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After the shock fades, fear rises in the aftermath of Buffalo shooting

The gunman’s actions not only cost lives but psychologically maimed those who could most easily envision themselves among the slain

A television news reporter near a makeshift memorial across the street from the Tops supermarket in Buffalo on May 17. (Heather Ainsworth)
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BUFFALO — Tricia Grannum pulled into the parking lot of a Walgreens, her foot shaking on the brake pedal before she put the car in park. For five minutes, she fixed her eyes to the store entrance, sitting almost motionless, except for her hands, which gripped tighter and tighter around the steering wheel.

It had been two days since a shooter, who authorities believe to be an avowed white supremacist, drove to the Tops Friendly Markets on Buffalo’s predominantly Black East Side and killed 10 people. As a Black woman, Grannum was on high alert, she later recalled, scanning the lot for anything that seemed out of the ordinary.

A man parked beside her with a baseball cap pulled suspiciously low over his face. A car slotted in its space haphazardly. These were the ordinary things sparking a hyper-vigilance Grannum had never before experienced.

She needed to pick up her son’s prescription, but first she needed to give herself a pep talk:

Deep breath. Okay, we can do this. Five minutes. In and out.

She walked in and immediately took note of the exits, the backroom and customers who could be left vulnerable to another racist mass shooting. Could she help that elderly Black man if someone opened fire?

In the days since that fateful Saturday afternoon, local Black residents have been searching for ways personal and public to keep their fear at bay. But terror is rippling through their community, upending everyday life, and making them feel more vulnerable, exposed and emotionally raw than they could have ever imagined.

Some struggle to understand the motivations of the killer. Some feel their insides burn with rage. Others pray — for the victims, for the killer, that those contemplating retaliation will turn away from anger.

Those targeted by a gunman’s bullets aren’t the only victims of terror. It psychologically maims the people who can most easily envision themselves among the slain. After the bodies are carried away and interred, fear is what remains. It replaces trust with suspicion, patience with testiness. Things that were once routine require arduous effort to accomplish.

Grannum, a self-described bubbly talker who is 38, has felt the strain. Normally, she would have been meandering through the Walgreens and chatting up strangers while checking for items that she may be running low on at home. On this day, she just wanted to grab the medicine before bolting back outside. But the pharmacist was having trouble pulling up her son’s prescription.

“How much do I have to pay for it?” Grannum recalled snapping. “I will pay whatever it costs right now just so I can get out of here.”

Ten minutes later, medicine in hand, she high-tailed out of the store. She stepped back in her car and let the feeling of relief cascade over her.

“I’ve never felt like this, going into a store,” she told her mother when she got home. “I’ve never felt scared to get out of a car.”

On a normal day, the Tops on Jefferson Avenue would be bustling with customers. It is the only grocery store in a low-income neighborhood of empty lots and vacant buildings. It is the hub where people pick up prescription drugs and pay their bills. They stop in for cookout supplies and birthday cakes. Elderly women walk there to meet up with their friends, exercise and shop.

What once gave life to a community is now closed, its parking lot nearly empty and frozen in a ghastly time, cordoned off by yellow police tape. It is the scene of the deadliest mass shooting so far this year, and the worst to target Black Americans in years.

But around the market, a community is trying to beat back fear.

Tami Williams, 55, has lived on the East Side her entire life. “Born and raised on Beverly Road down the street,” she said, standing under a tent set up by volunteers near the market. It’s a cold, rainy May afternoon, so she’s wearing a hoodie with “Buffalo Babes” emblazoned across the front, a tuft of dyed red coils poking from underneath her hood.

She’s a frequent customer at Tops. “They have the best fried chicken,” she said.

But now she questions whether shopping for simple pleasures will ever be the same. “To be honest with you, I’m afraid to go to the store,” she said. “Any store.”

She worries about the effect the shooting will have on her children, that the fear will transform them into people she doesn’t want them to be.

“I try to speak peace to the kids and teach them to be kind, no matter what a person’s color or where they live,” she said. “Whether you’re Black or White. Doesn’t matter. You should be treated fairly.”

Equanimity is already proving a challenge. Earlier that day, she was called to her daughter’s school after a White child told classmates that he would have his dad come over and shoot up the school, she said: “So hopefully they’re going to deal with that.”

“I’m still kind of numb,” said Darren, a 53-year old man who didn’t give his last name.

Darren, whose son used to be a manager at the Jefferson Avenue Tops, has watched, multiple times, the first minutes of the shooter’s live stream posted online. “I couldn’t believe what was actually happening,” he said. “How he just went from one to another. And then he just kept shooting. One lady he shot, she went to the ground, and he shot her in the head. I’ve been in shock ever since.”

Darren, a Christian who is Black, is wrestling with what his faith says about fear, control and putting fate in God’s hands.

“Honestly, I haven’t walked into a store other than the corner store,” he says. “But anything that happens to me God allows. I would hate for it to happen to me, because I don’t want my family and my children to be affected. But I can’t be scared to live my life, though.”

Some residents are trying to meet fear with radical love, even as some around them say it’s a waste of time.

Sheila Veal, 62, pities the alleged shooter, saying his consumption and propagation of such a hateful ideology didn’t allow him to fully engage with the world.

“He’s missing out on such a great opportunity that life has to offer with other people,” she said. “Not only African Americans, but you’ve got Asians, other cultures that he just missed out on.”

Veal, a Black woman who has lived in Buffalo since 1965, attends a multiracial church, where, the previous day, she prayed for the victims as well as the suspected gunman, which earned her “negative” reactions from people she told about it.

“I think his parents need to be held accountable,” she said “Or whoever infused this hatred in him, they need to be held just as accountable as he is. They robbed him of his life way before he even got started.”

She said she knew three of the victims — Pearl Young, Heyward Patterson and Katherine Massey — “awesome, beautiful people” invested in their community who didn’t deserve their fate. “Even if they were bad people, it’s still not justifiable,” she added, as tears pooled in her eyes before streaking down her cheeks. “But it hurts even more.”

Keri Socker was helping to unload donated items from a large semitrailer on Buffalo’s East Side.

“They don’t have a grocery store anymore,” Socker said. “There’s only a Family Dollar next door, and they’re almost running out of stuff. And the people don’t even want to go in the store because they’re scared.”

As the chief of staff for the Resource Council of Western New York, she is part of the massive effort to distribute items such as bottled water, orange juice, cereal, fresh fruit, diapers and feminine products to residents in need after the closure of the only grocer for miles.

On Monday, they served 650 people in seven hours, she said. It’s only temporary — “until we can’t” — but they plan to go at least until Memorial Day.

Socker, who is White and has biracial grandchildren, is concerned that the fear will linger. But at the same time, “everyone has the right to be scared,” she said. “We just have to make sure that we remind each other every day to be kind and that we love them and that we’re … here for them,” she added, her voice trailing off as she wiped tears from her eyes.

The shooting has also strained the community’s religious leaders as they try to provide what seems impossible: calm.

“I’ve got teachers calling me crying in bathrooms,” said the Rev. Denise O. Walden-Glenn, executive director of Voice Buffalo, a local social justice organization.

“People are afraid,” said Charles Walker, pastor of Mt. Hope Community Church. “They don’t trust White people coming in the neighborhood. I don’t want them to think like that.”

But Walker is unsure of how much he can do to reach people, particularly the younger residents. “They’re angry,” he said. “I’m trying to keep it at bay.” His hope: that through neighborhood meetings and counseling sessions, people can vent their frustrations more positively.

Patti Stephen went to bed Tuesday night with her mind racing. That isn’t uncommon for the self-professed workaholic and executive director of Buffalo Prep, a college preparatory program for low-income children of color. She’s used to composing emails in the wee hours of the morning and scheduling them to land in her team’s inbox at a reasonable hour (8 a.m.) so as not to startle them.

But on Wednesday, she woke up at 6:30 a.m. and half an hour later, before even sipping her morning coffee, fired off an electronic missive to her staff about the trauma she had seen her students facing and how they should address it, even as the staff processes their own. Stephen, who is White, was particularly candid in questioning her own ability to meet the moment in the face of such a tragedy.

“It can be challenging to see past this darkness and evil and I feel like I have no idea what I am doing,” she wrote. “I wish we could change this world. I want more than anything to give our students a sense of safety everywhere they go,” she continued farther down.

“I didn’t understand the real fear our students and community members of color carry with them every day,” Stephen wrote. “I see it now and it’s crippling.”

Many of the children have dealt with common gun violence even before Saturday’s shooting, Stephen said in an interview. Some have reacted by acting desensitized, but for others, the pain has roared out.

“Why do they hate me because I’m Black?” she recounted one eighth-grader crying while rolling on the floor. “I just want to be a kid.”

Some of the students, she said, have gone so far as to read what authorities believe to be the alleged gunman’s 180-page document, which espouses a racist theory that non-Whites are being brought to the United States to replace White people for political purposes and that Black people are inherently inferior.

“They are very aware of what is happening around them,” Stephen said. Children have told her, “We were targeted. We were hunted down and slaughtered.”

Tricia Grannum told herself repeatedly, “I’m not leaving my house.” But she did, Monday afternoon, for a vigil put on by her employer, the Buffalo-headquartered M&T Bank. Standing in a branch parking lot across the street from Tops, amid a heavy law enforcement presence, she was still visibly anxious. She described tearful phone calls to her boss and numerous planning sessions with friends about what they could do to change things in Buffalo: the racial segregation, the lack of investment in Black neighborhoods.

But she didn’t plan on staying outside long. “When I leave here, I’m going home, back in my house where I know I’m safe,” she said. “You don’t know if there’s anyone else out there that is looking to continue this mission that this man was on. You don’t know.”

It was only a few hours after the Saturday attack at Tops when Grannum started to realize things just wouldn’t be the same.

She and her fiance had left Mass at his predominantly White Catholic Church early, after receiving numerous texts from concerned friends and family who knew she went to Tops all the time.

Before the shooting, she and her fiance had scheduled a meetup with friends to celebrate their recent engagement in the Riverside area of Buffalo, home to numerous bars and restaurants. They decided to keep their plans “because we didn’t really understand the gravity of what had happened,” she said.

But the evening soon curdled as they scoured social media and learned more details about the shooting. Frantic, she called to check on her sister, her nieces and other people she knew from the neighborhood. She learned that a co-worker’s mother-in-law was killed.

To Grannum, the people at the Riverside establishment, 90 percent of whom “didn’t look like me,” seemed to be carrying on as if they hadn’t heard the news.

“And we felt uncomfortable,” she said, “because with what just happened, how do you feel safe?”

The scope of the tragedy began to sink in. She went home, watched the news and cried, unsettled by her new fear.

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