- Interview by
- Hadas Thier
On May 14, a teenager inspired by the white supremacist call to stop the “great replacement” — a conspiracy theory that white Americans are being replaced by immigrants and people of color — opened fire at the Tops supermarket in a black neighborhood in Buffalo. He killed ten people and injured another three, leaving behind several generations of grieving family and friends.
India Walton, a Buffalo community leader and last year’s socialist mayoral candidate, spoke to Jacobin about the tragedy and its local roots in segregation and disinvestment.
Thank you for taking the time and headspace to talk, during this painful and difficult week. How has this hit you, as a Buffalo born-and-raised black woman who’s been on the front line of anti-racist struggles?
There are a lot of emotions. I’m angry. I’m upset. But also, just not surprised. Buffalo’s racist, right? And the fact that a person from three hours away can Google “Where black people shop,” identify a place and come shoot it up, and walk out unscathed… I don’t know how to feel.
And now the sole source of groceries for that neighborhood has been taken away for who knows how long. The dude just killed a bunch of our elders.
I saw on social media that you knew Kat Massey, one of the victims of the shooting, and that she was a supporter of the organization you previously led, Fruit Belt Community Land Trust.
She came to every meeting. She donated every single month. She kept photo albums with real print photos, like no one does any more, of the work that was happening in the neighborhood. She was a constant source of encouragement.
I’m just thinking about the last time I talked to her. I’m thinking about the random text messages that she sent, like “Peace and blessings, Queen!” “Keep your head up! Keep doing the work.” “I’m proud of you!” And now she’s just gone. That’s not fair.
No. That’s brutal. What has the response been like from members of the community?
People are doing what people in Buffalo do: taking care of each other, delivering groceries, collecting and distributing supplies, and helping folks navigate their grief.
Every time this kind of tragedy takes place, narratives pop up to try to divert attention from the deeply systemic racism at the heart of them. In this case, the mental health issues of this particular teenager, or the fact that he didn’t live inside Buffalo, must mean that this is not a local problem.
What do you see as the roots of what happened on Saturday? Where did this come from?
There are a lot of people in this community who are devastated, but not surprised. Buffalo is racist. Buffalo is racially segregated. There’s a line that separates those who have from those who have not, and that is Main Street. Anything east of Main Street is where 85 percent of the black folks in the city live. It’s been that way.
Right away the mayor started to say, well, he was an out-of-towner. Okay, Binghamton is some two and a half hours away. He’s from Western New York. But let’s talk about how many people from this area were implicated in the January 6 insurrection. Let’s talk about our sheriff attending a white supremacist rally in full county-paid-for uniform, with a confederate flag flying behind him, and no one denouncing it. Let’s talk about Carl Paladino, the racist school board member who owns half of the city and was allowed to funnel money into his own pockets through a development company by sanctioning increases in charter schools.
This is not new. That’s what has me so upset: that it was bound to happen. And tomorrow is going to be business as usual. The county council was in chambers today talking about giving the police another million dollars to put more surveillance in our community.
CBS Mornings recently reported on a couple of studies that showed the Buffalo metropolitan area is the sixth most segregated area in the United States. At the same time, economic conditions for African Americans in Buffalo haven’t improved in three decades. What is the relationship between a level of segregation that’s so intense that a shooter could just Google, “Where can I find black people?” and the economic conditions that exist for black people in Buffalo?
Buffalo was segregated by design. I keep referring to where mortgages are originated, because there’s very little lending happening on the East Side. There are no banks, there are no grocery stores. There are very few resources.
I spent a lot of time the last decade of my life talking about concentrated poverty and disadvantage. That is the reason why health outcomes are poor. That is the reason why educational attainment is lower, and why unemployment is higher.
Meanwhile, Amherst, a first-ring suburb of Buffalo, has been dubbed the safest community in the country. It’s not because there are more police there. It’s because there are more resources, and you have a lot of highly educated homeowners who probably can’t throw a rock without hitting a grocery store — while in Buffalo we’ve been told that we should be grateful for Tops on Jefferson with its rotten produce.
My wildest dream is that we govern ourselves and our own things. There’s a person named Alexander Wright, who has founded an organization called the African Heritage Food Co-op and has been struggling to open a brick-and-mortar store in the Fruit Belt neighborhood. We need to put our resources there. I’ve been directing folks who want to support financially to donate to Open Buffalo, or the African Heritage Food Co-op, which are two black-led organizations locally.
We can denounce and decry this horrific act, but are we going to build housing? Are we going to provide folks with groceries and food? Are we going to rebuild the neighborhood and really make the necessary investments for the black community and for Buffalo to be self-determined?
Policy needs to be created that actively undoes the harm that’s been caused to communities. We know that the East Side is the East Side, as it exists today, because of a lack of investment. So I just want to see resources. I want people to have opportunities to own homes and businesses. I want development to occur with the permission and consent of the community. I want people to have decision-making power over their own lives and to stop being told that we’re not good enough. We deserve nice things, too.