Ten people were killed and three were injured in a racially motivated mass shooting at the Tops on Buffalo’s East Side Saturday afternoon. It was the deadliest shooting in Buffalo history.
Eleven of those shot were Black, according to CNN, with the remaining victims being white. Four were Tops employees, including security guard and retired Buffalo Police officer Aaron Salter, who exchanged fire with the gunman. Salter was among the deceased, according to The Buffalo News.
The three wounded victims were taken to Erie County Medical Center in stable condition, according to CBS News. At least one has been discharged.
The Erie County Sheriff’s office initially responded with “boots on the ground,” investigators and a helicopter, Erie County Sheriff John Garcia said. It also put a SWAT team on standby. The sheriff’s office is continuing to investigate and could bring terrorism and other murder charges against the gunman.
The FBI is “aggressively investigating” the incident as both a hate crime and as “an instance of racially motivated violent extremism,” Stephen Belongia, a special agent at the FBI’s Buffalo Field Office, said at a press conference Saturday.
The shooter, self-proclaimed white supremacist and former SUNY Broome student Payton Gendron, was arraigned on a first-degree murder charge, Erie County Sheriff John Garcia said in a press conference Saturday. That charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In a lengthy diatribe, the 18-year-old perpetrator said he had been planning the shooting since January and chose to target the East Side because it is a predominantly Black community. He also live-streamed the shooting on Twitch, according to CBS News.
Grady Lewis, an East Side resident who witnessed the shooting from across the street, told The Spectrum that he had an hour-long conversation with whom he believes was the gunman-to-be at Tops the day before the shooting. They discussed critical race theory and other topics.
The next day, Lewis watched from across the street as the shooter opened fire in the Tops parking lot.
“I looked up and I started seeing smoke, and then I started seeing this guy in army clothes shooting people,” Lewis said. “I thought it was a movie ‘cause they make movies here in Buffalo, so I thought it was part of that maybe. But then when I seen the security guard run in, I’m like, ‘OK, this is not a movie.’”
Lewis says he saw the gunman kill a well-respected East Side neighbor.
“He’s a deacon,” Lewis said. “He’s a good guy, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke. He’s not for violence.”
Like many others in his community, nearby resident Zahir Kijani made rounds to ensure that friends and family were safe once news of the shooting broke.
“I put on Facebook, all my boys checking,” Kijani said. “I called my mom and my brothers and sisters. I’m just going to thank God that I didn’t lose nobody, but I’m pretty heavy for the people who did.”
Local residents expressed concern that the shooting would have long-term ramifications on their neighbors’ food habits. Takesha Leonard, an East Side psychiatric nurse practitioner, is worried about the well-being of her patients.
Leonard fears that the shooting will discourage her patients from shopping for healthy food options, making diabetic patients “revert” back to “unhealthy eating habits.”
Many residents of the East Side lack access to healthy foods. According to WKBW, the local Tops has been one of the only sources of fresh fruits and vegetables in the area.
Leonard told The Spectrum she didn’t personally know anyone involved in the shooting, but still feels the loss and mourns the deaths in her community.
“When is it going to stop?” Leonard said. “They’re killing my patients. They’re killing my community. My husband’s like, ‘Let’s go,’ but I just don't even want to be anywhere else. It’s my community, and I love it. I love everything about being here.”
East Side residents aren’t the only ones who showed up in solidarity with the community. Justin Morris, the founder of Untapped Ministries in Rochester, came because he wanted to ensure that the families impacted would have access to the necessary resources. Morris led a prayer circle with grieving family members and East Side locals outside of Tops in the aftermath of the shooting.
“You got young people that’s doing stuff to hurt people and they get hurt,” Morris said. “But when you got a woman come in the store to go grocery shopping and she loses her life like that, it touches a place in my heart.”
Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in the nation, according to a 2018 report by the Partnership For The Public Good, a Buffalo community-based think tank. The East Side is a product of restrictive covenants and redlining in the 1900s.
Community members like Curtis Hawkins condemned the racist nature of the crime.
“There’s a Tops, there’s plenty of these around the whole city, in different parts of the area, this happened to be in a Black community,” Hawkins said. “If nobody thinks racism is alive, let that be an example right there.”
But that reality is a fixture of daily life for Black members of this community. Tomara Manuel-Debose, an East Side resident and registered nurse who administers COVID-19 vaccines on South Campus, shared a glimpse into that reality.
“I gotta tell my 24-year old son everyday, if you get pulled over, don’t f—king move your hands,” Manuel-Debose said. “That’s so heartbreaking that I have to tell my son that. Now you can’t even go to Tops. Can’t send my daughter to Tops to get no damn groceries for me.”
Fellow East Side resident Takesha Leonard says she is equally anguished that such a fundamental facet of community life has been tarnished by an act of racially-motivated violence.
“Ten people lost their lives today doing things that we do all day, going shopping and picking up groceries,” Leonard said. “I come here all the time because my practice is down the street. Could have been myself. My boys come here all the time. You don’t need to know anyone who was involved to feel like you lost someone today. It’s like someone hurt my family too.”
Even in the face of tragedy, East Side residents expressed their faith in the community’s ability to rebuild.
“We’re resilient,” Leonard said. “The East Side of Buffalo is very resilient. We will come together, we’re beautiful, the community will bounce back, but this was just so hard. It was a bad day, so I was just trying to figure out how we’re going to recover from this. I think the community is going to work.”
The shooter obtained the firearm used in the shooting legally but modified it with magazines that are illegal in New York State, Gov. Kathy Hochul said at a press conference Saturday. The source of the perpetrator’s firearms remains unclear at this time.
Hochul announced new action on gun control “to address further loopholes that exist” in state law and touted a program meant to identify firearms that cross state borders.
Hochul said that prosecutors should seek a life sentence for the “white supremacist” for his acts of “terrorism” and “barbarism.”
But Kijani says that the loss of life was preventable — regardless of sentencing.
“A wicked, evil man did that,” Kijani said. “Boy — 18 years old. Took people’s sisters and aunts and moms. A deacon. Everybody, everybody — don’t matter. Young, small. If they have money or not. Old people, anybody.
“Everybody who lost their life didn’t have to lose their life today,” Kijani said. “They just wanted to get something to eat.”
‘We have both the power and the responsibility to combat hate’
UB President Satish Tripathi issued a statement Saturday night offering support to those affected by the shooting.
“Our hearts are with the 10 people who lost their lives today, along with their grieving families, all those who were injured, and all those who were traumatized by the mass shooting that occurred this afternoon,” Tripathi said. “As a scholarly community, we have both the power and the responsibility to combat hate. And to that, we are deeply committed.”
Grant Ashley is a senior news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Moaz Elazzazi is an assistant multimedia editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Kayla Estrada is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kyle Nguyen is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Grant Ashley is the editor in chief of The Spectrum. He's also reported for WBFO, WIVB and The Buffalo News. He enjoys taking long bike rides, baking with his parents’ ingredients and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon. He can be found on the platform formerly known as Twitter at @Grantrashley.
Moaz Elazzazi is a senior multimedia editor at The Spectrum. He is a mechanical engineering major with a minor in studio art. In his spare time, he can be found drawing pretty pictures, taking pretty pictures or fixing obsolete technology.
Kyle Nguyen is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum.
Kayla Estrada is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum. She is an English major who enjoys rainy weather, “Bob’s Burgers” and asking people who they voted for. When she’s not writing, she can be found hunting for odd-looking knick-knacks at the nearest thrift store.