On the day of the mass shooting in Buffalo last May, Jillian Hanesworth was celebrating her childhood friend’s baby shower. When Hanesworth’s phone pinged with panicked messages and calls, she changed out of her dress and drove to Tops Friendly Market on Jefferson. It was the only supermarket on Buffalo’s East Side, where she grew up, and the place where, for two minutes, a white supremacist had attacked her neighbors with an assault-style rifle.
“I was there when they started saying who was killed,” Hanesworth, 30, said. The longtime racial justice advocate knew she needed to help direct people to reunification spots forming about a block from the store, and to support her community. In the end, 10 names were called.
About two hours later, as she turned to leave, Hanesworth caught the eye of a Black man in his fifties, who told her, “My aunt was in there,” Hanesworth recalled. “She’s gone.” Even as he claimed he didn’t want to be held, his body leaned into Hanesworth’s. “That’s when it hit me,” she said. “This is going to hurt and it’s going to hurt for a long time.”
To many East Siders, the violence underscored the area’s living history of segregation; prejudicial housing policies, food apartheid, disproportionate policing, and detrimental health outcomes have long disenfranchised this community.
Older residents point to long-term disinvestment, including the legacy of the 33 freeway, completed in 1965, which tore through swaths of Cherry, Riley, East Ferry, and West Parade streets, displacing residents, ruining businesses, and destroying the Humboldt Parkway, part of Buffalo’s historic Olmsted Park system.
“Buffalo’s always been a segregated city,” said Pastor George Nicholas of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church. “One of the results of that segregation was a tremendous gap in income and wealth building.” He added: “When the 33 was built, it split the Black community.”
News organizations quickly identified the gunman, who’d been briefly held for a mental health evaluation a year earlier, after making threats against his school. He’d come to town after searching online for the New York zip code with the highest population of Black people, and after logging hundreds of hours espousing white supremacist theories on social media. On May 14, he suited up in body armor and a tactical helmet, armed himself with an illegally modified Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, a loaded bolt-action rifle, and several magazines of ammunition. He posted his “manifesto,” drove to Tops, and immediately began shooting. The video camera atop his helmet live streamed 22 minutes of driving, and two minutes of carnage, during which he fired approximately 60 rounds.
In the aftermath, amid a nationwide show of grief, East Side residents watched as news outlets and politicians focused on the isolation and mental health impacts of the pandemic, which they say detracted from the real significance of the meticulously planned, targeted violence: The shooting was an outbreak of systematic racism that had been plaguing the East Side for generations. In an investigative report put together by the office of New York’s attorney general, survivors described “the extra layer of shock and hardship caused by the shooter’s decision to target a grocery store in an underserved area that is otherwise a food desert.”
Six months after the shooting, Nicholas’s decades-long work to address inequities on the East Side was informing community action. “What we can’t do is have the same old response, and miss the opportunities to address structural, systemic, and institutional racism; the ideology of white supremacy which permeates and dominates every level of our country.” Despite historic failures, he believed the paradigm would shift. “What choice do I have?”
Standing in the Tops parking lot that day, Hanesworth saw the nexus of two East Sides. One historically plagued by poverty and unsafe drinking water, heavily policed, segregated from the rest of the city by the 33, and the other she remembered so vividly from childhood, where nearly 30 years ago, on Thatcher Avenue, she was part of a troop of kids that ran from house to house until they were called in for dinner. Those memories cemented for her the meaning of community, love, and fortitude on the East Side.
“If you had to use GPS to get here, you’re a part of the problem,” Hanesworth said. For Black community members and mental health providers, the national narrative did more harm than good, centering the gunman’s mental health and engagement with hateful ideologies online instead of the historic and lasting trauma of his attack in one of the most segregated neighborhoods in the country.
The conversation steered away from a structural accounting of the social conditions that led to the gunman’s violence, and from a meaningful conversation about what reinvestment in this targeted community might look like.
“It eliminates accountability,” said Chardanay Young-Ford, a Black clinical mental health counselor who lives on the East Side. “This person thought about it; they wrote about it, they planned it, they live streamed it, they carried it out. That shows me they are competent and they have the means.”
Kelly Dumas, a clinical social worker, watched via livestream on her phone as the shooter crossed the boundary of the East Side’s segregation. As chief operating officer of BestSelf, a behavioral health provider in Buffalo, she was on her way to Tops within the hour. “The crowd parted,” Dumas said of the people at the Tops, recalling the long lines that formed in the surrounding area for Black faith leaders and therapists like herself, while white mental health professionals were moved behind the scenes to handle more administrative work. “People didn’t know who they could trust.”
In the shooting’s immediate aftermath, local mental and behavioral health organizations like Crisis Services, BestSelf, and Spectrum Health and Human Services provided therapy. “There was an immediate realization that there was mental health support needed and that support had to look like the community directly impacted,” said Dumas, but there just weren’t enough Black mental health providers in Buffalo to meet the demand of the targeted and traumatized community.
Survivors said that their grief is “compounded by the fear that another attack could similarly target them and their community,” according to the attorney general’s report. “That fear is grounded, in part, in the ease with which the shooter planned and enacted his attack, and the lack of options to hold accountable any of the individuals or entities who may have been complicit in his radicalization or otherwise enabled it.”
The gunman was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole in February, having pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and a single count of domestic terrorism motivated by hate. In the eyes of the law, the shooter did not experience delusions or any other psychopathological symptom of mental illness; he knew what he was doing when he did it. More than six decades ago, after a slew of murders in the Civil Rights era prompted the efforts of Black psychologists to classify white supremacy and fascism as mental illness, the American Psychiatric Association agreed with the premise of the courts: Americans are racists because racism is a cultural norm, a reality that haunts the East Side community.
“The pain, the grief, feeling powerless — it can consume you if you let it, and it’s a conscious decision every day not to,” said Hanesworth, who struggled to go into any grocery store after the shooting, often freezing at the entrance. Instead, she sent friends with a list of things she needed. She took up therapy, slowly processing the small ways the trauma bubbled to the surface in her day-to-day life. “A lot of my friends know the weight I’m carrying, they check on me constantly. They don’t let me lie and say that I’m OK.”
At the shooter’s trial, Simone Crowley, granddaughter of 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, who was killed in the shooting, told her grandmother’s murderer that he was a cowardly racist. “You recorded the last moments of our loved ones’ lives to garner support for your hateful cause, but you immortalized them instead,” she said. “We are extremely aware that you are not a lone wolf, but part of a larger, organized network of domestic terrorists. And to that network, we say: We as a people are unbreakable.”
Long before the May massacre, Pastor Nicholas was laying the groundwork for the East Side’s recovery. As president of the Buffalo Center for Health Equity, Nicholas worked with other ministers and churches to teach from the pulpit about mental health and substance abuse, and also to document health inequities, knowing how skeptical the Black community is of the medical and mental health fields, particularly white care providers without sufficient cultural awareness or experience.
For years, using his knowledge of the significant gap in mental health care among Black Americans, and of the effects of racial trauma and discrimination on one’s ability to function, Nicholas tackled the local legacy of segregation that relegated more than a third of residents on Buffalo’s East Side to live below the poverty line, and two-thirds without homeownership. For 31 years, unemployment here has remained in the double digits. He knew that these symptoms of poverty can lead to negative emotional, mental, and behavioral outcomes starting in childhood and into adulthood. These realities prompted him to help form a partnership between the University at Buffalo Community Health Equity Research Institute and the Buffalo Center for Health Equity to address long-standing inequalities in the community through research and coalition building.
Along with other community leaders and activists, Nicholas saw an opportunity for community strengthening and reinvestment. “What good does it do to desegregate the lunch counter if people can’t afford a hamburger,” he asked, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Even when there was good legislation, without addressing huge income and wealth gaps, it had a nominal impact.”
In June 2022, Governor Kathy Hochul’s administration pledged more than $50 million for the community’s recovery after the shooting at Tops Market, but one year later, it remains unclear how, or when, the money is being allocated. (The Governor’s Office did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
In November, the Buffalo United Resiliency Center was opened, the newest addition to a grim national phenomenon born from mass violence incidents. That same month, the Buffalo United Resiliency Center’s phone number went to a dial tone and the doors were locked during operating hours. Though there is no research on the efficacy of “resiliency centers,” the U.S. Department of Justice encourages communities to open them in the wake of mass shootings; in Las Vegas, Newtown, Oxford, and Uvalde, they opened between 13 days and 10 months after the shooting. One year on, Buffalo’s resiliency center has moved from the old YMCA on the East Side to being housed within the Buffalo Urban League, a partner. A recent call went to Buffalo Urban League, where the receptionist was not aware that the Buffalo United Resiliency Center had moved there.
Community activists and some family members of victims of the Tops shooting are hesitant to trust the resiliency center.
Mark Talley Jr.’s mother, Geraldine Talley, 62, was shopping with her fiance on May 14 when the shooter opened fire, killing her. The week after the shooting, Talley started volunteering with local organizations. Then he launched a nonprofit, Agents for Advocacy, aimed at addressing poverty through financial literacy in his community and combating systemic racism. In Talley’s grief and his rage, he did what his mother had taught him to do: help others.
Talley is frustrated by the rollout of the resiliency center, to which the state has allocated $5.5 million since June 2022, money that “could have been used better for organizations and businesses already in that area,” he said.
Every month since Talley’s nonprofit started, he has partnered with organizations in the community. In July, two months after losing his mother, Agents for Advocacy partnered with Buffalo F.A.T.H.E.R.S., a 20-year-old advocacy group that helps inner city youth, and Emmanuel Temple Church of God, with a BBQ and prayer day that fed more than 700 people. In the months to follow, Agents for Advocacy hosted a back-to-school drive for children; partnered with the local library for story time, and a discussion on poverty and cancer with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center; and collaborated with other groups to host a Halloween party. In November, a coalition of groups donated hundreds of Thanksgiving meals to the people on the East Side.
“The lack of access to food, the lack of economic opportunities, it’s not new. It’s not something we’ve just started talking about. We’ve been screaming out for years,” Hanesworth said. “To now see this become a national conversation, on one hand, it’s great, but on the other, it’s like you’re telling me 10 innocent people have to get gunned down at a grocery store for you to realize that people on the East Side can’t eat.”
On May 11, the New York attorney general announced a lawsuit against MA Lock, the gun manufacturer that makes the detachable accessory used by the killer to allow his assault rifle magazine to hold more than 10 rounds. State Senator Tim Kennedy said at the time that the 10 lives lost at Tops were being honored with “real policy change that will better protect our communities,” alluding to New York’s passage of a gun reform package that banned the sale of body armor to civilians, raised the age to purchase semiautomatic rifles to 21, and expanded the state’s red flag law to include health care practitioners who have examined someone within the last six months. On May 15, Hochul’s office announced an additional $10 million in funding for the East Side, including a $4 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for mental health care services.
Young-Ford, who has served as the interim director of the Buffalo United Resiliency Center since it was announced in 2022, doesn’t anticipate being fully operational for at least another six months, but said that there will be “funding available to empower those already doing the work to continue doing the work through a subcontract.”
“I agree with them, there’s been a lot of broken promises,” she said of the community’s mistrust of the center. “This is a forgotten community with stigmatized, traumatized, disenfranchised people,” she added, “That means the needs are greater.”
Two months after the shooting, when it came time to reopen the Tops on Jefferson, the same market the East Side community had fought so hard throughout the 1990s to establish, a generational tension surfaced. Young people in the community argued that they would be living in the shadow of the shooting for the rest of their lives if it reopened in the same place. For the older generation, Tops was not just the site of an immense tragedy; it represented a hard-won victory, where people did their banking, picked up medication, or met for a fish fry. Since finally opening in 2003, it is the only supermarket in the East Side’s food desert.
But the tension is greatest between those who responded to the shooting day in and day out on the East Side — organizing food drives, delivering groceries; advocating for access to healthier food, affordable rent, economic and educational equality — and those who showed up briefly, only to disappear along with national news trucks.
The African Heritage Food Co-Op, which has been active in the community since 2016 and was allocated $3 million of the original $50 million from Hochul’s office, lost its nonprofit status earlier this year. It plans to open another grocery store on the East Side, but during a Facebook update in April, the owner of the co-op said they had not received any of the funding.
“You can only play one of two sides here: You are part of why the East Side is segregated and under-resourced, or you’re calling it out,” Hanesworth said. “What happens on the East Side doesn’t just impact the East Side. It impacts all of Buffalo, all of New York, all of America now.”
The market did reopen, and Hanesworth, who in 2021 became the first poet laureate of the City of Buffalo, wrote the memorial poem that greets all who enter: “Let the hopeful healing waters flow/ Cleansing all pain and fear/ All hurt and regret/ Let the water heal our people.”