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'We don't feel safe': Many Black Americans experiencing grief, trauma after Buffalo shooting

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 5/19/2022 Chris Kenning and Tiffany Cusaac-Smith, USA TODAY
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BUFFALO, N.Y. – A day after a white gunman in military gear opened fire at a Buffalo supermarket in a Black neighborhood Saturday afternoon and killed 10 people, longtime city resident Max Anderson found himself moving quickly through a nearby grocery. 

Anderson, who is Black and who works about a block away from where the shooting took place, said being in the store to grab lunch was an “extremely anxious” experience.

“I was very uncomfortable, and I didn't stay more than five minutes,” he said. “I grabbed something and walked out, and I didn’t stay there to eat.” 

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Anderson, deputy director of the advocacy organization Open Buffalo, said the targeting of this predominately Black community by a shooter who allegedly espoused racist ideology has rattled him and many Black people across the nation, reigniting what experts call a collective loss. 

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Ten people were killed and three injured in a shooting Saturday at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y. Eleven of the 13 people shot were Black. © Tina MacIntyre-Yee/USA Today Network Ten people were killed and three injured in a shooting Saturday at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y. Eleven of the 13 people shot were Black.

From lynchings and church bombings to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and beyond, hate crimes have a cumulative impact. It shatters trust and can fuel collective anxiety, stress, depression, hopelessness and post-traumatic stress, experts said. 

"Unfortunately, the shooting in Buffalo is another incident of racist violence, that follows a legacy of anti-Black violence that goes back to even before this country's founding," said Da'Mere Wilson, a researcher at the University of Arizona. "This incident of collective grief, felt most acutely by the Black community in Buffalo, has reverberating effects through the coverage of these incidents through mass media." 

Studies show race-based traumatic stress can result from experiences with hate crimes and racism and can lead to symptoms such as depression, physical pain, insomnia and hypervigilance, according to Mental Health America, a Virginia-based advocacy, research and education group.

Tiffany Whitfield and Robin Harris, daughters of Ruth Whitfield, hold hands during a news conference Monday in Buffalo. Ruth Whitfield was one of 10 people killed in the supermarket shooting. © Seth Harrison, The Journal News via USA TODAY NETWORK Tiffany Whitfield and Robin Harris, daughters of Ruth Whitfield, hold hands during a news conference Monday in Buffalo. Ruth Whitfield was one of 10 people killed in the supermarket shooting.

In some cases, it can cause symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress, such as being on high alert to threats in public or having trouble sleeping, said Erlanger Turner, a psychology professor at Pepperdine University in California and the author of “Mental Health among African Americans.”

The known stress comes as reports of hate crimes are rising, particularly for Blacks and Asian Americans, according to an FBI report last fall. 

Reports of hate crimes against Black people rose to 2,755 in 2020, up from 1,930 in 2019.

The FBI report found that of the hate crime offenses classified as crimes against persons in 2020, 53% were for intimidation, 28% were for simple assault and 18% were for aggravated assault. Twenty-two murders and 21 rapes were reported as hate crimes. Among the offenses classified as crimes against property, 74% were acts of destruction or vandalism. 

Anti-Black hate crimes have long been the most prevalent, said Frank Pezzella, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who studies the causes and consequences of hate crime victimization. 

Pezzella said racially motivated crimes are sentenced more severely in part because of the unique harms that radiate from individuals to wider communities, including distrust.

The Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo is a fixture in the majority-Black neighborhood. © Matt Rourke, AP Images The Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo is a fixture in the majority-Black neighborhood.

For Tim Jones, the shooting Saturday reawakened grief over the death of his cousin, who was shot to death in a hate crime in 2018 by a man who targeted Black people in a Kroger grocery in Louisville, Kentucky, killing two. The massacre in Buffalo, Jones said, has left him nervous during shifts at an auto factory and while out shopping.

“I can’t go in a store without my head being on a swivel,” said Jones, 55. “I don’t know when the next person will get it in their mind to kill somebody.”

Dominiic Rozier, 31, also witnessed the Kentucky shooting. Much like one of the victims in Buffalo, he had been headed to a store to buy cupcakes and food for his son's birthday. Andre Mackniel, 53, went to the Buffalo supermarket Saturday for a birthday cake for his 3-year-old son. 

Now, Rozier said, his awareness is up "1,000 times" when he's out with his kids, adding, "I tell my wife every time she goes out to pay attention."

Steven Kelsey, pastor of Spirit Filled New Life Church Ministries in Louisville who also works with the city on violence reduction, said the Buffalo shooting reinforced longstanding psychological stressors all too common among Black Americans.

“We always have to be alert that somebody wants to destroy us. We don't feel safe anymore,” said Kelsey, who is Jones' minister. 

"We're being shot at. We’re being arrested. … This is what we have to deal with psychologically.”

Wilson, the researcher at the University of Arizona, said coping strategies can help deal with racial violence in communities. Those can include spiritual practices such as group prayer or activism. She said addressing underlying structural concerns should be part of that healing. 

"It is very hard to heal a wound that is continuously reopened," she said. 

Back in Buffalo, Byron Chavis, 19, said the shooting in his neighborhood has left him feeling angry. 

"It's almost just as we're repeating history all over again, but on a bigger scale because we have social media now," said Chavis, who is studying psychology at Medaille College in Buffalo. 

Chavis said he knows how to seek out the resources for healing for himself, but he worries whether others who need help will be able to get access to mental health treatment to deal with trauma. 

Police speak to bystanders while investigating after a shooting at a supermarket Saturday in Buffalo, N.Y. Officials said the gunman entered the supermarket with a rifle and opened fire. © Joshua Bessex, AP Police speak to bystanders while investigating after a shooting at a supermarket Saturday in Buffalo, N.Y. Officials said the gunman entered the supermarket with a rifle and opened fire.

Anderson, of Open Buffalo, said his organization is hoping to be one of the catalysts toward healing, planning to host a barbecue nearby, food distribution and even yoga classes so people can decompress for a few moments. 

Anderson equated healing from the shooting to keloids, a condition he has in which the body creates a raised scar to heal an injured wound. 

"I have thick scars," he said. "I feel like we're going to heal, but we're not going to look the same after we do."

Violetta Walker and her boyfriend, Luis Amador, bring flowers to a memorial outside the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y. © Tina MacIntyre-Yee/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Violetta Walker and her boyfriend, Luis Amador, bring flowers to a memorial outside the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y.

Anderson hopes his Black neighborhood won't change for the worse and will remain a place where he can have casual conversations with elders in a store.

" I hope that we're able to be joyful again," he said. "We're coming up on the summer season."

Chris Kenning is a national news writer. Reach him at ckenning@usatoday.com or follow him on Twitter @chris_kenning

Tiffany Cusaac-Smith covers race and history for USA TODAY. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @T_Cusaac. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'We don't feel safe': Many Black Americans experiencing grief, trauma after Buffalo shooting

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