In 1999, Duriel Lamar Ryan, Clifford Ryan’s seventeen year old son, was shot in the back of the head as he walked away from a companion with whom he had had an argument and who had responded to this conflict by retrieving a gun and threatening Duriel. This tragedy placed Clifford Ryan at the center of one of the most dense nodes of trauma and distress in the urban black community. Although he immediately began to speak out about gun violence in the Syracuse community when his son was killed, Mr. Ryan found his voice and message being distorted and diluted by others and temporarily stepped back from his advocacy work. During this hiatus, Clifford Ryan studied the problem of gun violence in his community, looked at the resources already in place to address that violence, looked for gaps in the system, and thought creatively about how he could affect positive change. Mr. Ryan created a model of community advocacy based on two principles.
First, Clifford committed himself to supporting every other organization and anti-violence or anti-poverty effort in his community, as well as taking advantage of the resources they offered to develop his own skills as an anti-violence advocate and community leader.
Second, Clifford Ryan decided to focus his own advocacy efforts on those members of his communities that were often left out of the system, either determined by others to be “lost causes” and/or themselves “choosing” to remain on the streets, rather than to come into any of the community centers and the programs they offered. He determined that he would work with “the ones doing the violence,” as he says.
The only way to do this, he knew, was to go to them, rather than to wait for them to come to him. And so he started walking—walking through the neighborhoods in which the violent crimes were occurring, on the southside, the west side, the north side, and the east side. As he began to walk, the young men who congregated in those communities challenged him: who was he? Why was he there? He explained himself, but then decided to make a carry a small cardboard sign to carry as a visual marker of his role, his purpose: “OG Against Violence.”
Within the black community, OG stood for “old gangster” or “original gangster.” It was an honorific, as sign of respect. Cliff claimed this honorific, but also revised it, re-signifying “OG” as “Our Generation” instead of “original ganster.” But mostly, OG is just OG, and Cliff continues to amplify the respect and honor accorded that term in Syracuse by walking miles and miles through the city from one neighborhood poverty-dense neighborhood to the next. In each neighborhood, he stops and talks to the young men and women on the streets and discussing with them about the dangers of gun and knife and of resolving conflict through those means. When he sees children, he tells them not to touch a gun and has them rehearse what to do if they see a gun.
In addition to walking the streets, Clifford Ryan, as the founder of “OGs Against Violence,” also attends most of the vigils and memorials for victims of gun and knife violence here in the Syracuse area. This is incredibly important, because these are fraught sites of heightened emotion and intoxication which lend themselves to the eruption of further violence. Many times the families of the victims ask him to attend these events; at other times, he comes on his own, but is welcomed as an honored guest.
Cliff Ryan has stopped forty-two shootings and prevented, mediated, or interrupted over three hundred fights. While some of the shootings in the city are drug and “gang” related, many are arguments that escalate and get out of control. Cliff’s intervention gives participants an opportunity to stand down without losing face. This is key. Because he is so respected, when he tells a person—young or old, man or woman—to walk away, they can do so without feeling like they are losing status or “giving in” to the other person with whom they are in conflict. Mr. Ryan’s own status, in turn, comes from consistent presence and commitment to his community and from his skill in reading and intervening in situations of potential conflict.