Harris, other mourners in Buffalo call for action on gun violence
BUFFALO — The final victim of the racist attack on a Buffalo supermarket has been laid to rest.
The solemn occasion on Saturday celebrating the life of Ruth E. Whitfield, the 86-year-old matriarch of her family, was the last funeral for the 10 victims of the May 14 attack allegedly carried out by 18-year-old Payton Gendron. Authorities say he drove more than three hours and targeted the Tops grocery store in the heart of Buffalo with the intent of killing Black people.
A 600-page document attributed to the shooter goes into great detail about how he chose the Buffalo supermarket after researching other locations around New York state, including in Syracuse and Rochester.
Since the shooting, many Black Buffalonians have been in fear of going into public places like stores, wondering whether an attack might happen here again.
The shooting, which horrified the nation just two weeks ago, seems to have been quickly overshadowed by another senseless mass shooting, the massacre in Uvalde, Tex., on Tuesday. But to the community here, the service also served as a call to action, full of desperate pleas for lawmakers to put measures in place to prevent more gun violence.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump urged legislators to take up gun-control measures during his blistering speech. He repeatedly returned to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s calls to stand up to evil when you see it in the world.
“We cannot condone evil,” Crump said. “We must protest evil.”
Vice President Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, also attended services after meeting privately with Whitfield’s family.
“We will not allow small people to create fear in our communities,” Harris told the crowd of more than 400 people at Mount Olive Baptist Church, about two miles from the site of the killing.
Whitfield was remembered as an anchor by her family, including her son, former Buffalo fire commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield, his three siblings and throngs of mourners.
Garnell Whitfield told a story about how, as a Mother’s Day gift, he built his mother a raised garden bed in the days leading up to the attack. She asked him whether he was going to use it to grow vegetables after she was gone, he recalled.
“She was telling me, ‘Leave that box alone,’” Whitfield said. “… She wasn’t trying to grow seeds in that box. She had been tending her seeds all her life. That fruit had ripened. It had matured.”
While the mood of the service was celebratory, many of the speakers also viewed the funeral as an opportunity to address important issues of systemic racism that exist in Buffalo and beyond. The Rev. Al Sharpton urged mourners to use the deaths of the Buffalo 10, as the victims have come to be called, as motivation to continue to push for laws that will prevent the next racist shooting.
“We’re going to build a new Buffalo in the name of these 10,” Sharpton said. “We want economic development right here in Buffalo.”
Outside, after the service was over, politicians from around the state joined Crump and Sharpton to continue calling for more action on gun laws and pushing for further economic development in the city’s East Side.
The Tops supermarket where the attack occurred is the only full-service market in the city’s predominantly Black East Side, and was a hard-won victory when it opened in 2003, the result of years of advocacy from neighborhood activists. Food access remains scarce in the neighborhoods east of Main Street.
Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes (D), the New York State Assembly majority leader and a lifelong East Side resident, pressed her Republican colleagues in the legislature to take up laws that could help to prevent gun violence.
“I don’t want your thoughts or your prayers,” Peoples-Stokes said. “I want action. I need you to stop opposing opportunities to get guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”
Mayor Byron Brown (D) said he too will continue to push lawmakers at every level.
“We will not be silent on that,” Brown said. “We will work in a collective fashion to hold the lawmakers in Washington that refuse to act and the gun manufacturers who put profit over the sanctity of human life — we will hold them accountable.”
Before boarding a plane back to Washington, Harris urged legislators to impose a ban on assault weapons.
“I will say as I’ve said countless times, we are not sitting around waiting to figure out what the solution looks like,” she said in comments to the media. “You know how an assault weapon was designed? It was designed for a specific purpose: to kill a lot of human beings quickly.”