BUFFALO—Tuesday evening, as the sun was setting, more than a thousand Buffalo residents gathered on a grassy field on the east side across from Tops Friendly Market where, over the weekend, 10 of their neighbors were killed.
One by one they said the names of the victims who died at the hands of a gunman who police say traveled three hours to this location with the racist intent of killing as many black people as possible.
Ruth Whitfield. Young pearl. Catherine Massey. Aaron Salter. Roberta Drury. Heyward Patterson. Celestine Cheney. Andre MacNeil. Geraldine Talley. Margus Morrison. “And now, a moment of silence for our current ancestors,” said one speaker.
These residents came here, hours after the President and Governor’s visit, to mourn their neighbors by candlelight with gospel music and Bible invocations. But they also demanded that in their memory, things had to change.
“I wish I could sing. If I could, I could sing my wish that they didn’t die in vain,” Franchelle Parker, general manager of the local Open Buffalo organization. “We can’t just celebrate their lives without We need legislative action.
This was the theme of the speeches of the vigil: “We have had enough prayers and condolences. We need good politics,” said a pastor who spoke. “You know, it’s good that the President of the United States is coming here, but what’s the plan? Where is the budget to make things better for us? asked another speaker.
In this resolve to see change, they were aligned – in words – with the powerful politicians who visited, who spoke one after another about the need to fight racism and white supremacy, to implement better gun laws and to bring comfort to this community by delivering both criminal crimes and social justice. The difference is that politicians are the ones with the power to do something to act on these words, and these local residents have plenty of reason to doubt whether they will see action on them.
This vicious, seemingly racist terrorist attack shattered this community. But it was a neighborhood that had already seen many struggles, shaped by racism and segregation. Buffalo is the sixth most racially segregated city in the United States, according to a University of Michigan study. The predominantly black East Side community is where inspirational murals provide bright pops of color on streets dotted with boarded up storefronts and overgrown vacant lots. Black residents of the East Side suffer from high levels of poverty, unemployment and health problems, according to a University at Buffalo study released last year which concluded that living conditions had in fact deteriorated. worsened for these residents over the past three decades.
Even the opening of the Tops supermarket where the shooting occurred was seen as a substantial victory for the neighborhood in 2003 – there are no other suitable 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 demands for justice made at Tuesday night’s vigil, a community leader said it was imperative the store reopened.
But you can see why people here have reason to be skeptical of promises that change will come, even in the wake of a tragedy like this.
Even President Biden has acknowledged that changes to gun laws — which were among the top needs cited by both community activists and visiting politicians — face difficult political hurdles. Gun laws weren’t toughened after the Sandy Hook shootings a decade ago – even a modest bipartisan-sponsored bill tightening background checks didn’t pass the Senate then, despite wishes at the time that it was finally time to do something about it. They have not been changed following dozens of mass shootings since.
After his speech Tuesday, a reporter asked Biden what he could do about gun laws, and the president acknowledged there was little he could do without congressional support. And what were the prospects, he was asked? “It’s going to be very difficult. But I’m not going to give up trying.”
Members of Buffalo’s East Side community are used to hearing that politicians try. And used to seeing them fail. The pastor who spoke on Tuesday – the one who said the community had enough prayers and condolences – said “we couldn’t get an agreement in Congress” is an excuse long past its expiration date. “It’s not going to cut it this time,” he said. Invoking what he said was righteous indignation and love for those who died, he said, “You must answer not just with prayers, but with the stroke of a pen. We must demand that those we pay do the work we pay them to do.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION