Buffalo residents gather to mourn at mass shooting scene

WASHINGTON—On Tuesday evening as the sun was going down, more than a thousand Buffalo residents gathered on a grassy lot on the East Side, across the street from the Tops Friendly Market where over the weekend 10 of their neighbours were killed.

One by one, they said the names of the victims who’d died at the hands of a gunman police allege travelled three hours to this spot with the racist intention of killing as many Black people as possible.

Ruth Whitfield. Pearl Young. Katherine Massey. Aaron Salter. Roberta Drury. Heyward Patterson. Celestine Cheney. Andre Mackneil. Geraldine Talley. Margus Morrison. “And now a moment of silence for our now-ancestors,” a speaker said.

These residents came here, hours after the President and the Governor had visited, to grieve their neighbours by candlelight with gospel music and biblical invocations. But they also demanded that in their memory, things needed to change.

“I wish I could sing. If I could, I could I would sing my wish that they will not have died in vain,” Franchelle Parker, executive director of the local organization Open Buffalo. “We can’t just celebrate their lives without change. We need legislative action.”

That was a theme of the speeches at the vigil: “We’ve had enough prayers and condolences. We need good policy,” one pastor who spoke said. “You know, it’s all good to have the President of the United States come here, but what’s the plan? Where’s the budget to make things better for us?” another speaker asked.

In that resolve to see changes they were aligned — in words — with the powerful politicians who visited, who spoke one after another of the need to combat racism and white supremacy, to implement better gun laws, and to comfort this community by delivering both criminal and social justice. The difference is that the politicians are the ones with the power to do something to act on those words, and these local residents have plenty of reasons to doubt whether they’ll see action on them.

This vicious apparent racist terrorist attack shattered this community. But it was a neighbourhood that had already seen plenty of struggle, shaped by racism and segregation. Buffalo is the sixth-most racially segregated city in the U.S., according to a University of Michigan study. The predominantly Black populated East Side community is one where inspirational murals provide splashes of bright colour on streets dotted with boarded up storefronts and overgrown vacant lots. Black residents of the East Side suffer high amounts of poverty, unemployment, and health problems, according to a University of Buffalo study released last year that concluded life conditions had actually gotten worse for these residents over the past three decades.

Even the opening of the Tops supermarket where the shooting happened was considered a substantial neighbourhood victory in 2003 — there are no other proper grocery stores in the area, and community members had fought long and hard to convince the grocery chain to open a location for them.

That’s part of why, among the demands for justice made at the vigil Tuesday night, one community leader said it was imperative that the store reopen its doors.

But you can see why people here have reason to be skeptical of promises a change is going to arrive, even in the wake of such a tragedy as this.

Even President Biden acknowledged that changes in gun laws — which were among the top needs named by both community activists and visiting politicians — face tough political odds. Gun laws weren’t strengthened after the Sandy Hook shooting a decade ago — even a modest, bipartisan sponsored bill tightening background checks failed to come to a vote in the Senate then, despite vows at the time that it was finally time to do something. They haven’t been changed in the wake of dozens of mass shootings since.

After his speech on Tuesday, Biden was asked by a reporter what he could do about gun laws and the president acknowledged there wasn’t much he could do without the support of Congress. And what were the prospects of that, he was asked? “It is going to be very difficult. But I am not going to give up trying.”

Members of Buffalo’s East Side community are used to hearing that politicians are trying. And used to seeing them fail to deliver. The pastor who spoke Tuesday — the one who said the community had enough prayers and condolences — said that “we couldn’t get a deal in Congress” is an excuse long past its sell-by date. “That’s not going to cut it this time,” he said. Summoning what he said was righteous indignation and love for those who died, he said, “You need to respond not just with prayers, but with the stroke of a pen. We need to demand that those we pay do the job we pay them to do.”

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