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The nation is in shock over yet another mass shooting—this time targeting Black people. Ten African Americans, six women and four men, were massacred on May 14 at the Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York. Three other people were injured, one Black and two White, as the suspected shooter fired more than 50 rounds at shoppers and staff while livestreaming his attack.
An 18-year-old White man was taken into custody unharmed, reportedly wearing military fatigues and body armor, after law enforcement allegedly talked him down from killing himself.
As have many mass shooters before him, the gunman published a manifesto that espoused a fear that people of color are “replacing” White people, adding that he hoped his violence would spark a “race war.” Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson frequently tout this “replacement theory,” and some Republican officials have openly embraced the idea.
The Buffalo massacre comes nearly three years after a White suspect was reportedly inspired by similar ideology to commit a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. That incident resulted in the death of 20 people, most of whom were people of color.
And nearly seven years ago, a young White man shot nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, also allegedly hoping to spark a race war.
Prominent scholar, activist, political commentator, and journalist Rosa Clemente sees the Buffalo massacre as part of a new and terrifying trend of White supremacists unleashing violence on communities of color. Clemente, who is currently completing her doctorate at the W.E.B. Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, also sees links between this trend and the coming abortion ban, which she discussed in conversation with YES! Racial Justice Editor Sonali Kolhatkar.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Media outlets are not hesitating to call the Buffalo massacre a racist attack or domestic terrorism attack. Does that labeling suggest that we’re making some progress in, at least, recognizing these horrors?
Rosa Clemente: Yes, definitely it is a terrorist attack, but first and foremost it’s a White supremacist attack that also was livestreamed for a while. Even if it was a couple of minutes, that’s a long time for someone at Twitch not to have shut it down. Maybe they didn’t want to.
I do think we have to say it is a White supremacist attack, because I’ve already seen some media have non-Black people [as experts] saying “This could happen to all of us at any time.” And that’s not true. Especially when [the attack was] specifically targeted to kill Black people.
Kolhatkar: When we examine the suspected shooter’s manifesto, we see this idea of the “replacement theory” that Tucker Carlson routinely spouts about on Fox News, that is repeated by politicians such as Rep. Elise Stefanik, Senate candidate J.D. Vance, and other Republicans who are mainstreaming this theory. There is a pretty clear link between the promotion of this theory and what happened in Buffalo, right?
Clemente: Yes, and Elise Stefanik is up here—they call it the North Country, that’s between Saratoga, after Albany to Buffalo—she’s the sitting congresswoman.
I’ve read the “replacement theory,” but historically, ever since Indigenous people were used, [and] African, Chinese, and other people [were] exploited, especially [in terms of] work exploitation and capitalistic exploitation, this country has never wanted Black people here. It saw them as non-human, as chattel, that would be here to work the fields and then die. So, whether you call it “replacement theory” or White supremacist thinking, the fact is that this country is looking Blacker and Browner more and more every day—it’s looking more like the rest of the world.
And then being coupled with so much disinformation and propaganda, reading something like [replacement theory], it’s not surprising to me, the age of the people it’s targeting, which is younger White kids that might be disaffected because of the growing inequity in this country.
I don’t think it’s too far [fetched] to say, “Here’s this young White man, who had already been flagged, he went armed, he would’ve killed more if he wasn’t stopped. He was stopped without being killed. He wanted to do this at another supermarket.”
I also think it can be linked to what is happening right now with the possibility of Roe being overturned and abortion being illegal and no longer a right in so many states, if not [in] the rest of the country pretty soon. I think there’s a reason that this is tied in with abortion: They need more babies. To me, what [White supremacists are] trying to do is a White project [of] nation-building, right now, when their numbers are going down.
We can go all the way to the totalitarianism we’re seeing, with the potential end of not just abortion, but reproductive rights. White men in power are, at least, going to want White women to be able to produce their White babies, while [at the same time] using this replacement theory to have us killed or carted away, or [have] other forms of mass incarceration.
I really wish people on the Left and progressives would expand the notion of this [mass shooting in Buffalo] as just “a hate crime.” This is America. That’s what they’ve been doing.
Kolhatkar: Is it a sort of “ethnic cleansing” that’s happening?
Clemente: Absolutely, yes. And the strategy that they’re using, they’ve used in the ’80s when they first went after academia. They’ve been going after critical race theory.
There’s been a mistake that a lot of so-called progressive academics have made, which is focusing on teaching White people how they’re responsible for White supremacy. I don’t actually think that’s our job. I don’t think we need to be writing books anymore about White people figuring out that they live in a racist country and have had privilege just by the nature of being White.
We need to figure out on the Black and Brown radical Left, or create a really radical revolutionary Left that is about self-determination and sovereignty in our communities and also preparing ourselves.
Many people down South or in other parts of this country are arming themselves and preparing themselves. It’s been part of the Black radical tradition, as this week we celebrate Malcolm X on May 19, his birthday. That’s what he talked about. He was like, basically, “They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. What are we gonna do to make our community safer for ourselves and self-determine ourselves?”
And we can see that happening with the younger generation, particularly Black and Brown people, that are like, “We’re going [to] farms, we’re moving away from the big cities. We need to know how to protect ourselves. We need to know how to heal ourselves. We need to have mutual aid. We need to figure out other forms of sharing information, because we’re seeing already how the right wing or Conservative, mostly White, men control all social media, and soon we might not be able to get our ideas out in this way.”
So, I think moments like this call on us for now, not to put our energy into changing the hearts and minds of White people. I’ve been done with that. But I really think a younger generation has to stop trying to make White people feel better because of how they are born. That’s for them to contend with. If not, these attacks are gonna grow.
They’re gonna keep growing and growing, especially if the right wing takes back Congress and the presidency, and the Democratic party, as usual, shows its weakness and ineptitude to deal with anything that is critically important to poor Black and Brown people in this country.
Kolhatkar: I’m wondering if you think that leaders and Liberal elites are going to take this massacre as seriously as it needs to be taken. I remember in France in 2015 when the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the massacre of 12 people, mostly journalists, happened. Then, a few days later at the Golden Globes awards ceremony, U.S. movie stars were saying “je suis Charlie” and making common cause with the victims. In our country, we have had massacre after massacre of people of color by White supremacists. I wonder how seriously Liberal elites will claim to be moved by Buffalo and do something.
Clemente: I don’t think anything is going to come from elected officials. Since Charleston, I believe that this is a new wave of racial massacres against Black and Brown people. This government can’t keep those who sought to overthrow the government—those mostly White men and women [who rioted] on January 6 [imprisoned]. Many of their charges have been dropped, many have had jail sentences [dropped] from 15 years to now 30 days, 90 days. For those that have done a little bit of time and are about to come out, they are being lauded as heroes of the Right.
If they’re not going to impose what should be imposed against people who conspire to overthrow an election, then don’t really care about what they are still gonna call “lone wolf” White young men, mass murderers. There will be no reform on gun laws, ever.
I think these [shootings] are gonna rise. I mean, even if there were gun laws, this would have happened anyway. The country is heading [toward] real quick inequity, I mean, monetary, financial inequity. People are being pushed to the edge already with gas [prices], inflation and all that. And in these times, it is often young White men who feel disaffected. They feel they don’t belong, they turn their anger out in in a very hyper-violent way, and they do that to us. I mean, [the suspected shooter] drove for two hours to get to Buffalo.
And a lot of people don’t understand, there’s a lot of Black people in Buffalo, New York. It used to be [that] General Electric was there, and Chrysler Motors was there. Buffalo was a huge Black community. It’s predominantly a Black community and a poor community.
So, [the suspected shooter] drove from where he [lived], where there were hardly any Black people, and scoped it out. He didn’t just go there and do it. He made a plan.
I think there’s a lot more of these that we’re going to see, unfortunately.
Kolhatkar: There are reports that the suspect had planned more massacres and that if he hadn’t been stopped by police, there would have been more killings. Do you expect that this massacre will be used as justification for more police, rather than for a crackdown on White supremacists and guns?
Clemente: Oh yes, absolutely. We are already seeing the Democrats, Mayor [Eric] Adams in New York, and [President Joe] Biden talking about funding more police. We already are witnessing in LA, in New York City, in other major cities, mass hirings [of police].
Adams has put back the [same NYPD] street unit that killed Amadou Diallo. The over-policing is already happening. They’re tying it to particularly “violent crime” in Black and Brown neighborhoods. But if we look back to the ’80s and my generation, the Black and Latino politicians then did the same thing. They started advocating for more police. So that’s where we’re at now.
So, we’re going to get more police, and White young men will get the ability to buy any gun, be kicked out of school, get denied at five gun shops because of mental health [issues], be on the radar of police, and still go and massacre Black people as they see fit.
Kolhatkar: Let’s link this back to the issue of the coming abortion ban. We’re likely going to see abortion criminalized, and that criminalization is likely going to come with police enforcement, and it’s going to impact poor women of color, trans folks of color, who are going to try to access abortion. There were massive rallies all over the country this past weekend. You attended one of them. Will Americans, a majority of whom want the right to an abortion, be able to push back against the coming Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade?
Clemente: Yeah, it wasn’t enough.
I first want to thank the leaker [of the draft of Justice Alito’s opinion], because it was obviously a clerk in there who did what they had to do to warn people, even though many of us felt and knew that it was coming.
Second, I think we have to have a complete interrogation into Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women, all these large reproductive organizations that have billions of dollars of nonprofit money, like, “How did this happen on your watch?”
And it’s not just about abortion. If they can overturn [Roe], this is about taking away complete control of one’s ability to do what they want with their body. It will affect women first, women of color, poor women. It will all go down like [The] Handmaid’s Tale, dystopic.
Maybe they will decide who, in general, can have children. What if you’re poor and you can’t have a child? What if you’re a Black man, White man, or Indigenous [man] that was formerly incarcerated, and you’re deemed that you can’t have a child?
What’s already happening is that we have the arrests of doctors, we have laws that are passing in states that will charge women with murder [for having miscarriages or abortions]. And then we have attacks on LGBTQI people that we know is going to lead to mental health [problems] and suicide, and that parents could be fined, children can be taken away, you can’t say the word “gay.”
People don’t understand, we are right now at that first step of totalitarianism. We’re already fascist, we’re there. I believe we have to do a better job of linking it all together as progressives.
It was important for many of us to be out there [at the abortion rallies] on Saturday. But, I mean, the whole country should be ungovernable. If this was something that was affecting men’s genitalia—and I know that’s a very binary and scientific way to say it, but I believe people need to hear that too—these streets would be on fire. It would be ungovernable.
And it’s also really disheartening not to see many men and people who identify as men out there. They need to be having the marches.
We’ve been to the marches, we’ve done this, our foremothers did this, abortions are gonna happen. People will find other ways. But they’re gonna go down the road of banning contraceptives.
Kolhatkar: They’re already talking about banning Plan B, the “morning after” pill.
Clemente: Oh, yeah. Like we’ve always said, there’s moments to wake up, but this is a big moment where you have to decide: “I am gonna have to fight harder than I ever thought. I’m gonna have to lose some comfortability in my life,” or, “What are we leaving for our children? A planet that may be uninhabitable?”
Kolhatkar: President Biden claimed that he was going to fight for racial justice, fight for racial equity. But is it inadequate to look to political leaders to bring racial justice? We have midterm elections coming up in November, and Democrats are saying to us, “Well, if you don’t vote for us, the Republicans will be in charge,” but it seems as though they don’t give people good enough reasons to vote for them. Yet, policy gets made at the government level. Going back to what you were saying about being “ungovernable,” what does that look like, and how does it translate into change?
Clemente: The Democrats can’t [even] keep baby formula on the shelves. What is happening?
Being ungovernable means that you also have to give up on the electoral political system as it is now. I just don’t see any type of elected official, even the most progressive, [being able to put] a dent in this machine that keeps going no matter what.
I would like to see younger, progressive, so-called Democrats, “The Squad,” just leave and walk out, maybe go back to community organizing, because nothing is seeming to stop, especially given Biden and [Vice President Kamala] Harris, the most Democratic elected officials we’ve had in a while.
The Republicans have always played the long game. But they are also themselves elected officials in a party has [that] put out enough propaganda for the majority of their own to not trust the electoral political system, yet they can participate in some way. I don’t think we have the ability to do that.
And part of it [is] simply [that] we are Black and Brown people. In the end, it’s a White Christian nation, and they want to keep it that way, even if we’re in it.
So, I really think we have to rethink all this energy that we keep putting into electing officials. We did all this and still abortion and Roe v. Wade is going to be overturned? What else are we supposed to do?
We have to fight back in different ways, organizing has to look really, really, different, and I think we have to take very seriously also the impact of the rest of the world that is moving towards the Right. I think it’s a sobering time, and we have to act that way, and we have to figure out how we make change outside of elected officials or parties at this point.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com