Q. Anthony Omene is a Toronto-based writer.
It’s late on a Friday afternoon, and the news cameras are still milling thick about the east end of Buffalo as Virginia Hughes leans back in her office chair and casts a rueful smirk in my direction. She’s the transition co-ordinator for Peaceprints of Western New York, a non-profit organization that helps formerly incarcerated individuals re-enter the community, find work and housing, and hopefully break the cycle of recidivism. I’ve just asked her what she believes will come of the city, and its inhabitants, once the news cycle moves on from the hate-motivated mass shooting that claimed 10 Black lives at a Tops Supermarket six days before, on May 14.
“We as a people do not fare well in the city of Buffalo,” she says to me. “We are one of the top [segregated] cities in the country. What happens when the dust settles and it’s quiet for those families who’ve lost their loved ones? What are we doing?”
Ms. Hughes has seen plenty of promises made to the deeply stratified and highly impoverished neighbourhoods in Buffalo’s east end, and she has seen plenty of them broken as well. According to the authors of the 2021 report by the University of Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies, The Harder We Run: The State of Black Buffalo in 1990 and the Present, low wages, high unemployment, rent gouging, gentrification and residential segregation have remained rife in the area over the past three decades. Poverty rates among Black, Latino and Asian households run between 15 per cent and 28 per cent higher than their white counterparts, while median incomes are as much as 50 per cent lower. And for more than half the period of time during which that study was conducted, the marginalization and continued segregation of Buffalo’s Black population occurred under its current mayor, Byron Brown: the city’s first Black mayor, and its longest-serving. Yet no help has come.
“The mayor’s not for us,” one man said to me while I canvassed Jefferson Avenue, where the Tops grocery store sits. My backpack and camera gear marked me as a journalist amid the obvious wariness that many residents felt as the press descended on the east end. “None of them are for us. You saw all these people come out on Tuesday, telling us they’re with us, and how sorry they are. Where are they now? Not here. We still gonna be here though.”
Indeed, many high-profile faces had shown up in Buffalo alongside Mr. Brown after the shooting. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, along with New York Governor Kathy Hochul, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Brian Higgins arrived in a show of solidarity with Buffalo residents. Mr. Biden himself delivered an impassioned homily against white supremacy: “In America, evil will not win, I promise you. Hate will not prevail.”
Then the politicians – many of whom local residents told me they’ve never seen in their neighbourhoods, in their churches or on their doorsteps – departed Jefferson Avenue and went about business as usual.
In fact, on that same Friday, Buffalo City Hall was deliberating on Mr. Brown’s budget, which included a US$364,000 earmark for ShotSpotter technology. The surveillance product, which uses outdoor acoustic sensors in combination with algorithms and human reviewers to detect gunfire, boasts a “97 per cent accuracy rate” on its rather defensive website (it devotes an entire page in response to “false claims”). And yet, the product has been widely derided by privacy advocates and criminal-justice scholars as ineffective and prone to deploying officers to scenes where no crime was found to have been committed. When Toronto Police flirted with the possibility of purchasing ShotSpotter technology in 2018, it was met with heavy criticism, and the idea was shelved the following year. Ultimately, Buffalo’s Common Council nixed that budget line – but it did approve a US$5.2-million budget increase for the city’s police department, far and away the highest among the municipal public services.
And with the Tops supermarket closed, at least for now – a store that locals had advocated for years to be built in east Buffalo – the neighbourhood has once again found itself a food desert. There are liquor and convenience stores in the area, but no shops offering access to healthy, affordable food. A food desert is not a naturally occurring thing: It emerges over years of political ignorance and, often, layers of systemic racism. For Buffalonians, that takes the form of the multilane Kensington Expressway, one of the city’s vestigial remnants of institutionalized discrimination that redlined and divided neighbourhoods.
“What we’re doing right now is putting a Band-Aid on a wound that has been there for a long time,” said Peaceprints chief executive officer Cindi McEachon. “It’s appreciated what everybody is doing, the triaging that’s happening right now. But right now we have a housing crisis in our community. And then obviously, with the effects of the pandemic, we’re already feeling an acute crisis. And now here [in the wake of the shooting] we’ve now unmasked another level of inequity that was already there. We need to stop talking and show action.”
But action was, and is, happening in the community, along several blocks on Jefferson Avenue. Scarcely a parking lot or a patch of green could be found where pop-up canopies hadn’t been pitched, and volunteers weren’t frantically handing out free goods. The blocks were a flurry of altruism, with community members busy putting cloth bags into the hands of anyone standing on the other side of the folding table, and stuffing those bags with as many cereal boxes, milk, granola bars and orange juice as they could carry.
“Make sure you call your joint ‘Before the Fact,’ ” said John (Tubbs) Smith, vice-president of the Buffalo chapter of the anti-gang organization Mad Dads, in reference to this article. “We were here before the fact, we’re still gonna be here when everybody packs up and leaves.” As we spoke, almost every passerby during our conversation stopped to offer daps and handshakes to Mr. Smith, along with his Mad Dad colleagues Juan and Melissa Rodriguez.
“You can’t break us,” he said. “This is how we build. Brick by brick.” Mr. Smith directed my attention to the base of a nearby tree, festooned with candles and a pile of flower bouquets so high the tree’s trunk was barely visible. “Turn around, take a picture of that. [The gunman] murdered our family. They [weren’t] just people in our community, they was our family.”
As we said our goodbyes, an older woman smiled in my direction, and I asked her name. She was Tina Johnson, she told me, and she nodded in the direction of a photo collage of the victims at Tops Supermarket. “That was my friend,” she said, pointing to an image of Katherine Massey, a long-time civil-rights activist and a neighbourhood pillar who was 72 years old when she was killed while grocery shopping for her sister. “I knew Kat growing up, she was always my inspiration.”
Ms. Johnson had plenty of stories – about Katherine’s history of selflessness and fearless advocacy. Everyone I spoke to who lived in Buffalo had their own stories, too: of a place depressed by decades of systemic neglect, and the people who live there, choosing to lift each other up, all the same. The least I could do in the moment – and, I think, the least anyone can continue to do for this community – was listen.
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