Buffalo mass shooting site reopens to a debate over healing, sensitivity

A man hugs a woman in the lot outside a store.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia hugs Leah Holton-Pope, senior advisor to New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes before to a commemorative ceremony at the store on Thursday.
(Derek Gee / Buffalo News via Associated Press)

Cariol Horne started her morning outside the Tops Friendly Markets store in Buffalo by placing white roses at a memorial to the 10 Black people who were slain there two months ago.

Across the fenced-off parking lot, the supermarket chain’s president and employees were preparing to lead media on a preview of the refurbished store, a day before its Friday reopening to the public.

For the record:

11:17 p.m. July 15, 2022An earlier version of this article said the shooting victims were killed by a white gunman. A white man is the suspect in the killings and has pleaded not guilty.

Horne, a 54-year-old activist and retired Buffalo police officer, was among those in the neighborhood who say it’s too soon.


“We’re pretty much shopping on people’s blood,” she said. “I think that this is more about putting people to work rather than letting them heal. … Just two months ago, these people were running for their lives.”

Yet even Horne carries the mixed emotions of seemingly everyone in the community, where Tops has been a gathering spot for two decades. Her 97-year-old
father, a World War II
veteran, lives close enough to shop there on his own. The produce is fresher than what’s available at convenience stores and bodegas in the neighborhood, she said.

The search for survivors in Vinnytsia continued as Russian forces pounded other sites in their push to wrest territory from Ukraine.

July 15, 2022

How do you decide how, when or if to let the site of a mass atrocity return to being what it was before it was a crime scene? How do you help people move forward without erasing the memory of an event that devastated so many?

It’s hard enough to answer those questions when it’s a school, church or synagogue. It’s a different sort of hard when it’s a place of business, especially one as central to a community as Tops is to east Buffalo.

It took six months for a movie theater to reopen in Aurora, Colo., after a shooter killed 12 people there in 2012. That was one theater in a 16-screen suburban cineplex.


Tops is the social hub of its east Buffalo neighborhood. That’s why frequent shoppers, employees, community leaders and those who lost loved ones in the hail of bullets tell the Associated Press: It’s complicated.

On the one hand, residents fought for years to win a grocery store on Buffalo’s east side, which had long suffered from disinvestment and lackluster economic
activity. The arrival of Tops in 2003 was a godsend to an area that had been considered a food desert.

On the other hand, polishing store fixtures and floors is a far cry from addressing systemic inequality and unhealed trauma in east Buffalo’s Black community, several residents said.

Tops President John Persons said Thursday that the company began hearing from customers, community members and civic leaders the day after the May 14 shooting. Almost immediately, the company started running a free shuttle from the neighborhood to other Tops stores.

Ultimately, the management team felt confident that store associates and area residents needed and wanted the store to reopen.

“I’ll be honest, those are the people that we really wanted to listen to, the people that were in the neighborhood, the people that were in the Jefferson Avenue neighborhood and the immediate community, to find out what their thoughts were,” Persons said.

On Friday morning, store associates handed single carnations to customers as they entered the store. Some received Tops gift cards — the store planned to hand out more than 200, a representative confirmed.

“The key to life is to get back to living,” said shopper Alan Hall, who lives two blocks from the store. “We’re happy that it’s open. It looks good. It’s well stocked. Of course, there’s still that undercurrent of grief, which will never leave. But it’s good to be back.”

The store has a calming palette of muted grays and greens. Over the entrance are three Adinkra symbols, representing peace and harmony, hospitality and generosity and goodbyes.

“Everything you see here was taken down to the bare walls,” Persons said. “It’s all fresh product. This is all new equipment. All throughout, from the ceiling to the floor, has been repainted or redone.”

It has also been made safer, with a new emergency evacuation alarm system and additional emergency exits. Outside, the parking lot and perimeter have new LED lighting.

Fragrance Harris Stanfield, a customer relations employee at Tops, returned to the store Thursday for the first time since the shooting. She struggled to enter.

“I couldn’t really pass the threshold. At that point, it just was extremely overwhelming, very emotional,” Stanfield said. “But everyone was so supportive, and they knew I needed a moment.”

What calmed her were water fountains flanking a memorial and poem in tribute to the shooting victims. A sign reads, “To respect the requests of some of the victims’ loved ones names are not included on this memorial.”

Tops says it is working with state, city and community leaders to create a permanent memorial to be installed outside the store.

Stanfield said she understands why some believe it’s too soon to reopen.

“I think there’s still a place of mourning and grieving,” she said. “We’re still kind of in a blaming space, where they need somewhere to focus that energy. And so it’s just being focused here, which is completely understandable.”

Near the entrance, signs labeled “Community counseling” hung from pitched tents. On Thursday, residents looked on from behind the fence, some of them angrily, as Tops managers hosted the news event. The anger stems in part from a sense that not enough effort was made to seek voices from the community.

“No one’s come door to door to ask the people who live within a mile, or four blocks, or even two blocks of Tops, ‘Are you comfortable with this? What do you want here?’” said David Louis, an activist.

“This is such a family store, it’s so close to everyone’s homes,” said Louis, who frequently walked the four blocks to the store wearing Crocs and house pants. “When I’m in Tops, I know that these people aren’t judging me.”

Robert Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, said reopening the site of a mass atrocity can be like walking a tightrope. The Buffalo market, in particular, isn’t just a typical business, he said.

“It really is a kind of linchpin of that community, and so it has enormous cultural and practical significance,” he said. “It’s just as important a place to live as it is to mourn.”

Still, he said, “not every site of mass homicide in the United States can become a 9/11 memorial, whether it’s in Uvalde or Buffalo.”

He said Tops would send a strong message to the community if it funneled a portion of proceeds from grocery sales to a scholarship fund.

“In that way, even shopping in the store becomes a commemorative act,” Neimeyer said.

Mark Talley, the son of Buffalo shooting victim Geraldine Talley, said he grew up going to the Tops on Jefferson Avenue with his mom. Now he’s hoping to honor her memory through advocacy, community service projects and a fledgling nonprofit organization.

The 33-year-old attended the Tops preview event Thursday and said he understands why there are mixed feelings.

“When I was first asked this question weeks after it happened, I said, ‘No, I want the Tops closed. I want it to just be dedicated to all the loved ones there,’” Talley said.

“But if you do that, then you just succumb to defeat,” he said. “I don’t want the east side of Buffalo to seem weak. I want us to become stronger than that. Let’s just build it back up.”