BUFFALO, New York — Phylicia Dove can’t hold back tears as she talks about the massacre that destroyed her community’s shelter in Buffalo’s Masten Park neighborhood.
“Tops Market was a place of community, a safe space for us to meet, talk, be together,” she told CNN. “There’s no one here who hasn’t visited this Tops. It was ours. Although it wasn’t the best, it was ours, and now our safe space has been infiltrated and taken us been taken away and it’s something we mourn.”
Beloved Tops is the only supermarket within a one-mile radius in this predominantly black neighborhood and one that took over a decade to get to. It has now been scarred by a murderous rampage the remnants of which are evident in the police tapes now guarding the store.
But the real guardians of this grocery store are the hundreds of residents who crowded Jefferson Avenue, crying, praying and beginning their heartbreaking journey to recovery.
The tragedy began when a typical grocery store Saturday turned into a violent nightmare when 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron arrived in Tops and gunned down people inside and outside the store, according to the police. Eleven of the thirteen victims, aged 20 to 86, were black.
Gendron has described himself as a white supremacist in a hateful rant online. And the locals want the world to know that what happened in their community was an act of terror.
“This should be categorized as a racist hate crime and we want it to be known that he is a white supremacist,” Dove said. “We also want this to be called terrorism, and making it sound softer than that is a slap in the face for grieving families today.”
The massacre left this tight-knit community angry and heartbroken, but East Side residents like Tony Marshall didn’t let their grief drive them apart.
Marshall spent hours in the sun grilling hot dogs in the corner where Tops stood behind him, just yards from where he had discovered the bodies of three of his friends the day before.
“It was chaos,” he says, looking around Tops’ parking lot. “People were crying, people were screaming, and I joined them when I saw these bodies, all by the door. The bodies of my friends.”
Marshall, affectionately known in town as “Mr. Tony”, cooks for hundreds of grieving residents on Buffalo’s East Side. The jitney driver, who spends the majority of his days at Tops picking up and dropping off employees and shoppers, says he is “emotionally drained”.
“It started the moment I got here and saw my men on the field and it hasn’t ended since,” he told CNN. “I don’t want to do anything but be here because this is one of those deals where if we let this heartache fester none of us will want to be here. And if we’re not here , once again the community is suffering.”
Sounds of hope and pain fill the block, short laughter mingled with audible crying. Across the street and under a tree memorialized with flowers and candles for the fallen, a man wraps his arms around a woman whose tears seem endless.
Beside them, a group of young people pass around a small microphone shouting words of hope. “We will not be broken!” cries a woman.
As the community begins its efforts to heal and rebuild, local business owner and activist Dove says she can’t help but worry that this won’t be the last time tragedy strikes a black community in America.
“Where can we exist and be black and safe?” she asks. “And if it’s not our grocery store, or our church, or wherever else we’ve been shot before, where are we going to exist free?”
“We are hated, and now we are hunted”
The ZIP code that includes Tops, 14208, is 78% Black, according to the Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey. It is among the top 2% of the nation’s ZIP codes with the highest percentage of black population and the highest percentage of black population of any zip code in upstate New York.
“He knew what he was doing when he came to pick us up,” Raqueal “RaRa” Watson, who was born and raised nearby, told CNN. “It scares us, especially as a mother, that someone could come here just to murder us. None of us slept last night. It will cause permanent trauma.”
Tops was her local grocery store, she said as she sat in a chair outside the Jefferson Ave memorial, where a woman lays flowers before bending down to offer a prayer.
But despite the memories and love she had of Tops, the mother-of-three said she and her family have no plans to return.
“All we did was be black,” Watson said. “White people are taking everything from us. Even the only grocery store in our community. That’s what they’re doing to us.”
Dove, the community activist, is also a mother and she says she is consumed with another problem: how does she explain the incident to her two young children, who she says could one day become victims of similar incidents deeply rooted in anti-black racism?
“We shouldn’t have to teach our children that at some point their skin color will mark them as different and might mark them as a target,” Dove said. “In this country, they hate us, and now they hunt us. How do you explain to a child that there was a massacre in a grocery store because someone hates their skin? ?”
“Growing up never thinking or knowing your skin is a problem is a privilege that black bodies don’t have,” she added.
“It was about the invisible becoming visible”
Martin Bryant leans against the porch of his home – which is on the same block as Tops – as his two nephews stand beside him. The three men spent the day outside their home, they say, unable to accept that the neighborhood they now see – still teeming with police, journalists and dozens of mourners – is the same one they call at their home.
Bryant was 33 when Tops opened in his neighborhood. After living in the same house on Jefferson Avenue all his life, he finally had a local grocery store.
It is a blessing that many people take for granted. a reliable place to go for last minute dinner ideas, sweet tooth cravings, or to casually stroll from aisle to aisle browsing a handwritten grocery list.
So when Tops opened in 2003, life changed completely when this community got the grocery store it had been dreaming of and fighting for for over a decade.
“Tops was a big boost for the community. We actually had a grocery store of our own. It wasn’t a convenience store like a 7/11, it was a real grocery store. It made everyone happy.” Bryant told CNN. “Local leaders fought for it and the location was perfect as it is right next to two bus routes.”
“For the community that had long lived without viable fresh fruits and vegetables, this was a sign of progress, a sign of being and feeling recognized,” Dove said. “A sign that the East Side mattered and was an area of the city worth investing in. It was about making the invisible visible.”
Prior to Tops, residents had to rely on a “dirty convenience store that was never stocked” or travel to nearby areas to get groceries. When the winters were bad, that made things especially difficult, Bryant said, and for seniors and low-income residents who couldn’t afford cars, things were more dire.
Now, Bryant fears for the elderly and less privileged in his neighborhood who may no longer feel safe in Tops.
“Older people go there. My mom, who was in a wheelchair, had to go there every day she wanted to get a few things,” Bryant said. “We try to have hope because what will they have if they don’t have Tops? Even I might not want to go back.”
The nearest grocery store is a Wegmans, which is about 4 miles away. Although it’s a 15-minute drive, public transportation can make the trip up to an hour. Another issue is that Wegmans is considered a high end supermarket and prices are less affordable for some Masten Park residents.
“Having this one space for ourselves, celebrated in 2003 not too long ago, the only supermarket in what is truly a food desert, is traumatic,” Dove said. “It felt like we had been kicked when we were already down, so it’s a different level of pain that we feel. We didn’t have much, and you took that who remained.”
“We are broken, perhaps irreversibly,” Dove said. “Will we still be the same? No. Will we rebuild? Yes. Because we have no choice. Black people in America have never had a choice.”