In just over five years, Clifford Ryan has prevented 43 shootings, over 100 stabbings and countless physical fights. He does this by stepping into the middle of disputes and offering moments of consideration: Is it worth it? Think of the outcomes. Is this the appropriate response right now?
Ryan, a life-long Syracuse resident and founder of OG’s Against Violence, is trained in de-escalation, conflict resolution, mental health first aid, trauma awareness, suicide prevention and intervention. He is a strong advocate against police brutality and racism in his community, but he also fights to put an end to violence within what Clifford calls his “village.” Now, for the first time, he is ready to train others to help him do more.
In July of 1999, Ryan’s son died in a shooting. Ryan was always against gun violence, but to honor his son and save his city, he knew he needed to do more. When he started OG’s Against Violence, he took a new approach to getting his message out by creating his now-famous signs, which say: “OG’s Against Violence” and “We love our kids, come together as one.” He walks the signs up and down the streets of Syracuse neighborhoods.
“Before this, no one was going out on the street, nobody was talking to the kids,” said Ryan. He states that prior to the OG’s, no one talked to the residents, certainly not while they were in the middle of a conflict. Now, the kids see him coming. They don’t even like to smoke or cuss in front of him: it’s a little bit of fear mixed with a lot of respect, kind of like how you would treat your grandfather.
Ryan’s work is challenging and sometimes dangerous, yet he considers it very rewarding. While he often stands in the middle of a fight with weapons, he sometimes walks up to a simple argument to prevent it from taking a turn for the worse. Ryan recalls one time when there was a disagreement between a group of young men on a street corner. Ryan pulled out a ball and explained the rules of the game. You have to toss the ball, and you have to toss it in the right order or you lose your turn. They started to toss the ball back and forth and pretty soon the argument was forgotten. One of the kids looked at Ryan and said, “Wow, OG. You really got us with that one.”
In another instance, a young boy’s brother died from gun violence. Ryan spoke with the young man and told him that he could honor his brother’s memory by doing better. So for years, each time that same young man scored for his basketball team, he dedicated it to his brother. Now, he is graduating from college. Ryan was touched by the call he received thanking him for his steady support over the years.
An understanding of the neighborhood, combined with his own personal experience, helped Ryan to see what the community needs. “Our entire community lives under a cloak of trauma,” he said. “We live with constant trauma.” Decades of racist policies such as redlining, segregation and police brutality have led to anger, loss of hope and poverty among city residents, which can bubble over into violence.
OG’s Against Violence also has the support of strong board members, like Michael Montes, who serves as president. Montes is a captain in the U.S. Navy and chief in the Joint Reserve Intelligence Program. His commitment to OG’s Against Violence was evident when he first met Ryan during his campaign for Onondaga County sheriff. Mike was inspired by Ryan’s dedication and devotion to save lives from senseless violence. He is currently serving our nation in uniform in Washington, DC and his 30 years of government service brings extensive expertise in combat violence to his adopted hometown of Syracuse.
“Cliff’s direct approach to curb violence is the key to the organization’s success,” said Montes. “We always say that we can change the world, one person at a time. Violence is a human problem that takes a community from all walks of life to disrupt.”
Every Sunday, Ryan walks with a team of dedicated volunteers through neighborhoods where violence is common. His presence is both calming and validating. He is also creating a youth advisory board and family support groups. He knows that the families need to grieve together, to laugh together and to break bread together. “We need to bring our village back into existence,” he says.
OG’s Against Violence recently received a Community Foundation grant to develop its organization for greater impact. Ryan is using the grant and his vast experience to bring on and train new Violence Interrupters and Violence Reduction Activists.
OG’s will be able to standardize its program to ensure that members and volunteers are properly educated in proven techniques, ensuring safe and effective violence reduction efforts. The program includes non-violence training utilizing alternative dispute resolution methods and providing support to the community.
Ryan and Montes hope to partner with the City of Syracuse and with the Syracuse police to bolster this work and become even more effective. He believes in the power of coming together and uniting to rebuild our community. “There are no days off from the fight against gun violence and racism,” Ryan remarked thoughtfully.
For more information about OG’s Against Violence, please visit its Facebook page.