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‘Our community is stronger’: Buffalo stands resilient one year after grocery store massacre

<i>Laura Oliverio/CNN</i><br/>Mark Talley is seen here.
Laura Oliverio/CNN
Mark Talley is seen here.

By Nicquel Terry Ellis, CNN

On the day she was killed, Simone Crawley’s grandmother, Ruth E. Whitfield, was buying seeds for her garden — a labor of love — where she planted sweet peppers and sweet potatoes.

Whitfield, the family’s matriarch, was among the 10 people who died in a racist mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Markets in east Buffalo, New York, a year ago.

Crawley said Whitfield had always kept her children and grandchildren close, cooked Sunday dinners and inspired everyone with her strength, grace and genuine love.

For her, the pain of losing her grandmother is still raw.

“It has been extremely difficult for us,” Crawley said. “We are coming up on a year but for our family, it doesn’t even feel like six months.”

Sunday marks the first anniversary of the attack in Buffalo’s majority Black east side, when 19-year-old White supremacist Payton Gendron opened fire at the Tops grocery store. Relatives of victims, including Crawley, delivered emotional statements at Gendron’s sentencing hearing.

“We all know the pure hatred and motivations behind your heinous crime, and we are here to tell you that you failed,” Crawley said, addressing Gendron in court. “We will continue to elevate and be everything you aren’t, everything you hate and everything you intended to destroy.”

Gendron was sentenced to life in prison in February.

Still, the family is resilient and united in the year following the tragedy, Crawley said. And so is the larger Buffalo community.

The ‘community is stronger’ 

While the Buffalo community remains devastated, the city is trying to turn tragedy into triumph, activists say.

The neighborhood has returned to normal and there is steady traffic at the Tops grocery store, which was remodeled with more safety features and enhanced food offerings following the shooting.

There have been forums — one in Whitfield’s honor last month highlighting White supremacy hate speech, health and wellness and terrorism — community events, and food drives that are bringing residents together in their grief. The mass shooting exposed inequities in food and economic security, and several organizations have stepped in to assist the community, Buffalo NAACP president the Rev. Mark Blue said.

The city is hosting several events for the “5/14 Remembrance Weekend,” which will include a panel discussion and memorial service. Some residents say they are desperate for solutions to hate, mental illness and gun control to prevent mass shootings from happening again.

Last June, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation strengthening the state’s gun laws that included banning the purchase of semi-automatic rifles to anyone under age 21 and prohibiting the purchase of body armor with the exception of people in certain professions. Hochul also announced in March that the state would allocate $1.4 million to support mental health programs in east Buffalo.

Blue hopes mental health funding will reach schools so there are more resources to diagnose and treat mental illness at an earlier age.

“One year later our community is stronger, more cohesive, and more resilient,” Blue said. “We are working for positive change and we know it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said while he is thankful for the state’s “strong and swift” response, there needs to be action at the federal level. Hundreds more mass shootings have occurred across the country since the Buffalo massacre. There have been more than 200 so far this year alone.

“Some federal lawmakers continue to look the other way when innocent Americans are being gunned down in these shootings,” Brown said. “There are more mass shootings than there are days in the year. So this problem isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse.”

Mark Talley, whose mother Geraldine Talley was killed in the racist massacre, says he will be releasing a book titled, “The Day the Devil Came to Buffalo,” about his fondest memories of his mother, his anger, shock and grief.

“It makes for a pretty surreal, awkward experience once you find out your mother was one of the victims killed and that the shooting wasn’t just people playing around,” Talley said. “The shooting happened because a racist terrorist wanted to come here and kill Black people.”

Talley said he wants the community to focus less on memorializing the attack on each anniversary and more on solutions to the poverty that ails east Buffalo. He also believes that gun control at the state level is not enough to stop mass shootings.

“Unless this is done on a federal level, it really doesn’t make sense,” Talley said. “Someone can go to another state, get some guns and come back.”

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