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Full Episode: One Year Later: Buffalo's Reckoning After 5/14 Mass Shooting

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One Year Later: Buffalo's Reckoning After 5/14 Mass Shooting

Full transcript of One Year Later: Buffalo's Reckoning After 5/14 Mass Shooting

Dan Clark: One year ago, an 18 year old white supremacist drove for more than three hours to a grocery store in Buffalo where he targeted and killed 10 people solely because they were black. This week we're going to talk about that shooting how it’s changed Buffalo and where the city called the city of good neighbors goes from here. We'll speak with Assembly majority leader Crystal Peoples Stokes whose district is in Buffalo and look at how our partners in public media continue to cover the shooting one year later.

First, I want to take a moment to remember the victims and who they were.

Aaron Salter was a security guard at the store and a former police officer in Buffalo. He tried to shoot the attacker, but his bullet was stopped by body armor. Ruth Whitfield was a loving wife, mother, and grandmother. She was the mother of a retired fire commissioner in Buffalo. Geraldine Talley was engaged to be married and friends and family said she just loved everybody. Katherine Massey was an advocate for her community who also wrote for historically black newspapers in Buffalo. Pearl Young ran a food pantry for more than two decades and loved to sing and dance. Heyward Patterson was a deacon at a local church who offered safe rides home to people in the community. Celestine Chaney loved being a grandmother to her six grandchildren and was a regular churchgoer. Margus Morrison was a bus aide for Buffalo public schools and worked as a security guard before that. He loved the Buffalo bills. Andre MacNeil was at Tops to buy a birthday cake for his son. He was loved by his family. Roberta Drury was loved by her family and was in Buffalo that day to help her adoptive brother with his recovery from cancer.

After the shooting New York responded by passing stricter gun laws. Anyone under 21 can no longer get a gun license, body armor can no longer be bought here, the state's red flag gun law was expanded and more. The shooter has since pled guilty in federal court, and we expect he'll spend his life in prison, but for Buffalo new laws and the justice system can't undo what happened. They might be a part of the community's recovery, but residents will tell you that's a longer road ahead.

One of those residents is Assembly majority leader Crystal Peoples Stokes, who lives just minutes from where the shooting happened on Buffalo's east side. We sat down to remember the shooting and discuss where we go from here.

Dan Clark: Majority leader, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate it.

Crystal Peoples-Stokes: It's my pleasure, appreciate you having me.

DC: It's been about a year since this awful shooting in Buffalo. It's an event that has happened in countless communities across America, and what we've learned from that is that it's going to take a lot of time to heal from something like this. How do you see Buffalo one year later?

CPS: I see Buffalo still struggling emotionally, I see people who were hurt by what happened, I see families directly hurt, but I also see a broader community that was hurt. I see people who, men in particular, who wish they could have been there to get their hands on that guy, or wish they had an opportunity to get their hands on that guy, and that's an emotional stress that people still carry.

I see families that have literally turned their hurtful emotion into positive things. One woman whose son was shot, he didn't die but he was wounded, has been collecting black books and just handing out books to anybody who wants them. That's just a phenomenal response to a very difficult thing.

I also see people who are the naysayers, they were naysayers before 5/14 and are still naysayers. They're complaining about what hasn't happened. If you ask them what have they done to make these things happen they would probably say a lot of nothing other than talking. So, I don't think the solution to this problem is us coming up with ways to create new legislation, as a matter of fact some of the legislation that was created right after I voted against because it was literally jeopardizing people's rights who have permits to carry weapons on where they could carry them to.

A lot of the religious community in Buffalo was very upset about that. In fact, a lot of the people who are on the streets days after 5/14, if they requested one thing of me, they said please do not pass any more laws that restrict our rights to have a gun.

Now, a lot of people feel like that because not that they want to protect themselves from the people who they live and around in their community, but they want to protect themselves from the broader society that does carry a racial hatred towards black people. You want to feel like you can protect yourself.

DC: You still feel that way today I’m presuming?

CPS: Yeah.

DC: Take me back a year prior to now when the shooting happened.

I think when we hear about mass shootings, a lot of the time they're not anywhere near us.  We're talking about Texas, Florida, Las Vegas, everywhere. So, when this shooting happened in Buffalo last year, for me, at least, it felt incredibly personal that it was in Buffalo. It's five hours away from me, but for me New York is my backyard across the state. How did you feel learning that the shooting happened?

CPS: Well, you think it’s personal, you being five hours away, how about being five minutes away around the corner from where you shop at, where you live, where you raise your family at?

I can't even express in words the shock and pain that I felt. I will say one of the first things I thought, there's a shooting at Tops on Jefferson. There are a lot of shootings that happen in and around inner-city communities where people are hurt. Hurt people hurt other people. I'm thinking maybe some guys got into something, but when I heard it was a guy who came specifically to kill black people, I had nothing but tears at that point.

There’s a lot of pain and, I literally kept myself away from that site for like two days, maybe three, because I knew if I went there, my agitation would flow off onto the people and when people get agitated, people do things that are not the right response at a time like this. I literally wanted to fight myself, I wish I could have got my hands on this guy.

So that was hard for me. I'm not going to say anything different. It was very, very difficult for me, but I do think that we're also getting to a place where people understand that we're not going to fix racism by what people say to you, it's going to be fixed by what people do and how they treat you, and until that treatment changes, we're not going to change racism. It's here.

So, I think people are figuring out that we have to just take care of ourselves. There are a lot of people who have extensive wealth who don't live in and around that community. They could, but they don't. They choose to go somewhere where they feel more safe and more peaceful.

The fact of the matter, whether you live Cheektowaga, Tonawanda, or Amherst, you're still black.  And if somebody wants to come and kill black people, you're not going to be able to hide that because you can't get up in the morning and change the complexion of your face. So, I think when people are as concerned as the people who still live in that community would begin to pour in, I think we'll start to see a different resolve.

As long as we wait for government, if you will, to invest in our communities the same way they invest in other communities, yet we're not willing to do that, it's a challenge. It's a challenge all the way around.

I will say I’ve noticed there are more black businesses opening. I think people are understanding that I need to do this on my own, I can't keep waiting for the government to be there for me and my family.

DC: You have a lot of pain from this.

CPS: I still do. So does the community.

DC: Something that I also experienced was a lot of anger after this shooting. I think it was painful, and then I was immediately looking for somebody to blame. I wanted to pin it on somebody. Did you have that experience, too, and who do you blame?

CPS: Of course, I did.

When you find out his parents were civil servants who work for the state government, we actually used taxpayer dollars to pay people to raise a kid that was prepared to kill hundreds of people if he got to them, had enough weapons he needed and protected himself in a way that nothing could happen to him. At least not with a gun, I don't know if anyone could have stopped him any other way. But this kid walking into this supermarket, I’m calling him a kid because he is, but I also know that kids are not born being haters. They learn to be haters. Somebody taught him that. Whose responsibility is it but the parents.

Black people get accused of irresponsibility with anything with their kids don't happen right. That's irresponsible on those parents' part as well because he wasn't born that way.

He came with such vengeance that he knew where black people lived, and I actually don't believe he was solo. I think there are people in Erie County and Western New York who worked with him. They worked underground with him, they were on the computer with him, they were edging him on, they were motivating him, helping him understand where to go, and so again, racism is still alive and well in America. It hasn't gone anywhere. That's not changed in a year.

There may be a few people who feel differently about race or maybe think have second thoughts about their own personal biases against black people, and maybe they felt really good because they sent in some $6 million from all over the world into Buffalo to help support the families of victims, but that still doesn't take away the fact that racism is still alive and well. And until that's fixed, I don't know how you get that to go away.

DC: That's what I was just going to ask you. I don't know what the answer is.

CPS: I don't know.

DC: To me, I just don't understand how somebody's brain can go there, so I don't understand how to make them not go there. Do you have any thoughts on that? It's such a tough question.

CPS: I wish I had the answer, but one thing I know for sure is that governmental systems, from day one, have always set up policies that were race based. A lot of those policies need to be dismantled.

The legislation I’m sponsoring right now that will stop charging people more for insurance based on their zip code or based on their credit rating, based on their income. If you need a car to get to work and you're charged more for your insurance than the guy who lives in Amherst who does the same job you have and has the same salary and basically the same credit rating but you pay more for your insurance simply because of where you choose to live around your own people. That is a race based policy. They could make all kinds of gobbledygook language around algorithms, but it's a race based policy. Those kind of things need to stop. Banks that won't lend, red lining, insurance red lining in order to get property insurance on your house, all those things need to be eliminated.

That's something government can do, but when you get a chance to put something in to ask them to do that, then you have hundreds of lobbyists coming out with all kinds of reasons why you can't let these people have the ability to live like a normal American because they're not.

And that's not true, we are normal Americans. There's nobody more American than black people. We didn't come here as immigrants. We didn't ask to come here, but when we got here we built this country, worked every day, went to every war this country ever had. The most patriotic people there are, that's us, that's who we are, but we get treated the worst, and until that changes, I don't necessarily see a 5/14 going away.

DC: We saw after the shooting some federal officials come to Buffalo to visit. Do you think that when we're looking at solutions for all these issues across the board in terms of guns, gun control, the issue of race, things like that, do you think that's something that we can tackle here in New York on our own, or do we need something to happen at the federal level?

CPS: I don't think we can tackle gun control from New York on our own. I live an hour from the Pennsylvania border, not that much further from Ohio. I mean, you can go there and get any kind of gun you want. As a matter of fact, I just left Atlanta. People drive between Buffalo and Atlanta all the time. Everybody has a gun in Atlanta, and if everybody has them, everybody's selling them.

I see inner-city communities where there's so much violence as a market for the gun manufacturers. They know it's a market, and they intentionally put guns even in places like New York where you cannot own a weapon unless you have a permit, which, by the way, I’m permitted to have one, and I do have one.

My father taught me how to shoot a gun. Went to Big Hill Hunting and Fishing Club, every year, every summer. I'm not afraid of guns. I know what their purpose are and I know how you can protect yourself and protect others to make sure they're not hurt. But I also do think that New York's gun laws are not going to stop any problems that we have with gun violence, not one.

It's a federal problem and it has to be dealt at the federal level.

DC: Before I let you go, I want to ask you to look ahead past this year anniversary as we see Buffalo start to heal over the past year. How do you see Buffalo continuing to heal as we move on from this?

CPS: I think I see black people who own property on Jefferson, that's where Tops is,  investing in it in a way that they have not invested before, and I think I see support for them to invest in it.

I know that everybody doesn't necessarily have the same abilities to get resources, but I also do know that there's a housing crisis in Buffalo as there is across the state, and people who own property, you just need to have a couple of things in order and I believe you can go to a bank and get money to develop it into something that could be usable and into the future. So I see that happening. I really do see that happening. In spite of what some of the naysayers think, I do think that's a possibility, and I believe it's closer than we really believe.

Once we start doing that, focusing on doing what we need to do for ourselves and our own community, everything else will come.

DC: Assembly leader Crystal Peoples Stokes, thanks so much for sitting down with us.

CPS: You’re so welcome. Thank you for having me.

DC: Another thank you to the majority leader for sharing her story.

What we really didn't want to do this week is tell Buffalo's story for Buffalo. We are not part of that community, and we didn't want to pretend like we were. Instead, we turned to our partners in public media.

In the days after last year's shooting our friends at WBFO and Buffalo Toronto Public Media started something new. Every weekday since then the station has produced an hour long 
show focused on why the shooting happened in Buffalo and as they say provide a space for healing. As the anniversary of the shooting approached they wanted to do something different.

They traveled to Charleston, South Carolina where a similar mass shooting killed 9 people eight years ago at an historically black church. What WBFO really wanted to 
find out was if Buffalo could learn from Charleston as both cities continue to recover.

That led to moments like this when WBFO's Thomas O'Neil-White was interviewing a 
prominent local religious leader.

Thomas O'Neil-White: How have things changed here in the eight years since the tragedy?

Thomas Dixon: Speaking on racial issues, there has been some movement forward. Overall, though, within this state that's steeped in racism and racial bias, the underpinnings of economic success and educational success and all of the things that it really takes in order to be successful in America, those things are still lagging far behind.

DC: For more on why they went to Charleston and what they found I spoke with Brigid Jaipaul-Valenza, managing editor at WBFO news.

Brigid, thanks so much for being here. We appreciate it.

Brigid Jaipaul-Valenza: Thank you for having me.

DC: It's been about a year since that tragic shooting in Buffalo last May, just a terrible thing that happened there. I want to ask you first a year out how do you see the city of Buffalo doing? How is the community doing there?

BJV: The city, in and of itself, I think, is doing a little bit better. Things are still a little tense on the east side. Things are happening that really need to happen, discussions need to happen, and those are going on, but as a whole, the city, and the area, is still really grieving over what happened.

DC: You've done something really interesting that I wanted to talk to you about in marking this year of the shooting. Your team went down to Charleston, which if our audience doesn't remember, in 2015 there was a terrible shooting there where the shooter targeted a historically black church and killed nine people. Tell me why you wanted to go to Charleston.

BJV: Well, there are so many similarities between Charleston’s shooting and Buffalo's shooting. Even though sort of at a first glance you're thinking, yeah, there's a shooting so that's the only similarity, but really, in both shootings, there were elderly members of the community, people who would be considered these sage people that people would go to advice for. Those are the people who were killed. In both instances, the shooter actually spent time with those people who he was planning on killing, and they both ingratiated themselves into a place where one would feel safe. A church, a grocery store, it's stuff that we do every week, every day sometimes for some people.

The amount of people who were killed are also very similar, and both cities really have this undertone of racism that is sort of baked into their communities. So, it was kind of an obvious choice for me, plus I thought that we could learn a lot from them. They're eight years out from their tragedy, we're only one year out now from our tragedy, and I thought that it would be interesting to take a look at a community that's been through something so similar and to find out if they have any advice for us or if they could be a roadmap to a certain extent for our community.

DC: Tell me about who you talked to. Were you going down there just to talk to everyday residents of Charleston? Did you get to interview any leaders there? What was your objective here? Like who did you want to talk to and who did you get to talk to?

BJV: We really wanted to talk to community leaders, community activists, and then some folks at the AME church down there.

It's interesting that a lot of people were a little hesitant to talk to us. One of the gifts that we can give to our listeners and our viewers is that we bring them stories that they normally wouldn't hear. So, we really wanted to hear from people in the community versus lawmakers, versus heads of agencies. While those interviews are really important for an overview, we really wanted to find out kind of the boots on the ground, who is there, who is doing this work, and what are they seeing.

So, we ended up speaking with several reverends, some community activists, and just some people on the street, really, to ask their opinion and to see if they had any advice for Buffalo.

DC: now, tell me what they told you. I mean, eight years is a much longer time than we've had since the shooting in Buffalo. I imagine they had a lot of insight for you.

BJV: You would think. Probably the biggest thing that we took away from Charleston is that it is an extremely faithful community. They are faith based in almost everything they do.
The church plays a huge role for them, and so a lot of the advice that we had gotten was to pray.

Now, there's always that sentiment of thoughts and prayers after a tragedy and people are getting a little tired of hearing thoughts and prayers for this community that's been decimated by gun violence. So, when we move past that, their advice to us really was to keep having difficult conversations, which is exactly what we do here at WBFO.

DC: Is it difficult as well as a journalist from Buffalo to continue covering something like this, or covering something like this at all? We're taught as journalists to be separate from what we cover, completely, but with something so deeply personal and tragic like this in Buffalo, I have to imagine that that is sometimes hard to do.

BJV: It is sometimes near impossible to do. For instance, when Payton Gendron was sentenced, I had several crews in and around and also in the court at the time, and maybe halfway through sentencing, I could see my reporters from my vantage point, and I could tell that they weren't doing great.

They had to listen to all of these victim impact statements and it really got to them.
So after court was done, everybody has filed their reports, then it's time to sort of make sure that my team had the time and space to really decompress from that because we are human. We're reporters, yes, we are journalists, yes, but we're also human and I think that sometimes people forget that. We have emotions, we have feelings about things, we are able to put those aside to get a job done, but it doesn't mean that those feelings go away, and we have to deal with them.

DC: I agree with you completely. I think it's a difficult road ahead, but it's one that we need to go on.

Brigid Jaipaul-Valenza from WBFO. Thank you so much.

BJV: Thank you.  

WBFO's special ongoing coverage of the shooting and Buffalo's recovery.


On This Week's Edition

Catch this week's show on your local PBS member station, or watch on YouTube, Facebook, or using the free PBS app anytime after Friday.

On This Week's Edition of New York NOW:

  • It's been one year since a white supremacist targeted and killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket solely because they were Black. How is the City of Good Neighbors doing, one year later?
  • Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat from Buffalo, shares her thoughts on the shooting, how Buffalo can move forward, and more.
  • As part of their coverage of the anniversary of the shooting, journalists with WBFO traveled to Charleston, SC, to see if there's anything Buffalo could learn from that city's recovery after a similar mass shooting eight years ago. WBFO Managing Editor Brigid Jaipaul-Valenza shares what they found.

More Coverage from WBFO