‘Everything here is racist’: Buffalo shooting neighborhood ponders reasons for the violence

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Under sunny blue skies and as a cool breeze blew off Lake Erie, the Buffalo East Side district of Kingsley was both transformed by a determined resilience from a day earlier, when 10 people were shot dead by an 18-year-old white supremacist, and still full of anger as people continued to mourn.

There was an outpouring of grief, coupled with fear, from residents gathered on one side of Tops Friendly, the grocery store where the killings happened, and which was now roped off as a crime scene. But on the other side those emotions were matched by prayer vigils, gospel songs and strength derived from faith.

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Between the two, residents of the neighborhood came together as, for now, a community that was still only beginning to negotiate what had happened to it when the white gunman had so brutally attacked them.

Some saw the roots of the violence against the Black community in a profound mis-telling of history in America and a deep-rooted prejudice against it that was still echoing on through everyday existence. After all, one analysis from the University of Michigan found the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro region was America’s sixth most segregated. Meanwhile, a 2021 University at Buffalo report found measures of health, housing, income and education had improved little for Black residents in the city and in some cases had declined over the past three decades.

“We want deep history to be taught, for the truth be told, and all of this racism to stop,” said jazz promoter Denise McMichael-Houston. Her cousin, Ellen Lucas, an educator in the city, said: “The problem is that they will not teach accurate history in schools. I have lived in this city 72 years and everything here is racist. We have this one supermarket.”

I want people to see what really happens in our community

Tone Arrington

Lucas said that 24 hours after the assault, her mother was still vomiting at home from being so upset and unable to leave the house.

Asked how a tragic event like this – one of a series of racist mass killings in America in recent times – could be turned toward hope, Lucas said: “History taught correctly, tell history the way it happened. We were brought here as slaves, white people enslaved us because we are Black and nothing else. We need to know our contributions, and that would change how we look at ourselves.

“If I go in a restaurant, the first thing I have to do is make white people feel comfortable, grinning and smiling, and be who I’m not.”

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On this side of the supermarket, anger was palpable. On the other, where the religious and spiritual leaders had set up, less so.

Rev Rita Anderson-Bailey, who runs the counseling service Renovated Soul Marriage and Family Therapy, offered a parallel approach to the understandable rage. “There’s a place for anger, and for peace and calm. When we don’t have answers, we have to rely on faith to help us cope. That’s been for generations,” she said. “The anger part of it is when we start to hold our leaders accountable.”

But others said they would simply prefer to leave the area. At a nearby Family Dollar, 18-year-old clerk Nonni Walker, a community college student, said she’d been due to work a shift but her intuition told her not to come. “There’s so much crazy. So it’s wait for the next crazy and pray that you’re safe during it.” For her generation, she said, the solution was “not to be anywhere near here”.

And then there’s the question of the supermarket, the only Black-run grocery of its kind in that Buffalo neighborhood. Without it, the neighborhood would again be deprived of groceries. Some said it should be turned into a memorial. Then there is the issue of gentrification, which has been nibbling at the edge of neighborhood with the displacement and disruption that the process involves.

“If you raise up the property values, you create fear for people who don’t want to come back to their own community and they leave,” said local activist Shango Oya. “What would improve the neighborhood is real economic redistribution and holding political power accountable for the money they’re spending.”

Related: ‘It was by design’: Black residents try to come to terms with horror of shooting

Hours earlier, New York state governor Kathy Hochul had visited the area and urged social media platforms to crack down on content concerning white supremacy. She said she found it inexcusable that the assailant’s graphic live stream wasn’t taken down “within a second”.

The attack, said 27-year-old Tone Arrington, would forever teach her to speak up. “I personally will never sit back and hold my mouth shut. I want people to see what really happens in our world and our community.”

Nearby, an eight-year-girl had just stilled onlookers by singing a complete gospel song.

“That shows you what she’s being taught at home,” Arrington said. “And then we have this 18-year-old coming in here and shooting all these people, and that goes to show what he was taught at home, and what he was taught to believe, and what his parents instilled in him. Hear what I’m saying? It doesn’t add up.”