Families of Buffalo massacre victims sue online platforms, body armor manufacturer, and murderer's parents

Three families who lost loved ones in the racist mass killing in Buffalo have sued online platforms, a body armor manufacturer, the parents of the murderer and others.

The 142-page lawsuit, filed Friday in state Supreme Court in Erie County, is one of the first of what is expected to be several arising from the murders by Payton Gendron of 10 Black people at the Tops supermarket in East Buffalo on May 14, 2022.

Gendron in November pleaded guilty in an Erie County court to the 10 murders and state hate crimes. Gendron was 18 at the time of his massacre.

"Payton Gendron has pled guilty to these murders, and is no longer a danger to society," Buffalo attorney John Elmore, one of the lawyers representing the three families, said in a statement. "However, the social media platforms that radicalized him, and the companies that armed him, must still be held accountable for their actions. Our goal, on behalf of our clients, is to make this community and our nation safer and prevent other mass shootings.”

Among those being sued are digital platforms Meta Platforms Inc., formerly Facebook; Snap Inc.; Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company; Discord Inc.; Reddit Inc.; and Amazon.com Inc., which operates the Twitch livestreaming service.

Signs around the Tops Market in Buffalo annouce its closure on the one-year anniversary of the fatal mass shooting.
Signs around the Tops Market in Buffalo annouce its closure on the one-year anniversary of the fatal mass shooting.

The online services allowed Gendron to connect with others motivated by a white supremacist ideology and also gave him platforms to livestream his violent and racist assault, according to lawyers for the families and online experts assisting the litigation.

"Gendron was motivated to commit his heinous crime by racist, antisemitic, and white supremacist propaganda fed to him by social media companies,” Matthew Bergman, founding attorney of the Social Media Victims Law Center, said in a statement. Bergman and the Social Media Victims Law Center are assisting Elmore with the lawsuit.

“These posts led Gendron down a rabbit hole of increasingly radical sites, where he was indoctrinated in white supremacist replacement theory and violent accelerationism," Bergman said. "This horrible crime was neither an accident nor coincidence, but rather the foreseeable result of social media companies’ intentional decision to maximize user engagement over public safety."

Gendron aired his plans to murder Black people on Discord and outlined his plans there in the months before the killings.

Elmore and his law partner, Kristen Elmore-Garcia, are representing the families of murder victims Andre Mackneil, who was 53 and a father of five who was at Tops to buy a birthday cake for his 3-year-old son’s birthday party; Katherine “Kat” Massey, 72, a community activist and retired teacher; and Heyward Patterson, 67, a deacon at State Tabernacle Church of God and a retired security guard.

Lawsuits against the online platforms could face steep legal hurdles.

"Despite the integral nature of online platforms in this and previous mass shootings, however, it is extremely unlikely that any of them — even the worst offenders who enforce virtually no content moderation — can face any sort of legal liability," New York Attorney General Letitia James' office wrote in an October report on the Buffalo massacre.

"There are no laws on the books that directly address the conduct at issue here, not even for the distribution of a graphic, uncensored video created by an attacker killing another person in cold blood," said the report, which recommended changes in federal and state laws governing the responsibilities of digital platforms.

Videos of mass killings

A tree on Landon Street in Buffalo has faded taped signs and messages for the victims from the mass shooting that killed 10 people at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo last year.
A tree on Landon Street in Buffalo has faded taped signs and messages for the victims from the mass shooting that killed 10 people at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo last year.

Gendron was partly if not largely motivated by a video from Christchurch, New Zealand, where a gunman fatally shot 51 people at two mosques in May 2019. That video, created by the gunman during his killing spree, still lives on the Internet today, as does Gendron's own video of his murders.

"The Buffalo shooter was galvanized by his belief that others would be watching him commit violence in real-time," the attorney general's report said. "Livestreaming has become a tool of mass shooters to instantaneously publicize their crimes."

Gendron livestreamed his murders via the Twitch service. It has been viewed over 3 million times, according to the lawsuit.

"The social media platforms have the ability to make sure that stuff is never shared again," Elmore said.

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A Twitch spokesperson acknowledged last year that the shooting in Buffalo was broadcast in real time. The livestream was removed less than two minutes after the violence began, according to the company. However, the video also included 22 minutes of Gendron preparing and discussing its plan.

The company Twitch said last year that it has “has a zero tolerance policy against violence of any kind.”

The videos often become launching pads for other mass shootings motivated by bigotry, said Amy Spitalnick, an expert in online radicalization.

"There's very much a pattern that we can easily point to at this point," she said. "It's existed for years, It's a cycle in which one attack is used for the next one. At the core of all of these attacks are the very same white supremacist conspiracy theories."

Spitalnick led a group that won a $25 million judgment against the neo-Nazis who organized the 2017 march in Charlottesville, Va. That lawsuit, she said, "illustrates the power of accountability."

Firearms sales and body armor

File Photo: Ten people were killed and three others injured in a shooting at a Buffalo grocery store on May 14, 2022.
File Photo: Ten people were killed and three others injured in a shooting at a Buffalo grocery store on May 14, 2022.

Also being sued are Gendron's parents; RMA Armament, an Iowa-based body armor manufacturer for the body armor worn by Gendron on Mat 14; Vintage Firearms, the retail gun store located in Endicott where Gendron purchased his AR-15; and MEAN Arms LLC a custom firearms manufacturer in Woodstock, Georgia, that sells the firearms MEAN MA Lock device. The lock can be easily removed to allow high-capacity magazines of a type prohibited by New York law.

New York Attorney General Letitia James also on Thursday sued MEANS Arms LLC.

Mean Arms deceptively advertised that installing a device that locks a magazine on an assault weapon makes it legal under New York law, both lawsuits allege. But since the lock can be easily removed so detachable magazines can be inserted, the manufacturer aided the illegal possession of assault weapons in New York, James’ office said.

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National civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump is also planning lawsuits against the social media platforms where Gendron's racism was fueled. He is working hand in hand with Buffalo attorney Terrence Connors.

"We are taking a deep dive into the online digital platforms to determine who enabled the shooter, who assisted him, who encouraged him and to determine if there is any accountability," Connors said in a recent interview. "... It is difficult to imagine that much hate could be accumulated in an 18-year old kid. Where did it come from? How did it foment? How was it encouraged?"

The family of 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, another victim at the Tops, is one of the families represented by Crump and Connors.

"There's nothing that’s going to bring my mother back," said Garnell Whitfield Jr., a son of Ruth Whitfield. "There's nothing that's going to fill the hole in us as a family. But my mom deserves justice. Our community deserves justice. We deserve justice."

Whitfield acknowledge that the litigation by victims' families could be ground-breaking if successful.

"We just happen to be, if not the first, one of the first to take this path to try to hold these people accountable," he said. "We've got to start somewhere."

Includes reporting by Associated Press.

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Buffalo massacre families sue online platforms, body armor maker