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‘That’s not the devil. That’s America.’

Black residents of Buffalo’s East Side see mass shooting as exclamation point on racism they face every day

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)

BUFFALO — Less than 24 hours after a gunman stormed the grocery store where Tony Marshall worked for years, killing 10, Marshall was back at the Tops.

He flipped hot dogs on a grill positioned just outside the caution-tape perimeter, handing them out to mourners and passersby. As he worked, he wore a red shirt with a Tops Friendly Markets logo. “It’s a community store,” said Marshall, 59. “It’s meant everything to us.”

That was a sentiment shared by many in this mostly Black section of the city. For residents, the Tops was more than just a source of food and medicine. In a neighborhood with few stores or public spaces, the grocery store was a site for community events and giveaways, a hangout spot and meeting place.

“It was more than a store. It was a place where you could meet up with a friend, a relative, a girlfriend,” said Jerome Bridges, another Tops employee who survived the attack by barricading himself and several others in a conference room. “A place to hang out and shop and have a good conversation while you’re doing it.”

Many East Side residents said they would sometimes spend their leisure hours in the Tops parking lot, having long conversations with folks who seemed like complete strangers — strangers, that is, until they found out that they live a block apart from each other, or are extended family members, or frequent the same restaurant.

That sense of community was necessary, Marshall said, as a form of protection in a city where many Black people have faced a lifetime of discrimination and abuse.

Buffalo is the seventh-most segregated city in the country for Black Americans, according to a Brookings Institution report. The Black population had a median household income of $28,320 in 2019, according to a University of Buffalo report, with a 31 percent poverty rate. White residents had a $49,156 income and a 9.1 percent poverty rate.

“I’m crazy about Buffalo, I love it here; it can be a beautiful city,” said Regina Williams, 59, sitting in a car with her daughter and granddaughter near the Tops. But “it’s so segregated, they need to do something about it. They ain’t doing nothing about it. Nothing.”

In the first few days after the shooting, many residents here saw the horrific act of racial violence as one of many injustices threaded through their lives, and sometimes across generations.

Even the fact that the East Side has such a concentration of Black people is itself the result of discriminatory practices, residents said. And it was that segregation that turned the neighborhood into a target for the gunman, suspected to be an 18-year-old who espoused racist and white supremacist views.

“Somebody that is four hours away knows where to come to target Black people. You don’t even live in this community but you know where to come to get all Black people. That’s sad,” said Shirley Hart, carrying a plate with one of Marshall’s freshly grilled hot dogs. “It’s the experience of the Black person in America. We all deal with it, in some facet or another. It may not be to this extent on our hands, but we experience it.”

Buffalo’s downtown is on its West Side, hugging the Niagara River that separates New York from Canada. There are lush green parks with benches or art inside them. The streets are smooth. The trees are large and abundant.

But as you drive farther out, and especially once you hit Main Street, the scenery begins to change. The roads get rougher. The trees are fewer. Empty lots appear more frequently. Corner shops are scattered about, but there are also boarded-up shops.

Jefferson Avenue, on Buffalo’s East Side, is the liveliest strip in the area. The library, radio stations, barbershops and cigar shops are all on or near the street. So is the Tops.

The grocery store was built in 2003 after a sustained campaign from the community. Before it opened, neighbors had few supermarket options.

“Everybody goes to Tops because it’s in the ‘hood,” said Tara “Judy” Clark, 58, standing outside the Buffalo Community Fridge food pantry. She carried a tote bag of produce she had just picked up at the site.

James Baldwin nodded, adding that on Buffalo’s East Side there are few public parks or other spaces to gather, so the locals get to know each other at the Tops. And many residents avoid driving because they are afraid of the police, said Baldwin, 60.

“We like to stick close because we get pulled over if we venture out,” he said.

He said even just being outside on a street corner — as he was doing in that moment, with Clark nearby — makes him nervous because it exposes him to the police who patrol the area. You never know when an officer might come up and “make an issue out of it,” Baldwin said.

“The only time we can enjoy ourselves, or meet other people, is going into stores,” Clark said. Now, she is afraid to go, worried that a shooter might once again target her community.

“The devil was really, really busy in that man,” she said.

Baldwin quickly replied: “That’s not the devil. That’s America. They made him, they brought him up, they put him there.”

Buffalo’s large and vibrant Black community can trace its roots back to the early and mid-1900s, when Black people fleeing the racist violence of the South came to Buffalo as part of the Great Migration. They were attracted to its tranquility, the freedom it offered from Jim Crow laws, and the abundance of working-class jobs. Buffalo was once one of the largest hubs for producing steel and milling flour, and it was a railroad center.

As the Black community grew, redlining, urban renewal and other practices relegated it to the East Side, which became the beating heart of Black life in Buffalo. It has “lots of cultural history that goes way, way back, mostly focused around the African American community,” said Carl Nightingale, a professor of Buffalo history. “Full of all kinds of wonderful blues clubs, jazz clubs, hip-hop clubs, barbecue joints, soul food places.”

Since then, the community has been fighting to achieve recognition and equal status. But the setbacks have been numerous.

In 1958, officials built the Kensington Expressway, a highway project that effectively cut the neighborhood off from the rest of the city. Many of the mom-and-pop corner stores and boutiques that relied on the traffic to and from downtown for business had to shut their doors.

In 1972, the Buffalo Bills moved from the East Side to the suburbs. Several businesses that served the football stadium’s visitors were forced to close.

To this day, if you drive along the roads that were once heavily traveled by city commuters, the old structures remain — boarded-up storefronts and abandoned homes. Long, empty city blocks filled with grass and trash.

The latest battle is gentrification. Some locals said the government is luring luxury apartments and high-rises to the city’s downtown, which is causing home prices to soar around the city. East Side residents worry that they will be priced out of their own neighborhood.

“They building it up in the community, and the people living in the community can’t even afford it,” said Angela Stewart, 61, a pastor who grew up on the East Side but no longer lives there. “I think that’s kind of crazy. How are they ever supposed to get better if you’re going to treat them that way?”

Residents say police brutality is also a concern. Yvonne King, who lives close to the Tops, said she drives her 16-year-old son to and from school even though it’s only a few blocks, because she fears the police.

Despite the hardships, the community has blossomed in some ways.

In 2007, members of the East Side formed the Buffalo United Front to address the issues in their community, from policing to food insecurity and education.

In 2016, the East Side Bike Club came alive. Every Saturday, East Siders slip on neon T-shirts and ride bicycles — with donated ones for those who don’t have their own — across the city. As cars honk in support, the residents are able to see different parts of their community and learn a new way to exercise or transport themselves.

The club has workshops for residents to learn the rules of the road and how to fix their own bikes.

On Saturday, they’ll be at Martin Luther King Jr. Park at 9:30 a.m., riding around their East Side neighborhood.

They’ll pass the Tops that was once a source of community and food. They’ll mourn the people they lost and remember another East Side institution taken from them — this time, hopefully, only temporarily.

“This is America. The system wasn’t built for us, it was built on our backs,” Hart said. “It’s sad, but unfortunately we’re just used to it, and we deal with the hand we were dealt.”

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