and that was it. I was in high school, he was in grammar school.”
Smith nevertheless achieved success in school as a star basketball player, earning a scholarship to SUNY Fredonia. But at the age of 17, shortly after becoming a father, Smith shot and killed a bystander in a hit job gone wrong. The mistake would cost him nearly three decades in correctional facilities across New York.
“From Sing Sing all the way back to Wende, I visited every single prison,” Smith said.
Even still, he found ways to improve himself during his prison sentence.
While incarcerated, he earned a degree in psychology and authored a book, Tears From a Prison Yard, an account of his life behind bars and the effect it had on his family.
Upon his release from prison, Smith joined the ranks of the Peacemakers.
Peacemakers and related programs
In 2007, Pastor James Giles assembled six violence prevention groups — Back to Basics Ministries, FATHERS, Stop the Violence Coalition, MAD Dads of Buffalo, No More Tears and Buffalo United Front — to serve as a volunteer force to police events and intervene with gang members. The coalition was initially called Community Peacemakers.
The group officially became the Buffalo Peacemakers Youth Violence and Gang Intervention Program in 2012, when Mayor Byron Brown and the Common Council provided a $325,000 grant. Funding has continued from the city, along with support from organizations including the John R. Oishei Foundation, the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation and the M&T Bank and its foundation.
The money goes towards Peacemakers; Buffalo SNUG, a program targeting gun and gang violence; and HEAT (Health, Empowerment, Attitude and Teamwork).
Smith is the lead coordinator of the HEAT program, which helps youths avoid destructive behaviors by encouraging them to explore a variety of creative outlets, from boxing to creating films to writing and making music.
“We try to do different things to get that anger out of them while we can, because once it gets bottled in, it’s going to be hard to get it out, and then they become the people that statistics say that they are,” Smith said.
“We have a thing called ‘Before the Fact.’ Be a Before-the-Fact-er. See what’s going on with them, get invested in their lives and try to do something now before ‘after the fact,’ when you’ve got to put them away or you’ve got to bury them.”
Durham is an accomplished athlete at the Science Charter School and a participant in the HEAT program.
“I like it, it’s keeping me out of trouble a lot,” she said. “It’s important to have these programs because a lot of kids–they’re getting killed and, you know, end up in a bad place. So it’s definitely helping me to just stay focused, be on the right path and just mind my business about a lot of stuff.”
J’anah Thurmond, 13, an 8th-grader at Harvey Austin School and another HEAT participant, said of Smith: “I think the best thing that he’s said to me before is that fighting really isn’t necessary, or you don’t always have to use your hands to win anything, or violence isn’t the answer; it doesn’t really solve anything.”
Role in the schools
The Peacemakers aren’t just at special events anymore. They’re embedded in the community as a less-intrusive alternative to police patrols, though the group also works with the department. In fact, Peacemakers are part of the BPD’s Neighborhood Engagement Team, which was designed in 2018 to strengthen relationships between the community and law enforcement by promoting community policing methods in targeted neighborhoods.
Smith and other Peacemakers give more than their time to the program, incurring expenses to provide food, refreshments and transportation for the teens.
“Most of it comes out of our pockets — rides home, gas, whatever you want to call it — but when you’re having those conversations and they get there safely, I think that’s all that really matters at the end of the day,” Smith said.
The Peacemakers have contracts with the City of Buffalo, the Erie County Public Library and Buffalo Public Schools, which hired Peacemakers for the Safe Passage program. Every weekday, Peacemakers guard 11 of what Giles calls “the most volatile schools,” including Burgard High School; Math, Science, & Technology Preparatory School; and East Community High School.
Smith interacts with students outside McKinley High School. To listen, click on the image and unmute.
Smith’s role at McKinley — and the roles of four other Peacemakers and volunteers from the nearby neighborhood — is to interact with students entering and leaving the school.
Smith’s biggest fear, he said, is saying goodbye to a student on Friday and not knowing if he’ll see them again on Monday.
“Saturday night, around 10, that’s when it happens. As soon as you hear those sirens, you’re like, ‘Yo, I hope that wasn’t one of mine.’ You don’t want it to be nobody’s. You don’t want it to be nobody’s, but it’s going to happen because of the way the city is. Not on my watch.”
One of Smith’s goals is encouraging students to continue their education beyond high school.
“A lot of them don’t see themselves going to college. They don’t see themselves going past their block, and that’s sad,” Smith said. “Their expectations of themselves are low because people have low expectations of them, and that’s what I can’t stand.”
These negative projections were amplified in the wake of the May 14 massacre at Tops Market at Jefferson Avenue. Teens from the HEAT Program were on site the next day helping distribute food while the area’s only grocery store was closed.
“They still couldn’t really understand why it happened,” Smith said. “They’re wondering why people hate them, while they’re still trying to figure out why they hate each other. That’s a lot for a child.”
Smith helps with after-school violence prevention through the HEAT Program every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, driving some of the McKinley Students to the Lincoln Field House, a city-owned community center on Quincy Street that houses the program.
The program is a safe space, providing sanctuary from troublesome environments and situations.
He asks the kids “where they are” emotionally on a scale of one to five before leading a restorative circle, a practice that revolves around issues the teens say concern them. One common topic is coping with depression.
“We’ve had several funerals in the last six weeks and I’ve seen some of them at those funerals,” Smith said. “We’ve got seven kids missing. Four boys, three girls. Some of them are their friends, so it’s a lot going on.”