Councilor at Large John R. Connolly leaned back in his chair Friday and looked across the table at the gang members who had gathered at the Roxbury YMCA to meet him.
In a soft voice, the mayoral candidate asked them if they had ever been shot, if their friends had been killed, if they felt safe in Boston.
They all answered the same way:
Yes. Yes. And not at all.
“I don’t ever ride public transportation,” said one, a 33-year-old living in Dorchester. He was the oldest of the four men, each representing different gangs in the city. They met with Connolly to give him a sense of what drives violence in Boston.
The one-hour meeting, squeezed between more traditional campaign events like a food bazaar in West Roxbury and an elementary school dance in Jamaica Plain, was organized by a campaign volunteer who coordinates a program that deals directly with gang members.
The volunteer, Donnell Singleton, said he asked Connolly to meet with the men, believing they could give him a brutally honest assessment of how gang violence, which police say is behind the bulk of homicides in the city, is perpetuated. The Globe was allowed to witness the exchange on the condition that none of the names of the participants, with the exception of Connolly, be published.
The men held little back from the candidate.
The 33-year-old said the last time he had been shot was 2009. Another was shot four times last March and spent nearly a week in the hospital. Another recalled being stopped at a traffic light, during a downpour, when someone got out of the car behind him and began firing at him.
“Are you still in danger?” Connolly asked that man, a 27-year-old who moved out of the city after he was released from federal prison.
“Hell, yeah,” the man replied.
“He’s what you call a trophy piece,” explained a street worker — a person who works to steer young people away from gang life — who moderated the meeting. As a former gang leader who had done prison time, the 27-year-old is a prize kill for a 15-year-old boy trying to make a name for himself, the street worker said.
“Then he becomes boss of his crew,” the street worker explained.
Connolly quickly grasped how the cycle continues.
“So if a 15-year-old kills you, in seven years, he’s going to have some 15-year-old chasing him?” he asked the men.
They all described the gangs as families, groups of friends they met in their neighborhood as children, who offered a sense of place.
“Everything was cool,” one of them said. “Everything was roller skating and basketball. Until somebody got killed. Then it was constant retaliation.”
One of the other men, a 22-year-old, was about 16 when he first lost a friend to violence. Blood lust gripped him, he said, and soon he was doing shootings.
“You liked it?” Connolly said.
“Yes,” he replied, “violence is addictive,”
With the exception of the 27-year-old who left the city, all of them said they were still involved in gang life in one way or another. All of them said they wanted out but could not figure out how to leave.
They agreed that better jobs and resources are needed to allow those trying to leave a life of violence to stay on a straight path. But to break the cycle completely, the city has to work harder to reach boys who are 11 and 12 years old and ripe for gang recruitment, the men said.
One recommended a public awareness campaign listing warning signs that a child may be in a gang. For example, he suddenly starts wearing a baseball hat of an out-of-town sports team, often code for a crew’s name. Prisons need to help, too, they said.
The 27-year-old, who served seven years for gun charges, noted that sex offenders and drug offenders are enrolled in programs meant to help them control their addictions once they leave prison.
“I yearn for some type of rehabilitation that caters to violent offenders,” he said.
Connolly, who said he was overwhelmed by everything he had heard, said that if he is elected mayor, he would meet with the men once a month.
“Will you do that with me?” he asked them.
“We’ll be there,” one of them replied as the others nodded.
After the meeting, Connolly left to walk around Roxbury with community leaders and reporters.
“He seemed genuinely concerned,” the 27-year-old said of the candidate.
The 33-year-old gang member, who lives in Dorchester and is registered to vote, said he would try to learn more about Connolly’s campaign.
“If he wants to help us, he definitely has my vote,” he said as the left the YMCA.
Then the man pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and ran across Martin Luther King Boulevard to his sport utility vehicle.