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Buffalo supermarket at center of deadly shooting a community lifeline

Libby March for The Washington Post via Getty Images

(BUFFALO, N.Y.) -- On the east side of Buffalo, New York, community is the neighborhood's greatest asset and the local Tops Friendly Market on Jefferson Ave. serves as a vital hub, according to area leaders.

In this predominantly Black community, which has struggled to thrive after years of historic segregation and divestment, residents say the area’s lone grocery store is a central resource and gathering place providing access to fresh food and medicine.

“We don't got the YMCA no more in the community, so Tops is it for us,” Jeffrey Watkins, a 64-year-old long-time resident of East Buffalo, told ABC News' "Nightline." “It's like a community center. We meet there every day. We’re in Tops every single day. That's where we live.”

But on Saturday, May 14, all of that changed when an 18-year-old white male allegedly opened fire in what authorities say was a racially motivated attack, shooting and killing 10 people and injuring 3 others. Eleven of the victims are Black.

“It was a planned attack. He took away a food source. Now there's nowhere people can eat right now,” Julien Guy, an East Buffalo resident, said.

Buffalo Councilman Ulysees Wingo said the shooting suspect "attacked an oasis in the middle of a food desert," telling ABC News that he "wasn't just trying to kill Black people, he was trying to starve them."“With this store being closed - it has completely disrupted the lives of residents; it has completely interrupted the flow of how people fellowship and how we come together,” the councilman told ABC News.

An assault on the disenfranchised

Nearly 20 years ago, residents living in East Buffalo lacked access to healthy, affordable food within walking distance. The nearest grocery store was more than 3 miles away.

“Years ago, some of us worked very hard to bring this supermarket to Buffalo’s east side,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown told ABC News. “This was a food desert previously,” he added.

Community leaders and city officials advocated and lobbied for a supermarket and won, opening Tops Friendly Market with much fanfare in 2003.

Since then, the grocery store has been a pinnacle of pride for the food equality and resources for which residents long fought.

“It was a really big thing about us even getting a Tops in an inner-city neighborhood,” said Roberto Archie, a resident. “It was something we really needed. We finally got it; now it’s gone again.”

Wingo said the systemic racism that ultimately perpetuated years of divestment is a major factor that makes Saturday’s deadly rampage even more devastating to a community that has struggled with historic disenfranchisement.

“This country was founded on principles that suggested Black folks were lesser than other folks. We have these nationalists and these white supremacists who think that they're entitled to this country when the fact of the matter is this country was built on the backs of my ancestors,” Wingo said.

Banding together in the face of tragedy

In the aftermath of this tragedy, city officials have collaborated with corporations to help residents get the resources they need.

Tops Supermarket offered ongoing transportation to neighboring store chains, saying in a statement, “While the Tops location at Jefferson Avenue will remain closed until further notice, we are steadfast in our commitment to serving every corner of our community as we have for the past 60 years. Knowing the importance of this location and serving families on the east side of the city, we have taken immediate steps to ensure our neighbors are able to meet their grocery and pharmacy needs by providing free bus shuttle service starting today [May 15]."

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a partnership with Uber and Lyft to provide residents free rides.

“They have offered to take people from the [local] ZIP codes, and they need to go to a grocery store in another area because a lot of people in this neighborhood walk to the grocery store. They don't have transportation,” Hochul said on Sunday, May 15.

Resident Dayna Overton-Burns, 53, has been working around the clock to gather donations and deliver food and resources to people in need, one of several city residents who are rallying together to ensure that the community's most vulnerable are fed.

“This is my city. This is my community. These are my people. I don't care if you're Black, white, or purple,” Overton-Burns told ABC News. “It's important for me to help where I live and build community. We should be one, and not just wait for tragedy to happen in order to come together. We should be doing that work every single day.”

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