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‘We’re hurt, but we’re not broken’: Buffalo’s Black community vows to emerge stronger

“To be targeted like this, it speaks to a lot of bigger issues around guns and race in the country,” said one Buffalo native. “Something has to change.”

Charles Gilbert was only a few blocks away from the Buffalo, New York, supermarket when a white 18-year-old opened fire and spread terror among the local Black community, killing 10 and injuring 13 on Saturday.

Like countless other Black Buffalo residents, Gilbert, a podcaster, said he is mired in pain, devastation and anger, but he and many in east Buffalo say they are also resolute to come together and forge a stronger community. 

“We’re hurt, but we’re not broken,” Gilbert said. “We, as a people and a community, will get past this. It will take some time. The spotlight is on us for the wrong reason, unfortunately. But we will show everyone that the community will come together.”

Pleazant Davis, 22, is comforted by her friend, Tasha Dixon, 35, at a memorial honoring the victims of the Tops shooting across the street from the store in Buffalo on May 15, 2022.Libby March / The Washington Post via Getty Images

The alleged assailant, Payton Gendron, drove more than three hours in his parents’ car from Broome County, specifically to the Black neighborhood of Jefferson Avenue, to carry out a racist plot that is now the largest mass killing in the city’s history. Eleven of the 13 people shot were Black.

But through the tears and agony, many insist a stronger Jefferson Avenue community will emerge.

Gilbert’s cousin, Buffalo native Adrianne Murchison, a journalist in Atlanta, said she felt the heartache of the shootings hundreds of miles away, but the depths of the community connections will be a factor in the neighborhood’s recovery.

“That’s the way the Black culture is,” she said. “There’s a lot of resiliency in general and in Buffalo in particular. Being so small, people are very connected. There are generations of families in Buffalo that are connected, and so the community is very much together. It still hurts. It really hurts. Who would think that something like that would happen? In the end, that community will manage it and come back strong. It’s what we, as Black people, do.”

Adiyah Kijani, 2, adds a message to the memorial along the help of her father, right, Zahir Kijani, and his friend, Anthony Pierce, left, in Buffalo, N.Y. on May 15, 2022.
Adiyah Kijani, 2, adds a message to the memorial along the help of her father, right, Zahir Kijani, and his friend, Anthony Pierce, left, in Buffalo, N.Y. on May 15, 2022.Joshua Thermidor for NBC News

In 2018, the Partnership for the Public Good, a community-based think tank, published a report that called the Buffalo-Niagara region “one of the most racially segregated metropolitan regions in the nation.”

It added that “of all people who identify as Black within the city of Buffalo, roughly 85 percent live east of Main Street,” which is the area where the store is located. 

Officials have classified the mass shooting as a racially motivated hate crime. 

The N-word was scrawled on the rifle used by the gunman. A lengthy manifesto Gendron posted two days before his attack talked of “the great replacement theory,” which is a false ideology that there is a covert faction that is moving to replace white Americans with nonwhites through violence, interracial marriage and immigration.

People march to the scene of a shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 15, 2022.
People march to the scene of a shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 15, 2022. Matt Rourke / AP

Gendron was arraigned Saturday evening on first-degree murder charges after being arrested at the scene without incident. He pleaded not guilty.

As one of the community leaders who also worked in the mayor’s office, Jamil Crews watched the unedited video of the killings recorded by the alleged shooter with a camera on his helmet.

“I wish I could erase what I saw,” Crews said. “It literally just broke me to my core. I’m getting emotional now just thinking about it. Those innocent people. These are people’s grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles and, and young people working in the store. This was very deliberate and what we need to see happen now is for people who consider themselves allies to step up. We don’t want to see this happening anymore in our communities. It’s senseless. Completely senseless.”

More than a grocery store

It was a success for a downtrodden community when Tops opened in 2003. “The community had been a food desert,” said William Mitchell, a television sales executive who grew up not far from the store’s location. “It represented progress in a neighborhood that had been largely ignored. Buffalo is divided along racial lines and there is a long history of racial issues and tensions.

“But the fact that this tragedy happened at this place, which is the center of the community — this very closely knit neighborhood — makes it all the more difficult.”

The Jefferson Avenue area where Tops is located was a thriving Black community prior to the “Long Hot Summer of 1967,” when race riots erupted across the country. Buffalo lived five days of unrest in which dozens of businesses were burned or destroyed.

“The neighborhood never really fully recovered from it,” Crews said. He had an office in north Buffalo but opened Crews Control Media company close to Tops because, he said, “that whole area is an historic African American neighborhood. We were starting to see a lot of investment that was taking place and I wanted to be a part of that renaissance. It is such an historic part of our city, our culture. Tops is in the center of it.”

Ten People Killed In Mass Shooting At Buffalo Food Market
People gather outside of Tops market on May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York.Scott Olson / Getty Images

After Saturday’s horrific shooting, the store was closed the remainder of the weekend, but a Tops spokesperson said that the store eventually will reopen. 

Meanwhile, on Sunday, Crews and others provided food for the community. 

“With Tops closed, there isn’t another grocery store for miles,” Crews said. “The one thing about this Buffalo Black community is we’re so tight-knit. Everybody knows everybody; if you didn’t know a victim, you knew someone who was related to one. We will be there for each other. So, while there’s a lot of pain, there’s also a sense that we’re going to bounce back from this, that we’re not going to let what we are building be deterred by this senseless act of terrorism.” 

Confusion and anger collide

The shooter reportedly studied demographics in Buffalo, determining an afternoon strike at the popular store frequented largely by Black people would be the ideal time to “cause as much carnage and damage as he possibly could and do it for the world to see,” Crews said. “This was a very deliberate attack. It was carefully planned and calculated.”

Tonya Guzman, a Buffalo native who works at a college in Rochester, New York, said the rise in racism-related events is a factor. 

“You’re not shocked because there’s so much racism and hate going on in America,” Guzman said. “But it’s kind of unbelievable that your hate is that deep that you really went out of your way to attack a specific group of people. It’s just sad. We prayed for Buffalo at church. You feel for the people that are really impacted. The families who have lost people over this madness. But it’s our faith that’s going to pull us through this foolishness.”

“You’re hurt and you’re definitely angry,” Mitchell said. “How do you develop these kinds of ideas and thoughts at such a young age? It’s incredibly scary. To be targeted like this, it speaks to a lot of bigger issues around guns and race in the country. When these tragedies happen, there’s talk of gun laws, but nothing changes. Something has to change.”

Della Young, a former Buffalo police officer for 20 years, worked Jefferson Avenue as part of her beat, she said. She was crestfallen when she learned that a former colleague she knew, security guard Aaron Salter, Jr., a former Buffalo police officer, was killed during a shootout with the alleged attacker. “Great man, very intuitive,” she said of Salter, “and very supportive of the community.”

 She, like many, questioned how a suspect who was armed with a rifle and had shot more than a dozen people was arrested without incident when Black suspects who have harmed no one often are shot or beaten. 

“If this person was Black, he’d be done. Period,” Young said. “They’re trying to let this person go through a mental evaluation. There would be none of that if he were Black. They are going to let this person have his day in court. But we know it would not be that way if he was Black. And that angers us, too.”

Bob Jones, a bank executive in Buffalo, recalled the 1980 murders of six Black people by a serial killer, who brazenly tried to kill a seventh person as he lay in the hospital, and how that targeted assault on Black life galvanized the area. 

“That shows the community does bond in times like this,” Jones said. “We’re going to grieve, but we’re going to press forward, too. Sad, but it’s not the last time; it will happen again, in Buffalo or somewhere else because that’s just who we are in this country. The fact that there is a generation that’s kind of desensitized to the whole thing is really unfortunate.

“But in due time, the community definitely will move past all this grief, while never forgetting the deep losses. It’s also a moment for all of us to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ It’s just sad we have to go through this.”

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