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Fmr. Gang Leader Returns To Head Twin Cities Peace Conference

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- An increase in gun violence in Minneapolis and St. Paul has caused activists from both sides of the river to come together to plan a peace conference.

A familiar face is standing with ministers and members of once-opposing street organizations.

Shariff Willis, a Vice Lord leader, is fresh out of prison and playing a major role in putting together the conference.

"What has to happen is our community resolve these problems themselves," Willis said. "All of us has to come and sit down at the table because this is bigger than any one person and/or group."

Shariff Willis
Shariff Willis (credit: CBS)

He is the driving force behind this gathering of ministers, former street organization leaders and activist.

Their goal is to quell the gun violence that's claiming lives in both Minneapolis and St. Paul by reaching out to those directly involved.

"We've sought out different individuals from various cliques and groups, and they all have said the same thing, that they're willing to come and sit down and work to resolve their issues," he said.

Willis has been down this road before. He and Rev. Jerry McAfee co-founded United for Peace, an organization designed to stop the gang war in Minneapolis in the 90s.

The group had support of police until the 1992 execution-style murder of Minneapolis Police Officer Jerry Haaf. Four men were convicted of the crime, including Willis' nephew.

"I want to be that person, along with others, who have expressed the same willingness to talk to these young people and let them know that you can do something different with your life," he said.

Willis and other members of this group have been visible at crime scenes in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. He says this time, young people are not killing over drugs, money or territory.

"It's about somebody saying something or looking at somebody in some type of manner in which the other person doesn't like," Willis said. "In a nutshell, that is what it is. They're shooting each other out of fear that the other individual is going to shoot them."

Willis served decades in prison for weapon and drug charges, and he says he knows there will be people who don't want him around.

But he says he's determined to finish the job he started decades ago.

"I'm not concerned about the cynics, I'm not concerned about the critics," he said. "I am concerned about those individuals who are seeking to make a difference. It's all about saving lives."

The peace conference will also address some of the causes of the violence: poverty and the lack of educational and employment opportunities.

The hope is to get churches and families more involved.

Stevie Wonder and Civil Rights leader Ben Chavis are set to keynote the event on June 17 - 18 at New Salem Baptist Church in north Minneapolis.

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