The Brief is reported by Eloise Barry, Madeleine Carlisle, Tara Law, Sanya Mansoor, Ciara Nugent, Billy Perrigo, Olivia B. Waxman, and Julia Zorthian
No ‘Lone Wolves’
THE GUNMAN ACCUSED OF MURDERING 10 people in a Buffalo supermarket seemed to fit a familiar pattern. Isolated and bored during the pandemic, he had become radicalized by consuming white-supremacist content online. He had previously threatened to commit violence at his high school and been sent for a mental-health evaluation, according to authorities. After he allegedly carried out the violent solo massacre, targeting Black shoppers, police said they believed he acted alone. So it’s no surprise that Payton Gendron, 18, was widely portrayed as a “lone wolf” attacker, like many white-supremacist terrorists before him.
But the gunman did not act in a vacuum. He saw himself as part of an engaged community. In lengthy online writings being examined by authorities, he situated his alleged crimes as part of a larger movement. Part of the document is written in a conversational question-and-answer format and cites his “many influences from others” about how to take violent action to prevent white Americans from being “replaced” by Jews, immigrants, and people of color. Dozens of pages lay out a clear instruction manual for the next attacker to follow.
“I think that live streaming this attack gives me some motivation in the way that I know that some people will be cheering for me,” the document states. After driving several hours to a grocery store chosen for the high percentage of Black residents in the area, the gunman donned a military-style helmet with a GoPro camera attached, and proceeded to broadcast the massacre.
The Buffalo shooting highlights one of the most pernicious and poorly understood aspects of the recent wave of domestic terrorist attacks. Even when crimes like these are committed by solitary extremists, the perpetrators see themselves as acting on behalf of a movement. “There is a community of like-minded individuals that give these people strength and make them feel like they’re part of a greater cause,” says Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security senior analyst who authored a 2009 report warning of the rise of right-wing extremism. “And when you have that sense of community, it makes your cause seem more legit.”
THE VICTIMS OF THE MAY 14 BUFFALO SHOOTING
Celestine Chaney, 65
Roberta A. Drury, 32
Andre Mackneil, 53
Katherine Massey, 72
Margus D. Morrison, 52
Heyward Patterson, 67
Aaron Salter, 55
Geraldine Talley, 62
Ruth Whitfield, 86
Pearl Young, 77
FOR A NEW GENERATION of extremists, this online engagement has taken the place of formal affiliations, group meetings, and plots. But it should be taken just as seriously. Documents circulate from attacker to attacker, who build on and claim allegiance to one another while laying out the playbook for the next violent act.
The Buffalo shooter’s screed is covered in antisemitic and racist memes, and in isolation might be dismissed as the delusional ravings of a madman. But such documents, however abhorrent, need to be understood as part of a coherent political ideology, former U.S. extremism officials and experts tell TIME—one whose reach extends far beyond fringe internet forums. According to new polling, about 1 in 3 U.S. adults believes an effort is under way to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains, which is the root of the “replacement theory” cited by the Buffalo attacker.
That’s why portraying individuals like the Buffalo shooter as lone extremists whose self-radicalization on the internet led them to commit inexplicable, “evil” acts divorces their actions from the larger movement they belong to. “We shouldn’t be dismissing these people as mentally ill or just a one-off,” Johnson says. “There are many, many people out there that are on a spectrum of radicalization following each other’s path.”
Rarely has this feedback loop been as clear as in the case of the Buffalo shooter. The alleged gunman did not leave a hint of doubt as to his motivations, chronicling his radicalization in his diatribe. After “extreme boredom” during the early months of the pandemic, he wrote, his browsing on outdoor-sports and gun forums led him to white-supremacist material. But it wasn’t until he saw a video of the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shootings, he said, that he was inspired to act.
Significant sections of the Buffalo gunman’s document are copied from the writings of the man who killed 51 people in the Christchurch massacre. The Buffalo shooter cites other racist mass shooters as well, including Dylann Roof, who killed nine Black parishioners during a Bible study in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. He situates his act as part of “the movement,” discusses “techniques that increase media coverage,” and encourages fellow extremists to “use edgy humor and memes in the vanguard stage, and to attract a young audience.”
“This is not just violence in the name of what they believe to be a righteous cause. It’s also performance. It’s signaling … to potentially like-minded people,” says Seyward Darby, a journalist and researcher of the evolution of white-nationalist movements.
“There’s no such thing as a lone wolf,” Darby adds. “Racism and white supremacy are not mental illnesses. They are learned behavior. Saying that is a way for people in positions of privilege and power to comfort themselves that they have no responsibility here.”
The Scars of Segregation
Intent on killing as many Black people as possible, the accused Buffalo gunman drove three hours to a grocery store in one of the most racially segregated cities in America. Roughly 85% of the city’s Black residents live in the economically devastated East Side.
This too is no accident. It’s a legacy that dates to World War I, when Buffalo was a major steel city producing materiel for U.S. forces—and home to an abundance of jobs that drew Black Americans in search of opportunity. Officials and white residents responded with racist zoning laws and restrictive covenants, according to the Partnership for the Public Good, a Buffalo think tank.
Despite such covenants being outlawed in 1948, the problem got worse after World War II, when the construction of a highway destroyed a growing Black neighborhood and split the city in half. Even as Buffalo has enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade, city hall has neglected the working-class Black neighborhoods on the East Side.
“The fact that there’s only one grocery store on the East Side that serves Black communities is a choice,” says India Walton, an activist and former Democratic candidate for mayor. “This is not something that’s, like, accidental. No one cares about Black people on the East Side of Buffalo.”
—Eric Cortellessa/Buffalo, N.Y.
The Persistence of Attack Videos
Three years after social media companies committed to stopping viral videos of terrorist attacks, their efforts are still a work in progress. The Buffalo rampage was planned on the chat app Discord, broadcast live via Amazon-owned Twitch, and recirculated on Twitter and Facebook. Even though the latter three acted faster to scrub the video than during previous attacks, they still left time for malicious users to download and share copies of the footage.
Such videos are a potent radicalization tool. In March 2019, a white supremacist in New Zealand massacred 51 people live on Facebook. Months later, a man attacked a synagogue in Halle, Germany, and livestreamed it on Twitch. In writings the Buffalo shooter allegedly posted online, seen by TIME, he said he was inspired by the Christchurch shooter, and livestreamed his attack in order to inspire others.
While platforms are collaborating more closely than ever before to remove terrorist content, experts say their basic information-sharing tools are still no match for the persistent users finding new ways to evade them. Unless they find a better way, they will continue to exacerbate the wider problem of white-supremacist terrorism. “I’ll blame the platforms when we see other shooters inspired by this shooter,” says Dia Kayyali of the digital-rights group Mnemonic. “Once something is out there, it’s out there.”