BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — The names of the 10 Black people massacred by a white gunman were read aloud Thursday outside the Buffalo supermarket where they died, two months after the racist attack. A bell tolled after each name at a ceremony marking the store’s reopening.
Employees, neighbors and elected officials toured the overhauled store Thursday. Near the entrance, mirrors reflecting cascading water stood on both sides of a poem by Buffalo’s poet laureate, Jillian Hanesworth, which begins: “Let the hopeful healing waters flow.”
Customers will return Friday morning.
Ten Black people were killed when a then-18-year-old gunman wearing body armor and carrying a semiautomatic rifle opened fire on weekend shoppers and employees. Three people were wounded in the massacre.
Investigators say the shooter was motivated by white supremacist beliefs and researched the demographics of the predominantly Black neighborhood where the market is located with the intent of killing as many Black people as possible. He drove for more than three hours from his home in Conklin, New York, to carry out the attack, authorities said.
“We must go on,” said Tops employee Rosalie Bishop, who has worked at the store for 12 years. She wants the store open again — and couldn’t imagine not returning to work with colleagues who she considers family.
“The store is there for a reason. The store is still there for a reason,” said Bishop, 58, who was on her way to work when the attack happened and said she’s still processing her near miss.
On Thursday, a federal grand jury indicted the shooter, Payton Gendron, on counts including federal hate crime charges punishable by the death penalty. Federal charges were first announced last month, and Gendron has pleaded not guilty in parallel state and federal cases.
“The Justice Department fully recognizes the threat that white supremacist violence poses to the safety of the American people and American democracy,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said.
The decision to reopen, rather than relocate, the store has been met with mixed emotions in the east Buffalo neighborhood that, beset by high poverty, fought for years to get a grocery store. Since opening in 2003, the Tops location remains the only supermarket in the immediate area. Its closure after the shooting forced many residents to take buses to other locations or rely on stopgap measures like neighborhood giveaways to access fresh food.
“We must never forget the intoxicating pain and utter cruelness of what occurred here,” state Attorney General Letitia James said Thursday, before going inside the store. “Today we reclaim this space as ours.”
State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, whose district includes the city, said her office fielded calls from people opposed to reopening, but she said the community could not wait years for a replacement.
Suggestions to local media and on social networks included turning the site into a park or recreational center that would bring the community together, or having several supermarkets that are more dispersed throughout Buffalo’s East Side.
Some simply aren’t comfortable entering a store where such terrible events took place.
“I can’t go right now,” said Willie Boyd, 82, as he chatted with friends on a sidewalk nearby. He said he knew some of the victims and couldn’t yet bring himself to walk the aisles where they died.
“I will eventually,” he said. “I just can’t right now. I just can’t.”
Gendron was arrested outside the store’s front entrance.
Tops President John Persons said the store was remodeled from floor to ceiling, given a new color palate, displays and equipment. It would have taken two to three years to build a new store — too long for the community to wait, he said.
“It’s a completely different store,” Persons said. “Everything is different.”
Just over 75% of employees have returned, he said, while 10% have not yet decided. The rest transferred to other stores or left the company.
Mayor Byron Brown said he was apprehensive while first touring the remodeled store but believes the overhaul will help customers. Before going inside Thursday, he called it “sacred ground.”
“I realize that not everyone will feel comfortable returning to the store,” he said in a statement, adding he’s encouraging other retailers to serve the area.
Bishop, the store employee, has already returned to work at the store to help prepare. Her first day went smoothly, but a security drill with flashing lights on the second day sent her home, shaken, mid-shift. Still, she said she’s not afraid for her safety.
Persons said safety upgrades included a new emergency evacuation alarm system and additional emergency exits. Outside, the parking lot and perimeter have new LED lighting.
“I just want peace. I just want peace,” Bishop said. “It’ll never go back to the way it was. We’re not looking for the way it was. But peace.”
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