He picked the Buffalo Tops because of its zip code.
And his fear.
As Payton Gendron seethed in his fascist, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, white-supremacist hate, as he contemplated a specific locale for his rampage, he checked zip codes.
That’s what the 18-year-old said in his manifesto.
But, as murderers often will, he lied.
He wrote that he picked that neighborhood in that part of Buffalo – the Eastside – because it had the highest concentration of black people within an easy drive of his home in Conklin, outside Binghamton.
And, yes, Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo, where the Tops Friendly Market sits, an oasis in an urban food desert, is in a neighborhood with a high concentration of black people.
Almost 85% of the residents of zip code 14208 are black. And the store at its heart is 208 miles from the murderer’s home.
But, like I said, he lied.
The neighborhood where this monster came to take innocent life is the blackest zip code in upstate New York. The dozen zip codes in New York with even higher concentrations of black people – some 40 miles closer to his home – are in New York City.
But he didn’t go there.
Because he was a coward.
A little Hitler of hate who, hiding behind a bullet-proof vest and an assault rifle, strode across the parking lot of a crowded Saturday supermarket, shouting racial slurs at people as he gunned them down. He wore a helmet and camouflage and the word “NIGGER” in capital letters was written across the upper handguard of his rifle, as those watching on Twitch from his helmet camera could see.
Ten would die and three would be wounded. Eleven were black and two were white.
Innocent people, shopping and working at a grocery store on a beautiful May afternoon.
In what the sheriff and the heavens declare was a “straight-up racially motivated hate crime.”
In the hours after, as the details came out and the manifesto was read, as the hellish evil of it all sank in and the nation wretched with a nausea of realization, it became less about him and more about us.
About the way mankind seems hardwired to divide and dehumanize, to be blind to the family of man and the creation of God. About the way American society and politics use chauvinism and racism to fuel traditions of power.
The Buffalo Tops would be the September 11 of racism, but it’s not the first or the biggest and it may not even be long remembered. And to the extent that it is, it will probably be as a rallying cry, not a wake-up call. This devilish slaughter will quickly be turned to pre-existing political agendas and the Election Day some six months hence. We will likely fall into the trap of being further divided by this, along racial and partisan lines, rather than being united in grief and resolve.
So let me be honest.
Both the left and the right in America – the Republicans and the Democrats alike – use racial discomfort and prejudice to advance their partisan and philosophical interests. In part, both Republicans and Democrats use racial animus to gain and hold power. In a way, much of the fight between Republicans and Democrats is a slow-motion race war acted out within the confines of our culture and electoral system.
Most of us see that in the actions of our opponents, but none of us will be any better – and neither will our country – until we see it in the actions of ourselves. Both sides – and all races – are sensitive to the racial chauvinism of others, but largely blind to the racial chauvinism of themselves. In fact, so twisted is our rationalization of animosity that we typically see our own racism as something noble.
When they hate, they are being monsters. When we hate, we are being heroes. That is true whoever “they” and “we” are.
And shouting at one another, denouncing the failings of the other side while being blind to our own, just digs the hole deeper and makes the feelings stronger, and we become intoxicated on the warring tribalism that has destroyed societies on all continents in every era. We tie our country ever tighter to the cycle of hate that fuels human social dissolution.
But America should be different.
Built on a culture that says we should love each other as we love ourselves, and treat people the way we would want to be treated, and living in a nation that declares all people are created equal, we have the keys to peace and social strength. Keys so powerful and true that even when partially applied – as has been the case in most of our country’s history – we have still benefited thereby.
Keys so powerful and true that if we could only, as individuals and a society, better and more faithfully apply them, how great would be our joy and peace, as we continued to rise together – one nation, and one people.
But the path forward isn’t in assailing the other side’s failings, it is in addressing our own. It is not about condemning others, it is about fixing self. As individuals, as political parties, as races. We’re not looking for tolerance, we’re looking for love. And we have to be honest and earnest about those things within our hearts and platforms that exploit and enflame bigotry for benefit.
That is as true of Democrats as it is of Republicans, and as true of Republicans as it is of Democrats. It is likewise true across racial lines. Bigotry is a two-way street, and we’re in danger of a head-on collision.
Don’t let them have died in vain.
Don’t let a monster spark the fire.
Don’t let division be our downfall.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Pray for the people you mistakenly believe are your enemies. Recognize everyone as your equal, and as your brother or sister.
And fight the bigotry in the mirror.
That’s how we save America, that’s how we clean our consciences, that’s how we lead the world.
He was motivated by hate and fear. We must be motivated by love and courage.
Today, and every day.