They were caregivers and protectors and helpers, running an errand or doing a favor or finishing out a shift, when their paths crossed with a young man driven by racism and hatred and baseless conspiracy theories.
In a flash, the ordinariness of their day was broken at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, where in and around the supermarket’s aisles, a symbol of the mundane was transformed into a scene of mass murder.
Carts lay abandoned. Bodies littered the tile floor. Police radios crackled with calls for help.
Investigators will try, for days to come, to piece together the massacre that killed 10 people, all Black and apparently hunted for the color of their skin.
Those who loved them are left with their memories of the lost, who suffered death amid the simple task of buying groceries.
“These people were just shopping,” said Steve Carlson, 29, mourning his 72-year-old neighbor Katherine Massey, who checked in often, giving him gifts on his birthday and at Christmas, and pressing money into his hand when he helped with yardwork. “They went to go get food to feed their families.”
One came from volunteering at a food bank. Another had been tending to her husband at his nursing home. Most were in their 50s and beyond, and were destined for more, even if just the dinner they planned to make.
Shonnell Harris, a manager at the store, was stocking shelves when she heard the first of what she figured must have been more than 70 shots. She ran for the back door, stumbling a few times along the way. She wondered where her daughter, a grocery clerk, was, and went around to the front of the store.The grisly scene was broadcast online by the gunman, a video notable not just for the cold-bloodedness of the killings, but how fast they unfolded. In the deafening rat-a-tat of gunfire, 10 voices were silenced, their stories left for others to recite.
Of a woman whose niece swore she was “the apple of God’s eye.”Of a longtime policeman who became a guard at the store and whose son knew he died a hero. Of an ace baker who’d give you the shirt off her back.
Garnell Whitfield Jr., whose 86-year-old mother Ruth Whitfield was killed in the attack, said she had come to Tops after her daily ritual of visiting her husband of 68 years in his nursing home. In so many ways, for so many years, Whitfield Jr. said his mother had devoted her life to those she loved.
“That day was like every other day for my mom,” he said as he pondered how to break the news to his father.
Heyward Patterson, a 67-year-old deacon at State Tabernacle Church of God in Christ, was similarly doing the things he’d long been known for. He had just come from helping at his church’s soup kitchen and now was at Tops, volunteering in the community jitney service that shuttles people without a ride to and from the store.
Pastor Russell Bell of the Tabernacle Church said he believed Patterson had been loading someone’s groceries into his trunk when the shots took him down.
“Anywhere he was, he was encouraging people to be the best that they could be,” Bell said.
As customers arrived at Tops ahead of the shooting, their purpose was clear.
Roberta Drury, 32, was in search of something for dinner. Andre Mackneil, 53, came to pick up a cake for his son’s third birthday. Celestine Chaney, 65, needed some shortcake to go with the strawberries she sliced.
For some in the store, it was likely a trip of necessity, to fill an emptied fridge or get a missing ingredient. For Chaney, though, it was more than some stubborn chore. Stores were her passion.
Her 48-year-old son, Wayne Jones, said he’d typically take his mother shopping each week, stopping at grocery store after grocery store in search of the best deals, with the occasional stop for a hot dog or McDonald’s.
“We’d hit four or five stores looking for a deal,” he laughed even as his face was wet with tears.
Avowed white racist Payton Gendron allegedly put together a 180-page manifesto that revealed his hatred for Black and Jewish people and the “replacement theory” ideology that Fox News often speaks of, notably hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham.
Additionally, several Republican politicians have spouted the racist “theory,” saying that Democrats’ immigration policies would “replace” GOP voters with individuals of color. New York Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik and Ohio GOP hopeful J.D. Vance recently have been outspoken in supporting “replacement theory.”
Stefanik used the concept in her 2021 campaign ads saying, “radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a permanent election insurrection.” Vance, a Donald Trump-endorsed candidate, recently ratcheted up the rhetoric.
“You’re talking about a shift in the…makeup of this country that would mean we never win, meaning Republicans would never win a national election in this country ever again,” he claimed at a campaign event last month.
Vance’s defeated opponent, Josh Mandel, also ran on “replacement theory.”
“This is about changing the face of America, figuratively and literally,” Mandel stated in a published interview. “They are trying to change our culture, change our demographics and change our electorate. This is all about power,” he said.
So far, the only Republican politician of note to call out the racist rhetoric is Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney.
“The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism,” Cheney wrote on Twitter. “History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse. @GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.”
Lawmakers weigh in
What happened here is simple and straightforward: Terrorism. Terrorism. Domestic terrorism. White Supremacy Is a poison.” – President Joe Biden
“The nation must also cure the disease of gun violence and the ability of an 18-year-old to get not only weapons of war, but also body armor that enabled him to kill 10 people including a retired police officer who confronted him and who did not have the body armor this violent white nationalist had. Enact H.R. 40 Now! Enact Gun Safety Legislation Now. Racism is real and America has to deal with it Now!” – Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee
“Prayers and thoughts are not enough, we must do more. We must not allow each generation to learn hate to the extent where we see hate crimes … white supremacy … all of these (things are) taking place in our country. People are taught. We need to do what we can to make it known that this is unacceptable behavior.” – Congressman Al Green
“Violence in any form is unacceptable, especially when someone targets innocent people because of their skin color. There is truly no place for hate in our country. Leaders around the country must condemn this hate crime on the strongest terms. I call on many of them to stop using thinly veiled rhetoric that seeks to divide us, and promotes racism and antisemitism or the idea of “replacement theory. This country must have a conversation about the number of guns on the streets and the gun violence that leaves families in heartache. Thoughts and prayers are fine, but they must be combined with action.” – Mayor Sylvester Turner
“That’s what happens when white supremacy has no form of accountability for their actions.” – Dr. Candice Matthews, RAINBOW Push Coalition