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Extremism in WNY: Tops suspect isn’t from Buffalo, but some say ‘it’s definitely a sentiment that's present in this area’

Photo illustration by Eileen Koteras Elibol
Buffalo Toronto Public Media

Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series.

Three hours after a white supremacist opened fire and killed 10 Black people in the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue, law enforcement officials held a news conference. 

They noted a half-dozen times that the alleged gunman was not from Western New York.

“This is a community where people love each other,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. “The shooter was not from this community.”

Those kinds of comments didn’t sit particularly well with some.

“I know we talk about the unity of Buffalo, but those who are honest know that Buffalo has problems, or Western New York has problems,” said Dr. Anthony Neal, a professor of Black politics at Buffalo State College. “So it seems like it was a way to try to skirt those issues to a certain extent.”

Police gather in front of the "TOPS Friendly Markets" entrance sign, which has been closed off by yellow caution tape.
Max Schulte
Police stand by near the crime scene outside the Tops Friendly Markets on Jefferson Avenue May 17, 2022, in advance of President Joe Biden's visit.

The FBI is investigating whether the alleged gunman, an 18-year-old male from Broome County, had contact with anyone prior to the shooting, but officials have given no indication he had ties to any organized extremist group, whether in Western New York or elsewhere.

Still, some observers say the activities of the local far right are worth monitoring.

The region is home to several far-right groups whose activities have landed them on Southern Poverty Law Center watchlists, and several local residents were charged in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The rhetoric of these groups and figures, whether it be online or at demonstrations, is not far off from the racist “great replacement” theory espoused by the Tops suspect, said Heidi Jones, a Buffalo attorney and activist who has been researching the local far right for the last few years.

“We recognize how their rhetoric and their actions contribute to the overall dehumanization process, in which it becomes acceptable to reference the Great Replacement theory and then act on it,” Jones said.

An SPLC pollearlier this year found nearly 70% of Republicans believe in some form of the replacement theory, which states that the Democratic Party is systematically replacing the country’s white voters with people of color.

And those who study politics, like University at Buffalo political science professor Jacob Neiheisel, say there is indeed significant overlap between white supremacy and right-wing extremism.

“There are some that will go right up to the line until they start believing in racist conspiracy theories, and then back off a little bit. And then there are others who embrace all of it,” he said. “So it is diverse, but, yes, there's a significant amount of overlap between what you would think of as right-wing extremism and white nationalism or racial extremism.”

We recognize how their rhetoric and their actions contribute to the overall dehumanization process, in which it becomes acceptable to reference the Great Replacement theory and then act on it.
Heidi Jones

And violence does appear to be more of a problem on the far right than on the far left. While there are some estimatesthat 2020 racial justice protests resulted in nearly $2 billion in property damage, a reportby the Anti-Defamation League shows the vast majority of extremist violence comes from those on the right.

Of the over 400 people killed by extremists in the U.S. over the last decade, 75% were killed by right-wing extremists. Left-wing extremists were responsible for just 4%.

“It is a problem that has no geographical line,” said SPLC investigative reporter Michael Edison Hayden, “and is a problem in Western New York as it is all over the country.”

Hate groups becoming ‘bad measure’ for extremism 

There is certainly overt white supremacy in Western New York.

SPLC iscurrently tracking three hate groups in the region, including a white nationalist group in Lockport. Racial Nationalist Party of America founder Karl Hand could often be found distributing white supremacist literature in the region before his death in April.

“But hate groups are increasingly becoming a kind of bad measure for what is happening in the country relative to extremism,” Hayden said.

SPLC’s list of hate groups has decreased each of the last three years, dropping to 733 in 2021. Yet the Alabama-based legal organization says hate and extremism is on the rise.

The reason? The hate is often happening online.

“They don't have to go to a hall and get their photograph taken by us anymore,” Hayden said. “They are online on fringe websites, apps, and they are in communication there.

“If Western New York has a problem, it's online, which is the thing that we're having a really difficult time controlling right now or making sense of.”

Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Members of the far-right Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. Erie County had six residents charged in the attack on the Capitol.

And hate groups aren’t the only indicator of extremism. SPLC also tracks nearly 500 anti-government groups, described as hard-right, anti-democratic and having a belief that a tyrannical, illegitimate government of leftists are seeking a “New World Order.”

Five of those anti-government groups are in Western New York.

“The type of activity you're talking about are people who [take] the idea of patriotism, and really turn it into a thing that galvanizes aggression,” Hayden said.

In its 2021 report on hate and extremism, SPLC said anti-government groups often overlap and work alongside hate groups, and traffic in conspiracy theories that often malign the same marginalized communities that hate groups target.

High number of WNY residents charged in Jan. 6

Another way to measure right-wing extremism in a region is how many of its residents were arrested for Jan. 6.

“It is the best measure in some ways,” Hayden said.

Six Erie County residents were charged in the storming of the U.S. Capitol building. That’s tied for the sixth-most of any county in the nation, according to a George Washington UniversityProgram on Extremismdatabase. 

Thus far, four of the six have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to probation.

Jan. 6 does indeed link to white supremacy, Neiheisel said, both because of literal white nationalists’ presence there, and the fact many election fraud conspiracy theories centered around undocumented immigrants andurban centers where many Black people live.

“If you ask somebody who did believe that there was fraud surrounding the election, I think that some of them would refuse to cast that in racial terms, and there are others who would absolutely embrace that idea,” he said. “So I think, again, there's diversity of thought, but there are linkages.”

Research from the University of Chicago shows counties with a declining number of non-Hispanic whites were six times more likely to have a resident charged with storming the Capitol.

Erie County’s number of non-Hispanic whites fell by 5% between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Census data.

Why does WNY have right-wing extremism?

In March 2016, eight months before the election of Donald Trump, University of Wisconsin Professor Katherine Cramer published a book called“The Politics of Resentment.”

Using then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s push for small government in wake of the Great Recession, the book explores why rural voters distrust that liberal politicians will respect the values of their communities and allocate a fair share of resources to them.

Neiheisel said he thinks the same idea applies to Western New York and the region’s relationship to New York City.

“You're in a state where you're faced with a lot of liberal policies and things that you might not necessarily agree with, but you yourself are in a very different kind of environment,” he said. “That fosters a very different kind of thinking that doesn't always end up in extremism, but it fosters a very different understanding of the political world.”

Jones said Western New York’s right-wing extremism can be tied directly to the segregated nature of Buffalo. According to a reportby the Partnership for Public Good, a progressive think tank, Census data shows Buffalo-Niagara is the sixth-most segregated metro area in the nation.

In the city’s 14208 zip code, where the Jefferson Avenue Tops is located, nearly 80% of residents are Black.

“It's so much easier to otherize people that you literally don't interact with, but they're just right there,” Jones said.

As a Black man, Neal said he’s felt uneasy seeing trucks with confederate flags riding around Western New York.

“To me that signals that there's something present, even if it hasn't truly manifested itself, that there is a sentiment in this area for maybe replacement theory and those other type issues that, to our detriment, we sweep under the carpet and don't address,” he said. “But I will say it's definitely a sentiment that's present in this area.”

Editor’s note: Part Two, airing Wednesday, will take a closer look at Western New York’s far-right groups, and how they’re reacting to the Tops shooting.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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