India Walton on the Buffalo Massacre: ‘This is America’
"This country was built on theft, on violence, on the notion that some people have the right to exist and others do not."
3:50 PM EDT on May 19, 2022
Last Saturday, a white 18-year-old steeped in racist ideology, drove to a Black neighborhood in Buffalo and opened fire inside the Tops grocery store, shooting 13 people, and killing 10 of them. Hell Gate spoke with India Walton on Wednesday about how her community is reacting to the massacre.
Walton is a nurse and longtime community organizer from the East side of Buffalo. Her upstart campaign for Mayor of Buffalo last year beat the incumbent, Byron Brown, in the Democratic Primary, before Brown defeated her as a write-in candidate in the general election. She is now a senior advisor for the Working Families Party.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Nick Pinto: Hi. I guess my first question is: How are you doing?
India Walton: Pretty good. Well…I'm not. But you know: standard answer.
How have you spent your day today? How are people in Buffalo reacting to this?
It’s budget time in Buffalo. I spent my morning at a budget hearing where our police department is asking for funding to buy a technology called ShotSpotter. I spent my morning as the voice of dissent against increasing the police budget. But this is very much a somber time for people in Buffalo right now. My sister didn't send her children to school for the last couple of days. It’s just a really weird time.
You knew at least one of the victims personally. Can you tell me about Kat Massey?
Katherine Massey was a woman who lived on Cherry Street. I started my organizing career in a neighborhood called the Fruit Belt in Buffalo that is very close to where this massacre happened. And Kat Massey was a lifetime Fruit Belt resident and ardent supporter of the community land trust that I co-founded.
The Fruit Belt is a neighborhood that is predominantly African American on the east side of Buffalo. Housing prices have been going up due to gentrification caused by the growth of a nearby medical campus initiated by [former Governor] Andrew Cuomo as part of his Buffalo Billions project. So the land trust was founded on the principle of trying to maintain the fabric of the neighborhood and allow folks who have had family homes in that neighborhood for generations to stay in place. It was a way to protect the community from negative impacts of neighborhood change.
And Kat Massey saw the value in that?
Kat Massey came to every meeting, every teach-in. Kat sent $10 a month for two years to support the work. And anytime I would go knock on her door, she had photo albums, because at every meeting, she would take pictures, and she just had all of the pictures of the meetings that we had, and the work that we were doing in that neighborhood. She was definitely a big supporter.
Buffalo is a small enough community that we all know one another. Somehow, we're all connected.
It seems as though there's an intersection between, on the one hand, this discrete, outrageous act of physical violence by an individual, and then the longstanding structural violence the East side of Buffalo has endured. What’s the significance of this massacre happening at the Tops Market?
Buffalo is the sixth most segregated city in the country; 85 percent of Black people in the city of Buffalo live across Main Street. The fact that this is the only grocery store that services that area of town is a conversation that's been being had. Having this national attention on it, I'm hoping and praying that we don't miss out on an opportunity to get the progress that we so desperately need in this area. That progress should come in the form of true investment.
The market is closed now, following the shooting?
The market is closed.
What does that mean for people's ability to get food in their neighborhood?
It's tough! One of the things I'm most proud of about being from Buffalo is that we have natural mutual aid networks. When things like this happen, we're, sadly, already prepared to respond. I know that folks have been out delivering groceries, giving folks rides to the grocery store. But I think aside from people's inability to access food right now, I'm also thinking about the people that [the Tops] pharmacy serves, bill-pay services. It really is going to cause a lot of hardship for people in the days and weeks to come.
Are these two separate and unrelated problems in your mind—the disinvestment and the abandonment of the neighborhood and then this act of extreme physical violence? Or are they connected?
They are both violence. Racism is violent. Communities that have been redlined, communities that have been locked out of social and economic upward mobility—that is violence. The fact that we are not self-determined and can't protect ourselves in our own community. And simultaneously, we're over-policed and under-protected. It is not a good feeling for people who live in this community.
You said at the beginning of the conversation that you spent today arguing against an increased police budget and the ShotSpotter program. One reaction to this tragedy would be to say that we need to increase the police budget and cover the neighborhood in ShotSpotter devices. Why isn't that the right reaction, in your mind?
Because the police don't keep us safe. Police presence doesn't prevent crime. Police show up after crime occurs. The way that we make our community safe is by providing folks with safe, affordable housing, with decent jobs, with a quality education. To build a community without the fear of scarcity, the fear that Tops on Jefferson being closed means that people might not be able to eat right now. Making sure that those resources are available to people is what keeps the community safe. One of our first-ring suburbs—Amherst, New York—is the safest city in America. It's not because they have more police. It's because they have access to resources. It's because people own homes. Their basic needs are met.
In the wake of this mass killing, pundits have been talking about whether we’re supposed to think of this as a gun-control issue or a racism issue. How are you understanding what happened here?
This is America. This country was built on theft, on violence, on the notion that some people have the right to exist and others do not. And unfortunately, all that's really happened is that’s been illuminated here. These sorts of kitchen table conversations are now having to be had in public.
What can people outside of Buffalo be doing to help your community right now?
I have been directing folks to donate to either Open Buffalo or to the African Heritage Food Cooperative—both in the immediate future, and for the long term. If folks want to financially support some of these Black-led organizations, that's a great thing.
Nick Pinto served two tours as staff writer at the Village Voice. His reporting has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Gothamist, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, The Intercept, and elsewhere.
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