A day ahead of Joe Biden’s visit to Buffalo, the leading civil rights attorney Ben Crump said federal officials should define the mass shooting at a grocery store in the city on Saturday as an “act of domestic terrorism”.
“We can’t sugarcoat it, we can’t try to explain it away talking about mental illness,” Crump said of the attacked allegedly perpetrated by Payton Gendron, 18, who is in custody on one charge of first-degree murder awaiting arraignment on Thursday where additional charges are likely to be filed.
“No,” Crump said. “This was an act of domestic terrorism perpetrated by a young white supremacist.”
Ten people were killed and three wounded in the shooting.
Representing the family of Ruth Whitfield, an 86-year-old woman who was among those killed in the two-minute attack, Crump said leaders “at the highest levels must be responsive to this”.
“This was an act of domestic terrorists and America responds to terrorism at every level and they have to do that here,” Crump said as he stood before several members of the Whitfield family, some of whom wept quietly.
“Just because it was a Black grocery store doesn’t make it any less than any other massacres, whether its Columbine or the Oklahoma City bombing.”
Whitfield was killed after making a daily visit to her husband, Garnell Whitfield, in a nursing home. On Monday, Garnell Whitfield had not yet been told that his wife of 68 years was dead.
Their son, the Buffalo fire commissioner, Garnell Whitfield Jr, said for his mother to be “taken from this world by someone full of hate for no reason, it’s very hard for us to handle right now”.
“And you expect us to do this over and over and over again, forgive and forget,” he said, “while the people we elect do their best not to protect us, consider us equal, not to love us back? What do we do with all of this pain?”
Crump has been involved in representing the families of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, all victims of police violence.
He called on authorities to investigate how the Buffalo gunman developed hateful beliefs, including examining if “race replacement theory” played a role in the attack.
But Crump also called out “accomplices to this mass murder”, which he identified as websites, politicians and cable news pundits.
“Even though they didn’t pull the trigger, they did load the gun for this young white supremacist,” he said.
Crump said federal legislators must pass a hate crimes bill before Congress – a reference to the George Floyd Justice in Policing bill, currently stalled – and that Biden must use his influence to secure such progress.
“Black America is suffering right now,” he said. “And we need to know that our top leader in America reacts and responds when we are hurt.”
The US justice department has said it is investigating the Buffalo massacre as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism. Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, will visit Buffalo on Tuesday. The George Floyd bill is likely to be discussed, alongside the the first’s family’s expressions of condolence to grieving families and the community at large.
Attorneys co-representing the Whitfield family said they could file lawsuits against Bushmaster, maker of the assault-style weapon used in Buffalo, following successful legal actions against the makers of weapons used in mass shootings.
The attorney Ken Abbarno said “all of the signs and red flags were there” to monitor the suspect and stop him acquiring a gun, including threatening comments that brought police to his high school last spring and triggered a mental health evaluation.
Another attorney, Terry Connors, said he planned to help the Whitfield family get answers about how the shooting happened and how it was possible for an 18-year-old with such a history to purchase such a weapon, cross state lines and buy bullets.
According to the Erie county sheriff, John Garcia, the suspect was visited last year by state police after he turned in a high-school project about murder-suicides. Buffalo police have said authorities are examining a 180-page manifesto Gendron appeared to have written and posted that referenced racist replacement theories.
Also on Monday, the Buffalo police commissioner, Joseph Gramaglia, revealed that Gendron did not plan to limit his rampage to one branch of Tops Friendly Markets.
“He was going to get in his car and continue to drive down Jefferson Avenue and continue doing the same thing,” the commissioner said.
Gendron reportedly drove to Buffalo from his home several hours away on Friday to do “reconnaissance” of the area. At least one witness claims to have met him that day.
Law enforcement found another rifle and a shotgun in the suspect’s car.
As details of the planning of the shooting become clearer, so do its apparent motives. A screenshot posted on Crump’s Twitter account showed the alleged gunman had the number 14 stenciled on the barrel of his weapon, an apparent reference to a 14-word white supremacist phrase: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
The attack has also focused attention on social media livestream services.
“Live streaming this attack gives me some motivation in the way that I know that some people will be cheering for me,” the suspect said as the attack was in progress.
Amazon-owned Twitch, which hosted the suspect’s livestream via the account “jimboboiii” to roughly 20 other users, has said it has erased the video from servers.
“The user has been indefinitely suspended from our service and we are taking all appropriate action including monitoring for any accounts rebroadcasting this content,” a Twitch spokesperson said.
Clips of the attack were available on other platforms. One clip, uploaded to Streamable, was reported to have had 3m views before it was removed.