BUFFALO, N.Y. — Ten days after a white supremacist walked into an East Buffalo supermarket with an AR-15-style rifle determined to kill as many Black people as he could, groups of mostly Black kids in third to eighth grade at Harriet Ross Tubman School spent their lunch periods sitting in a circle, still processing what happened at the store that’s a five-minute ride from their school.
“He drove two hours to come to Buffalo and he was only aiming for Black people,” Jalen, a third grader said, adding it made him feel “unsafe.”
“Why would an 18-year-old kid just have a whole gun?” Naeem, a third grader, said. “And his mom or his parents didn’t stop him or nothing?”
“A 9-year-old, me, can understand not to be racist,” Israel, another third grader, said. “But an 18-year-old man doesn’t even understand that killing people for their own skin color… That is racist. It makes me feel very frustrated.”
Nyjuan, who’s in the fifth grade, sat sullenly for most of his class’ discussion. When he did speak, he told Dakarai Singletary, the lifelong Buffalo resident who holds weekly “restorative circles” like these with Black and brown youth on the city’s East Side, that he saw footage of the May 14 shooting on social media. And the imagery stuck with him.
“I just didn’t want to see what I seen on that video,” Nyjuan said quietly. “I wanted to hurt him.”
“That night when it happened, my heart hurt,” Singletary told him. “I wanted to put out that same hurt as well. But at the same time, it’s like, if we hurt him, aren’t we just as low as him?”
Singletary runs the restorative circles as part of Candles in the S.U.N., a nonprofit he founded that offers mentorship and free sports camps to East Buffalo’s Black and brown kids. After the shooting at the Tops store, where 10 people were killed, he wanted to give the kids a space to talk about it.
“The neighborhoods are forever changed,” Singletary told VICE News. “They’re seeing their parents take caution with everything that they do. They’re seeing people like me, who are usually calm, cool, and collected, be a little more stressed out.”
Singletary’s work with East Buffalo kids is just one example of how people in this historically segregated community wasted little time helping however they could. This work could be seen on every other city block: faith groups and community activists handing out fresh fruit, vegetables, and hot meals to fill the void left by Tops’ closure; volunteers driving the elderly to grocery stores miles away for their essentials; others simply providing comfort for those coming to mourn the victims at the makeshift memorial site outside the Tops supermarket.
In East Buffalo, where decades of government neglect and disinvestment have left residents largely on their own, individuals doing their part isn’t just second nature for those who love their city but also a necessary part of moving forward after a tragedy.
“I know people are reliant on me within this community, I had to step up. I had to put my feelings on the back and really get to work,” Singletary said. “And getting to work… is having these circles with these kids, letting them be able to express themselves.”
A gap that’s lasted generations
Buffalo is the nation’s sixth most segregated city, according to a 2018 study conducted by Partnership for the Public Good. While 35 percent of the population is Black, 85 percent of them live on the city’s East Side—which made it a target. The shooting suspect, an 18-year-old white supremacist from Conklin, New York, drove three hours to East Buffalo, in hopes of killing as many Black people as possible, according to his Discord diary.
Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux, a traveling nurse and Buffalo native, said disinvestment in the community started after the 33 Expressway was built in the 1950s. The six-lane roadway, meant to bring people to and from new federally subsidized suburban housing, actually worked to divide communities.
“FDR’s New Deal actually gave federally secured loans to people to receive housing. Those people were not Black people,” she said. “It basically prompted white flight.”
As the East Side became less diverse, those willing to invest in the city dropped off significantly. In the decades that followed World War II, Buffalo’s manufacturing jobs, which like many other U.S. cities kept its working-class families afloat, disappeared.
Additionally, thanks to regular redlining, the crack epidemic, and the 1994 Crime Bill that incarcerated dozens of Black people, many of whom were fathers, for nonviolent crime, East Buffalo has lagged behind the city’s predominantly white areas in almost every category, including transportation, food security, infrastructure, and good-paying jobs. And while the city experienced growth at the turn of the century, with beautification projects taking off in the city’s gentrified West Side, Black communities and neighborhoods never received the same kind of investment, the Investigative Post reported last year.
Since 2005, Martin-Bordeaux has been trying to solve these issues, particularly around food security. The now-shuttered Tops, which will remain closed for the foreseeable future as law enforcement continue their investigation, is the only grocery store that serves 22,000 East Buffalo residents. It’s why Martin-Bordeaux has been working with community partners to help start a food co-op in the city, which became even more urgent after the mass shooting.
“I immediately got dressed and came here to see what I could do to assist my community,” she said.
She’s also working to secure a commissary in the short term through U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, and get funding to open up a second grocery store for East Buffalo.
“We need a more permanent solution,” she said. “It’s beautiful to see the community come together like this, but it’s not quite the solution that the community needs long-term.”
Franchelle Parker is the executive director of Open Buffalo, a racial justice and advocacy group down the street from Tops. Since its founding in 2014, it has successfully advocated for a community-led police advisory board and the decriminalization of weed in New York, and pumped food and PPE into the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People were hungry before [the shooting],” Parker said. “There are a lot of issues that need to be tackled in our community through investment. All of that investment, will it solve white supremacy? No, but it will help lessen the fertile ground that the white supremacy is able to grow.”
Food isn’t the only issue facing East Buffalo. Dennice Barr, who has spent the past 10 years advocating for improved transportation, told VICE News as well as advocating for donations for the African Heritage Food Co-op, she’s been connecting residents to mental health services.
“Some people are only dealing with the pain that comes with loss, not so much with the trauma yet,” Barr said. “We have to get through the funerals, and a lot of people will deal with the trauma only after all of that is done.”
Tommy Seay, a 64-year-old tour bus driver based in Grand Island, New York, 12 miles out of Buffalo, asked his supervisor if he could return to his hometown to help shuttle residents to the next closest supermarket.
“The fact that I grew up in this area means I know every single square inch of it and know the fastest, most efficient route to take to get to the next supermarket,” he said.
Help came from official channels, too. Right after the shooting, food and monetary donations poured into the city. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and the Buffalo Bills visited. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown prayed with members of the community. Democrats including New York Sen. Chuck Schumer advocated for national gun control and placed blame on conservative, pro-gun right politicians on Capitol Hill. The state recently beefed up its red flag laws, which the Buffalo shooter was able to circumvent, and raised the age to purchase semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21, among other weapon reforms.
But the media attention Buffalo received in the wake of the shooting subsided pretty quickly, something the residents anticipated from the start.
“When the cameras are gone, my fear is nothing is going to change,” one Open Buffalo volunteer told VICE News. “That’s why I’m here.”
“[Tops] was my summer job. My family goes to the Tops down the street and it's like, how could I stay in Seattle knowing this is going on in my town,” said another volunteer, who flew back home to help. “When the cameras are gone, when these people are gone, nobody cares because they already don’t care.”
East Buffalo residents have always been self-sustaining, according to community activist Myles Carter—because they’ve had to be. Carter partnered with local organizations to organize diaper-and-wipe giveaways for new families who can’t access the necessities they’d typically get from Tops, as well as other household items like paper towels.
“People had to fight to get this Tops here,” he said, as well as for Black-owned businesses nearby, like the coffee shop, cigar store, and the Challenger newspaper down the street. “Everything over here we had to fight to get.”
Carter said that the community's proactiveness is an example of Black resilience.
“Black folk don’t have to guess what Malcolm X would have done at a time like this. Because when Malcolm X was alive, a church was bombed where five little Black girls lost their lives,” he said. “We already know what to do when it happens. People just jump in and start doing what we’re supposed to be doing because we know how to handle it.”
If not us, who?
Parker from Open Buffalo said it doesn’t take much to reach out to a neighbor, but that’s not enough.
“As a community, we only have so much capacity. We need elected officials that actually know what’s going on in the community to use that same energy that goes into building a stadium for the Buffalo Bills.”
Martin-Bordeaux said it’s exhausting having to balance being a mother, a nurse, and an activist. But like so many others in the community, she’s afraid that if she’s not the one on the front lines, then who will be?
Back at Harriet Tubman, the kids were made to go through yet another lockdown drill. Afterward, Singletary asked the third graders if they could do one thing to prevent something like Tops from happening again, what would it be.
One student said he’d get rid of all racism.
Another said he’d make sure there were stricter gun laws because “some people don’t know how to use them.”
“Check their past for any threats that they’ve done,” a third piped in.
Singletary said it was important for them to know that what they think matters. “We don't get a chance to often express ourselves, be seen, or be heard,” he told VICE News.
“Since losing those 10 community members, they really need to see how to move forward for the future. I want the youth to know that they can really change the world, that they can change their city.”
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Pilar Belendez-Desha and Roberto Daza contributed to this story.