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Biden assails bigotry after Buffalo attack, says ‘white supremacy is a poison’

FBI agents investigate at the Tops grocery store in Buffalo on May 15. (Libby March/for The Washington Post)

BUFFALO — President Biden said Tuesday that the gunman who killed 10 people at a grocery store here carried out a “murderous, racist rampage,” decrying at length an attack that he called “domestic terrorism.”

Visiting a city in mourning three days after the bloodshed, Biden said, “Evil did come to Buffalo.” Authorities say a White 18-year-old traveled hundreds of miles to the city and opened fire in the market, in a predominantly Black neighborhood, on Saturday afternoon. Investigators believe the attacker posted a rambling, racist screed online beforehand declaring himself a white supremacist.

Speaking not far from the grocery store, Biden took part in what has become a grim tradition of presidents visiting shaken communities after yet another mass shooting. He also made explicit connections among some of these attacks, invoking by name places — such as El Paso, Pittsburgh and Charleston, S.C — where officials said people accused or convicted of mass killings were fueled by bigotry and hatred.

Ahead of President Biden’s visit, local activists share their hopes for how they’d like to see the administration help the community. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

“White supremacy is a poison … and it’s been allowed to fester and grow right in front of our eyes,” Biden said. “No more.”

The lives lost in Buffalo

The president assailed what he called a hatred driven through the news media, politics and the Internet that has “radicalized” people “into falsely believing that they will be replaced.”

The rambling statement posted online touched on the racist theory of White people being intentionally replaced, an idea that was once held by fringe actors and has more recently gained traction on right-wing television shows and among some elected officials. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday sent a letter asking the owners of Fox News to curb any on-air language suggestive of the theory.

Biden nodded to the idea, calling on Americans “to reject the lie” and condemning “those who spread the lie for power, political gain and for profit.” He also called a failure to denounce white supremacy “complicity.”

“In America, evil will not win, I promise you,” he said. “Hate will not prevail. And white supremacy will not have the last word.”

On May 17, President Biden rebuked white supremacy in remarks remembering the victims of the May 14 Buffalo supermarket shooting. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden has long spoken out about the dangers of white supremacy and has repeatedly referenced the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville in 2017 as one of his chief inspirations to run for the presidency again. He invoked that episode again Tuesday, reiterating that it was what motivated his most recent run for office.

Before his remarks Tuesday afternoon, the president and first lady Jill Biden visited a memorial near the Tops Friendly Markets store where the rampage occurred. They placed flowers and stood nearby briefly before Biden went to meet with relatives of the victims and first responders, according to reporters traveling with him.

Mayor Byron W. Brown said during a news briefing Tuesday that Biden “spent an extended amount of time with the families, which was very good to see.”

A barrage of ‘never-ending gunshots’: Inside the Buffalo massacre

The presidential visit closed off street access to nearly the entire eastern side of the city, with snowplows posted to block major intersections. Schools along Biden’s route made announcements over the public address systems for teachers to bring their classes outside so they could see the president’s motorcade drive past.

Leslie Garnder was driving her great-granddaughter to school Tuesday morning as police cars came flying by. Then she saw that entrance ramps to the freeway cutting through the city were blocked off.

Gardner said she first wondered whether there was another shooting — before remembering that Biden was coming to town.

“I’m glad he’s here,” she said. “I’m glad people are feeling this tragedy from the highest levels.”

But Gardner said she wondered whether anything would change. “I’ve really lost faith in the political process,” she said, adding that she blames Republicans, not Biden.

Authorities who continue investigating the shooting say Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old from Conklin, N.Y., opened fire Saturday afternoon at the Tops, shooting 13 people — nearly all of them Black.

The suspect surrendered at the scene, police said, and was charged with first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney has not responded to messages seeking comment.

In addition to the state murder charge, officials are investigating the suspect for potential federal crimes. During a conference call Monday, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said it appeared that “this was a targeted attack, a hate crime, and an act of racially motivated violent extremism,” according to remarks released by the bureau.

Police have warned that the investigation would be lengthy, saying they had considerable work to do digging into the digital footprint left behind by the suspected attacker. Investigators believe he wrote the lengthy rant posted online reveling in bigotry, including racism and antisemitism, and describing in detail plans for the attack.

Details about the suspect have continued to emerge, including about his movements before the shooting and what he might have planned to do afterward. On Monday, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said the suspect had been in the city in early March. Gramaglia also said officials believed he planned to continue attacking Black people after leaving the grocery store.

Only 22 saw the Buffalo shooting live. Millions have seen it since.

The Washington Post reviewed of hundreds of pages of messages that had been posted online by a writer who identified himself as Gendron, and they included increasing details about plans to kill Black people. Those messages also detailed a decision in February to target the Tops store in Buffalo because of the local African American population; a March trip there to try to assess its security; and plans to attack other locations.

Authorities also have said since the shooting that the suspect was investigated in June 2021 after he made threatening comments at his high school. According to the New York State Police, authorities responded to a school in Conklin after a 17-year-old student “made a threatening statement.” He was taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation, the agency said.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Michael A. Korchak, the Broome County district attorney, said the student made “disturbing comments regarding murder/suicide” during an online class.

Korchak said that “no direct threat was made to the school or any student,” adding that guns were not mentioned. The 17-year-old, he said, was taken to a hospital by police, evaluated and released. The school district and state police, Korchak said, “followed the procedures and protocols that were in place at that time.”

In Buffalo on Tuesday, Biden spoke mournfully about the people killed or injured “by a hate-filled individual” who traveled there to carry out an attack and broadcast it to the world.

In emotional remarks, the president said he had spoken to some of those who lost loved ones about their grief and about the depth of their anguish. Feeling that pain, he said, was “to lose a piece of your soul.”

Biden spoke about the victims one by one, offering brief remembrances of each by name while avoiding saying the name of the suspected attacker. Celestine Chaney, 65, was just trying to buy strawberries “to make her favorite shortcake,” he said. Katherine “Kat” Massey, 72, was “the glue of the family of the community.”

And Aaron Salter Jr., 55, a retired Buffalo police officer working as a security guard, who confronted the gunman and fired at him but struck his bulletproof vest before being killed, was “a hero who gave his life to save others,” the president said.

Brown, the mayor, said after Biden spoke that he expected funerals for the victims to begin Saturday.

Residents have only just begun grappling with the pain. As soon as the Rev. Julian Cook, pastor of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, one of the oldest Black churches in this city, left the survivor reunification site just before midnight on Saturday, he began fretting over what to preach in church the next day.

He settled on Psalm 137: “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”

“We sing about our hurt,” Cook said. “We sing about our history. We sing about our hope. That was my sermon. I spent a lot of time on the hurt.”

Since the shooting, Cook said, he has shared kind remarks with younger children, while giving teenagers and young adults the space to be angry. People saw the attack, he said, or witnessed bodies in the parking lot.

For some, though, the shooting and the political response only highlighted deeply entrenched inequities in the city. Longtime police officer Roscoe Henderson noted that the Tops store is the only supermarket serving much of Black Buffalo.

“You wouldn’t think that would be an issue, but then it highlights another problem. Why is it that there’s only one store like that?” he said. “There have been others. They’ve gone up and gone down and they haven’t been successful, and it just reflects the problems that exist.”

Biden’s visit was welcome, Henderson said, but he did not expect it to shift any of the political gridlock in the nation’s capital.

“I imagine he’s going to say the right thing and touch on all the right points,” Henderson said before Biden’s speech. “And that’s good. But when the day is over and Air Force One is gone, what’s changed?”