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1 year after Buffalo mass shooting, some residents feel they’re left to save themselves

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(BUFFALO, N.Y.) — In the wake of the racially motivated mass shooting at a Buffalo grocery store a year ago this week, there was an outpouring of sympathy and support.

Vice President Kamala Harris addressed the funeral for Ruth Whitfield, at 86 the oldest of the 10 Black victims, decrying the “epidemic of hate” in America and saying “no one should ever be made to fight alone.”

But 10 days after the May 14, 2022, attack, the national spotlight shifted to Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were gunned down at an elementary school. A number of mass shootings followed, drawing attention away from Buffalo, leaving survivors, loved ones and the community where the massacre occurred, saying, once again, they felt on their own to pick up the pieces.

“We keep looking for somebody, but nobody’s coming in to save us,” said Garnell Whitfield Jr., the retired Buffalo fire commissioner, and Ruth Whitfield’s son. “This is about looking inwardly. Any changes that have ever happened in the world are because humans got together and connected in some way.”

While some residents say they have started fending for themselves, elected leaders argue that this is a turning point, a moment of urgency to help save the east side from decades of neglect, segregation and the numerous underlying inequalities government has failed to fix and made it a target of hate.

$1.1 billion in funds

At least $1.1 billion in state and federal funds have been earmarked for east side improvements, but citing a history of broken promises and indifference, some longtime residents say they won’t believe the money will make it to where it’s supposed to go until they see results.

About a week before the deadly rampage last May, state and local elected leaders announced a $1 billion commitment to construct a park-like cover over the Kensington Expressway, which was built decades ago and divided the east side community.

In June, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced $50 million of targeted investments as part of the state’s effort to address the immediate needs on Buffalo’s east side, acknowledging that the neighborhood “for decades suffered from significant disinvestment, neglect, and the failure of government policy.”

The funds include the state’s first-ever investment in a community-led initiative to fight food insecurity on the east side, which has one grocery store, the Tops where the shooting occurred.

Hochul said money is also going to support small businesses, job training programs and to assist first-time homebuyers and east side homeowners facing foreclosures.

In March, Hochul announced $2.5 million in additional funding, specifically to help individuals affected by the shooting. Money, she said, was to be immediately distributed to boost staffing at the Buffalo United Resiliency Center, a place of healing for those affected by the massacre, including Tops employees and shooting survivors.

“The racist policies that contributed to the mass shooting did not happen overnight, and the difficult essential work to heal and correct the harms won’t either,” Rep. Brian Higgins, whose congressional district includes Buffalo, said in a statement to ABC News, adding the east side neighborhood “will not be forgotten.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said she has worked to get her “Build Local, Hire Local” legislation passed, prioritizing training and hiring of local workers on government-funded projects, including those impacting the east side community.

“We will never forget the ten innocent lives we lost last year, and I promise to never stop fighting in Congress to honor their memory and strengthen this community,” Gillibrand said in a statement to ABC News.

And Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he is pushing to establish an innovation and manufacturing hub in Buffalo, “to build new economic opportunities for workers across the city.”

“Though we have made strides since that awful day, there is much work to be done, and I will stand with community leaders every step of the way to build a safer and more equitable Buffalo for all.” Schumer said in a statement to ABC News.

Inequity in development

Following the shooting, people across the nation donated $6.4 million to the Buffalo 5/14 Survivors Funds, which by November was dispersed to 169 individuals directly affected by the shooting, with most of the money going to the families of those killed and the three people wounded. But others survivors who were not physically injured but were traumatized by the horrific episode said the $9,500 many of them received wasn’t enough to get them back on their feet.

Despite the pledges of support, some neighborhood advocates allege little of the funding delivered to Buffalo in the decades prior the store shooting has gone to the east side.

Since 2012, more than $8 billion in economic investment has been made citywide in Buffalo, according to the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning. While such neighborhoods as Elmwood Village in the central part of the city, picked as one of America’s 10 Great Neighborhoods by the American Planning Association, and Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo boasts bustling shopping areas and major projects, the east side residents say they’ve been mostly shunned.

“What you have is a lot of big projects going on all over the place. And we believe as a consequence, white business owners will get most of the contracts and workers on the projects will be mostly white,” Dr. Henry Louis Taylor, director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo, told ABC News.

Taylor said he’s skeptical east side residents will benefit in any substantial way from the post-shooting infusion of funds, saying, “Those millions and billions of dollars will flow through the east side like water through a sieve en route to suburban communities and upscale Buffalo neighborhoods.”

But Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, elected the city’s first Black mayor in 2006, told ABC News he disagrees, saying, “millions and millions of dollars” have been invested in the east side community during his administration. He said in many ways the neighborhood is still struggling to recover from the widespread damage left by a 1967 race riot that required thousands of abandoned and crumbling homes to be torn down and have never been replaced.

“When you talk about Elmwood Village, when you talk about Hertel Avenue, that kind of unrest never occurred in that part of the city. So, the neighborhood fabric, the commercial fabric was completely intact,” Brown said.

In the meantime, east side residents said they are doing what they can to save themselves.

‘Life is good on Cherry Street’

Katherine “Kat” Massey lived on Cherry Street in a house once belonging to her parents just feet from the Kensington Expressway. Among her neighbors were her sister, Barbara Massey Mapps, and her brother, Warren Massey. When she felt happy, she would often tell her family, “life is good on Cherry Street,” her sister told ABC News.

Kat Massey, according to Mapps, was involved in up to 20 community groups and was the Cherry Street Block Club president. Following Kat Massey’s death in the Tops shooting, her loved ones have kept caring for city-owned empty lots on their street, beautifying them with trees.

“He took a real beautiful person from us. Not just us, but from the other people on the street,” Damone Mapps, Kat Massey’s nephew, said of the killer, 19-year-old Payton Gendron, who pleaded guilty to committing the mass shooting and was sentenced in February to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

During Gendron’s sentencing hearing, Damone Mapps, 46, attempted to take justice into his own hands. While his mother, Barbara Massey Mapps, was delivering an emotional victim impact statement, he suddenly lunged at Gendron, prompting court officers to restrain him.

“I wanted to kill him. I’m thinking, we’ve got to do something to this man for all the pain,” he told ABC News.

Following his Aunt Kat’s example, Damone Mapps said he maintains the empty city-owned lots on his streets, several blocks from Cherry Street.

“It doesn’t stop the movement for us,” he said of his aunt’s murder.

Samantha’s Garden

As the city works on plans for a permanent memorial for those killed in the mass shooting, deep-rooted east side resident Walter Myles has already erected one in the front yard of his century-old Victorian home. Among the chrysanthemums, sunflowers and morning glories are photos encased in clear acrylic sheets of the 10 Black residents killed in the Tops massacre.

“It shows people care. We care,” the 72-year-old retired railroad conductor told ABC News.

He said he holds a bond with those grieving their loved ones a year later. His garden is dedicated to the memory of his 23-year-old niece, Samantha Cothran, who was fatally shot in a separate incident on May 13, 2012, outside a house party in Buffalo.

His garden also features photos of firemen and police officers who perished in the line of duty, and historical African American figures, including Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. It makes him “feel strong,” he said, when people pass his house and smile.

“That’s what flowers do to people, it brings out the best of us,” Myles said.

Fighting white supremacy

Relatives of other victims of the Buffalo mass shooting have formed or are working on their own grassroots groups.

Whitfield and his brother, Raymond Whitfield, have launched the nonprofit Pursuit of tRuth to fight white supremacy in honor of their murdered mother.

Mark Talley, whose 62-year-old mother, Geraldine Talley, was killed, also launched a nonprofit, Agents for Advocacy, to fight injustice and promote socioeconomic equity in Buffalo. And Wayne Jones, who lost his 65-year-old mom, Celestine Chaney, said he is planning to start a nonprofit to support children whose parents are killed as a result of violent crime.

Solving the ‘food apartheid’ problem

The east side Tops, which reopened two months after the mass shooting, remains the only supermarket in the neighborhood — for now, serving the 68,000 residents of the east side, which five decades ago boasted numerous grocery stores and businesses.

The African Heritage Food Co-op is working to convert an old grocery store about a mile from the Tops market into a 5,000-square-foot co-op to offer fresh food from regional farms, several owned by Black farmers.

“Food is control. If someone controls your food, they can control where you go, they can control how you vote,” Alexander Wright, the founder of the program, told ABC News.

Wright said he has secured more than $3 million in private donations and grants from the state of New York, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Buffalo Bills Foundation to construct the new store with tentative plans to open it this year, staffed with employees from the east side.

“We’re not about access, we’re about ownership,” Wright said. “Anything less than ownership is unacceptable.”

Tackling racial inequities

The Tops tragedy has moved some east side leaders to double down on efforts to achieve racial justice and equity in education, employment, health and homeownership, saying they’re determined to make the victims of the shooting catalysts for change.

The racial justice group Open Buffalo’s office sits a few minutes from the Tops supermarket where the shooting happened and sprang into action right away to help the neighborhood in its darkest days.

“Everyone just showed up and just started doing,” Franchelle Parker, executive director of Open Buffalo, told ABC News.

Among the organization’s most prominent efforts to break the cycle has been its Emerging Leaders program, which seeks to identify future local leaders and teach them organizing and networking skills to affect meaningful change in their communities.

Michelle Jones, director of the Liberty Partnerships Program in Buffalo, a group funded by the New York State Department of Education that works with students in grades 5-12 to curb the school dropout rate and prepare them for college or careers, was among the first graduates of the Emerging Leaders program.

“My hope is that with the tools and the networking I have done, I can translate that into helping students be community organizers,” Jones said. “I can help them to advocate for themselves and give them access to different spaces outside their neighborhood, so they can become successful and meaningful contributors to their neighborhoods and beyond.”

ABC News’ Kiara Alfonseca contributed to this report.

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