With Tops set to reopen soon, “Buffalo is back to business as usual”
Editor’s note, February 15, 2023: The gunman who killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket has been sentenced to life in prison. The original story, published in July 2022, follows.
In the wake of a white supremacist massacre, the city of Buffalo, New York, made national headlines for just a few weeks.
On May 14, an 18-year-old gunman entered Tops supermarket in East Buffalo, where he shot 10 people dead and injured three others. Beforehand, he left behind a document where he outlined his plan to “kill as many Black people as possible,” motivated by a racist idea known as replacement theory.
While political leaders expressed outrage that white supremacy continues to inspire such terror, Buffalo residents expressed fear — fear that the city would be back to “normal” once the outrage subsided and the news cameras left.
The massacre highlighted Buffalo’s deep structural inequality that allowed the massacre to take place, patterns that already played out in residential segregation, poverty, food insecurity, lead poisoning, and more.
Seven weeks have passed since the massacre, and national attention has indeed turned away. Just 10 days after the mass shooting, a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
I talked to nurse and progressive activist India Walton, who ran for Buffalo mayor in 2021 and defeated incumbent Mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic primary, about where the city and its Black residents stand. The former mayoral candidate says that — as residents feared — the city is “back to business as usual” as Tops readies to reopen in July. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s been over a month since a white supremacist went into Tops supermarket and killed 10 Black people and injured several others. Lawmakers popped in to say their condolences and rushed to pass legislation, and the national news media seems to have looked away. What is top of mind for you right now?
I hate that I’m pessimistic, but Buffalo is so status quo. The first thing I said when it happened was I want to see what happens when the cameras leave. I said that the people who were on NBC and CNN doing national media expressing outrage and denouncing white supremacy were the same people who likely never stepped foot in Tops on Jefferson.
The conditions on the East Side of Buffalo have been as they are for decades.
[That] an 18-year-old child — I say “child” because I’m a nurse, and I know that the human brain is not fully formed at that age, especially in the male body — was able to Google where he could find a deep concentration of Black folks, the most vulnerable Black folks, our elders, speaks to the fact that this neighborhood is overpoliced yet underprotected.
I’m exhausted. Now our elected officials are talking about whether to call it the East Side or East Buffalo — and no one gives a fuck! Can we begin to tackle the problem of concentrated poverty and disadvantage? The problem of systemically locking people out from employment, homeownership, and business loans?
Buffalo is back to business as usual. The haves are going to have and the have-nots are going to continue to not have.
Who is being left out of the narrative that’s being created in the aftermath of the tragedy?
The focus of a lot of the energy of media coverage has been on the families of the deceased, and my heart bleeds for them. But there are people who were in that store who were working. There were children outside playing who saw dead bodies in the parking lot. And where’s the help for them?
There’s a young man who was waiting for his friend to get off work. He works at McDonald’s. He doesn’t get to take time off.
There are people who are questioning whether they left the store too early. Whether they turned their back on someone and should have gone back to help. There’s a woman who had the hot barrel of that gun pressed to her scalp and has burns from it. There’s very little assistance for those folks.
Already, we’re talking about the store reopening and the community has not been meaningfully engaged about what that process looks like. Decisions have been made for them as usual. My frustration is just if nothing changes, nothing changes. You could say all the words you want. Let me see some investment. Not only announcing a pot of money, but let me see what the plan is. Don’t make a plan without engaging the people who live there and already know what they need.
I want to get your thoughts on some of the specific reactions we’ve heard from national and local lawmakers.
In Buffalo, part of Mayor Byron Brown’s message was: “We are certainly saddened that someone drove from hundreds of miles away, someone not from this community, that did not know this community, that came here to take as many Black lives as possible, who did this in a willful, premeditated fashion, planning this.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul passed a body armor law that wouldn’t have stopped the gunman and rushed to strengthen New York state red flag laws that failed to stop the gunman from getting a firearm.
Biden in his visit to Buffalo denounced white supremacy but didn’t exactly identify steps to address systemic racism. How do these responses sit with you?
Politics is such that those who have the microphone control the narrative. I knew very early on that they’d try to focus on the fact that this person isn’t from here. But I’ve lived in Buffalo my entire life. About 75 to 80 percent of Black people live on the East Side. It’s not by chance. It is by design. The policy of demolishing blighted properties, of disinvestment in neighborhoods on the East Side, didn’t happen overnight. All of these conditions that were created happened in Byron Brown’s tenure. The recovery from this incident is going to be longer and more difficult because of the conditions that have been created by policy at the local and state level.
Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion built up a medical campus, a Tesla factory that doesn’t employ very many people, and got us canalside. Meanwhile, we still have a severe shortage of truly affordable housing. Our rates of Black homeownership are some of the worst in the country. The housing stock is some of the worst in the country. Kathy Hochul had the audacity to announce $60 million for the Central Terminal when in that same neighborhood there are houses for much less money where we can get the lead problem abated.
We have a serious childhood lead poisoning issue in the city of Buffalo and Erie County. We prefer flashy Band-Aid solutions that sound good in the media, and we’re only covering gushing wounds. No one is doing anything to stop the bleeding.
There’s no true comprehensive plan to redevelop the East Side. And when we’re talking about denouncing white supremacy, that doesn’t only mean denouncing overt forms of racism but it also means changing the kind of restrictive banking and financial policies that hold entire communities back. We have a local nonprofit that had to start a ride share because people in that neighborhood don’t have access to a grocery store or pharmacy, a post office.
Yeah, I read that following the massacre, Tops set up a shuttle to transport residents to another neighborhood for groceries. The story I read described how residents felt uncomfortable because they got stares when they were in the other store. Have you seen the shuttle or talked with anyone who has had this experience? And what are your thoughts more broadly on the fact that Black people have to be bused to a white neighborhood for groceries in 2022?
I saw the shuttle stops. I didn’t get on the shuttle. But it must be unnerving for people. First of all, someone went into your neighborhood grocery store and shot a bunch of people down. It will be difficult to go to the grocery store in the first place. And to then have to be dependent upon a stranger to take you somewhere where you’re unfamiliar. It must be really traumatic, but what can you really do about it? People have to eat.
Local groups have also spearheaded efforts to create food boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables to give away and other items to encourage people to grow it on their own right now. It seems like this is in response to the massacre but also speaks to a bigger chronic issue of food insecurity in which we see grassroots movements stepping in with solutions and not the city government.
Right. The interesting thing is that the reason why the response happened so quickly was because these things were already in place. It was already a place that didn’t have access to food. There were already food justice advocates in the neighborhood. I’m thinking about Urban Fruits and Veggies, the African Heritage Food Co-op, and Freedom Gardens. These people were already working independently of any assistance from the city.
Alexander Wright has been trying to open a brick-and-mortar food cooperative in the Fruit Belt neighborhood, adjacent to where the shooting took place, for five or six years. These are people who have already been doing this work, and the racist massacre just shined a light on what was already happening — not only on what the problems were, but that there were already people activated to provide viable solutions. And if we had supported that to begin with, maybe it wouldn’t have been this way. At the very least, folks would have still been able to access food.
I’m of the mind that in order to have a self-determined and liberated autonomous community, charity is not the thing. Charity comes and goes with the whims of funders, philanthropists, and well-meaning do-gooders. But how do we create systems? How do we improve systems? How do we make sure that these investments are made and that they are sustainable and that the community is actually in control of the resources for themselves, so that we’re not waiting for someone to come save us when something like this happens?
There seems to be this pervasive feeling from Black residents that things would get worse once the cameras left. But it sounds like self-reliance and the community coming together in whatever ways it can has played a role in helping people make it through this tough time.
Yeah. I think that, all of the other complexities and issues aside, I am very proud of the way our community responded. Despite the fact that there was all this national attention on it, what I felt and what I still know is that the people who are doing the hard work are folks that are from here. They are people who are doing things with their personal money. There are organizations that are already struggling with limited budgets and staff.
The response from the community and from our community-based organizations and individuals has been incredible. We’ve been checking on one another, because it’s been hard. It’s very, very difficult, especially being one of the handful of people that people turn to for answers. There are many of us in this community who are the problem-solvers, the noisemakers, the activists and advocates of this community. And what we’re up against is being the people who want to help but who don’t always have the resources or the decision-making power. I have to tell people, I’ll do what I can, but a lot of this is not up to me.
You mentioned how the gunman was able to just look up a zip code based on racial makeup, and was motivated by his mission to kill as many Black people as possible. About 80 percent of Buffalo’s Black residents live on the East Side. In light of this and how you’ve seen the community impacted over the past month and a half, what specific housing policies would be most effective to help Buffalo’s Black residents and to break up the city’s extreme segregation?
I co-founded a community land trust that started in the Fruit Belt neighborhood, and before I exited my position as executive director, the membership voted to make it into a citywide thing. A citywide land trust that is municipally supported could provide permanently affordable housing for homeownership so people can live wherever they want in the city. The city of Buffalo is the largest property realtor in the city. There are more than 1,000 vacant parcels of land that could be built on the East Side and in other parts of the city. There are vacant homes that can be sold for little or nothing to people to be rehabbed and lived in and put them back on the tax roll.
I had a very well-researched and comprehensive plan for development and increasing homeownership in closing the racial wealth gap. I don’t have any insight into what’s happening now. But, as it stands, there hasn’t been a public plan to change anything like that. The governor gave $600 million to trillionaires to build a football stadium. I was riding through the East Side yesterday and there are city-owned lots [where] the grass was up to my waist. They just don’t cut it. They just don’t care. There’s, like, no trash cans. People litter because they don’t have anywhere to dispose of trash. Simple things like that — there’s just no thought being put into providing and carrying forward our community in the way that it deserves.
I keep thinking about what you said about the people who were not killed in the massacre but got caught up in it, whether their life was spared or they witnessed something because they were close by. How should the city be trying to help them?
I think that I’m not the person to have that answer. They are. They all have individual and unique needs. They should be engaged on an individual basis. I think that one thing that has to happen is that there needs to be widespread access to mental health services.
And it needs to be in a way that the delivery is personalized and that we’re not expecting a person to necessarily leave their house to go get it. Because there are some people who are afraid to leave the house. If we can get them telehealth visits, that could possibly be helpful.
It brings up so many other issues, with every layer we pull back. Even if we were to offer a person telehealth visits, do they have internet or a computer in their house? We assume that everyone has a smartphone but they don’t. This is a neighborhood that was already in a position of economic insecurity and precarity.
There was a young man at Tops who was a McDonald’s worker. He should have gotten some paid time off. I worked at McDonald’s, and I don’t know how much things have changed in the last 20 years, but I didn’t have health care when I worked there . Even if this young man wanted to go seek help, can he? Aside from that, he’s already working a job that is probably not paying a living wage. And now, to deal with trauma on top of living the daily trauma of being a working-class Black person. What do you do for folks like that?
And with Tops reopening this summer, why do you think there hasn’t been a wider effort to engage the community on the store’s future?
You know, I don’t know. This is how things are done. The corporation decides, and the electeds decide what the narrative is going to be. They say that they have engaged with the community. They choose who the leaders are and steamroll any voices of dissent in the meantime. I hear that there are renovations and “upgrades’’ being made to the store.
There’s also something particularly devastating about not wanting to shop at a “renovated” place where Black people were massacred but then having no choice because this is the only local supermarket where you can get your food.
So many people have no choice. When we talk about peeling back the layers, we can also talk about access to public transit. A third of households in East Buffalo don’t own a vehicle. Buffalo is really a mess. I can say this operating from a place of extreme privilege. I have a car. I have a job. I can go where I want. I can afford Instacart. I don’t even have to go into a store. That is not the same experience of the majority of people who live in this city.
I want people to remember that this is not an isolated tragedy. Racism and white supremacy have created conditions of cyclic disadvantage. It’s not just about guns and it’s not just about access to food or about charity. This is about making real investments in our community that are going to correct and undo the history of harm that has been done to tons of Black people over generations.