The weight of the May 14 racist massacre of Black shoppers at a Buffalo supermarket is felt in a particularly heavy way in the small community of Lockport in western New York where I reside.
It is not only that we are so close and closely connected to Buffalo, it is because one of the 10 people murdered was from Lockport.
Aaron Salter was the 55-year-old retired Buffalo police officer working security at the store. He died heroically, but his gun was no match for a military assault weapon and military body armor of the shooter.
On the Monday afterward, leaders in Lockport’s Black community met at City Hall, along with others. The meeting was on the calendar already, to hear about progress on the school district’s My Brother’s Keeper project. But it quickly became a space of reflection about a trauma still too raw to absorb.
Dr. Anna Barrett, a longtime teacher at Lockport High School, who is herself Black, read aloud a long note she had received that morning from a former student, a classmate of Aaron Salter’s son and namesake. Here is some of what Javeon Tomlinson had to say:
“What happened over the weekend is beyond EVIL. I feel for the people and their families. Nobody wakes up knowing this will be their last day here. What makes it worse is that all of the people were involved in the community! Deacons of churches and police officers and so forth.
“I grew up with Aaron Salter in elementary, middle and high school and I feel really bad. His dad was retired and just working in his spare time. It’s not fair.
“The government talks about terrorism. What about the terrorism in America? Another press conference isn’t enough and it’s getting old, something needs to be done. It’s 2022 still shooting us down like dogs in the street.”
I felt grateful to be present that evening and among people who felt the weight of those 10 grizzly deaths in a different way than I could. It is one thing to feel empathy. It is another to feel empathy and also know that you and your loved ones have become a target for violent white racists.
An 18-year-old with a heart full of racial hatred drove across western New York to fire bullets into the bodies of Black people doing their weekly shopping. His act was just one expression of a brand of racial hatred that is now burning openly in our country like a wildfire. Its tinder is some mix of insecurity and frustration among people who have become convinced that the blame lies with anyone not white.
But here is the thing with a wildfire like this one. There is no ignoring it. You are either helping put it out or you are helping fan the flames. And it is long past time to call out those who are helping to fan those flames.
If the Buffalo killer took the same country road to get to the Buffalo area that I traveled recently, he passed a house with a Confederate flag flying over it. Maybe the people living there are so ignorant of history that they don’t even realize they are flying the emblem of slavery and racism, or maybe they feel so righteous in their racism that they want to boast it. It is time for their neighbors to call them out for it.
After the massacre, our local state senator, Rob Ortt, the leader of the New York Senate Republicans, played the politician’s game of offering prayers and a fake solution. He demanded that the state bring back the death penalty – as if a killer who was ready to fire a gun into his skull would be deterred by capital punishment. He would more likely just inspire more like him by becoming a white supremist martyr.
If Senator Ortt wants to do something real to help put out the flames, he ought to call out his fellow New York Republican, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik. In her ongoing effort to become a darling of the party’s extremists, she ran ads last year echoing out the same hate-driven “white replacement” conspiracy that the Buffalo killer used to justify his massacre.
When politicians deliberately fan the flames of white racism to secure their standing with the racists in their party, call them out. When television personalities like Tucker Carlson fan those flames to a national audience, by making white replacement a mantra on the Fox airwaves, call them out.
They are just the current day carriers of the same racist messages that were lobbed against our immigrant grandparents a century ago, coming from places like Italy, Romania, Ireland and China. It is entirely possible to criticize the nation’s immigration policies without dipping into racism to do it.
The work of calling people out is local as well. Here in the community that lost a Black hero, our children go through the entirety of public school without ever laying eyes on a Black male teacher.
Despite great applicants wanting to do the job, the Lockport district has somehow avoided hiring a single one. Putting role models like this at the front of our children’s classrooms, for white children as well as Black, is an essential way to help attack racism at its root. When a school district doesn’t get that, it is time to call it out.
The wildfire of white racism that tore through the bodies of 10 human beings in a Buffalo supermarket calls up that string of wisdom from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
If the dead here are owed anything by us, it is an end to silence.