Every detail of Payton Gendron’s white supremacist attack in Buffalo reeks of the murderer’s clear aim of terrorizing not only the Black shoppers he killed on Saturday but also the rest of us, who are left in fear of the copycat attacks that he explicitly sought to inspire.
The murderer shot Black people with a rifle with the N-word scrawled on it. His decision to livestream his racist attack added to the attack’s dehumanizing and dystopian nature by displaying the deaths of his victims as if the massacre were a video game. And the 180-page manifesto that he left behind — part meme farm and part manual — contains pages of racist and antisemitic memes and clearly seeks to inspire copycat attacks by outlining weaponry and providing tips for carrying out more attacks.
Gendron, the 18-year-old white man who shot 13 people, murdering 11 of them, mostly Black, in a white supremacist attack at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, had planned to attack Black shoppers at the grocery store because it was located in a predominately Black neighborhood. He is best understood as an accelerationist who hopes his instance of “direct action” will hasten a racial crisis, enabling reactionary forces to create a societal disruption and orchestrate a takeover of the U.S.
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In attacking Black residents at the grocery store, Gendron explicitly sought to terrorize all Black folks with the hopes of rallying other likeminded white Americans to the cause.
While law enforcement often kills Black people suspected for minor infractions, if any at all, the white murderer survived his encounter with responding police officers. While I do not condone police violence, law enforcement’s ability to apprehend mass murderers like Dylann Roof rubbed salt into a collective emotional and psychic wound inflicted by Gendron. Gendron’s release of his 180-page racist manifesto explaining his motivation for his racist attack added to the burn.
The murderer’s actions at the Tops Friendly Market were a disturbing echo of the white supremacists’ chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville in 2017. In his manifesto, the killer proclaimed himself a white supremacist, Nazi, separatist and nationalist who subscribes to the racist and conspiratorial “Great Replacement Theory,” which suggests that immigration, decline in white births, and efforts, such as diversity, equity and inclusion programs in schools and the private sector, and critical race theory are erasing white Americans. In an example of the symbiotic relationship between white nationalists on the ground and far right media, Fox News host Tucker Carlson has amplified the white nationalist “great replacement theory” to millions of viewers in numerous segments.
As I learned more about the details of the racist attacks in Buffalo and read the murderer’s manifesto, I recalled a rather lengthy twitter debate I had with a self-proclaimed white nationalist that took place over the course of 2016 and 2017. In fall 2016, white nationalists began hanging racist, misogynist, homophobic and Islamophobic posters on the University of Michigan’s campus, where I worked. Those responsible for the offensive posters sought to build support for white nationalism and expressed affinity for Donald Trump, whose campaign they saw as part of their organizing efforts. We responded by encouraging white students and community members to organize the group, Collective Against White Supremacy (CAWS), to combat white nationalist messaging by taking down the posters and replacing them with anti-racist ones. The organization also offered support to predominantly Black and people of color (POC) student groups as well. But, we never had to respond to any acts of physical violence.
Yet, several of us confronted trolling and received death threats online. Amid the trolling, one of the white nationalists sought to debate me on Twitter about the merits of nationalism. The white nationalist naively asserted multiple times, including in a letter delivered to my home in the summer of 2018, that a white ethno-state could be achieved nonviolently, especially if I and other Black folks resolved to be nationalists and separatists. Somehow, according to this white nationalist, white and Black people could agree to disagree and go our separate ways.
I vehemently disagreed. Black nationalism and white nationalism in the U.S. are neither morally nor politically equivalent, historically or in our contemporary moment. Proponents of the former have never possessed the full arsenal of state power — policing, political institutions and a military. Many Black people have pondered the possibilities of building a rather contained “nation-within-a-nation.” However, these visions historically have mostly been that — visions — because U.S. settler colonialism, exceptionalism and capitalism would not allow for the construction of a separate state on North American territory, let alone one built and controlled by Black people.
Additionally, I argued that such a proposition was frankly ridiculous because white nationalism and nation-building, generally, are inherently violent processes. As activists and historians have illustrated, displacing Indigenous peoples, and setting up and policing borders violently is inherent to nation-building. Ultimately, settlers seek to construct a state and society on territory, turning it into an evolving graveyard for Indigenous and marginalized people and cultures. Also, I recall stating that if white nationalists get what they want — a white settler ethno-state — the nation-building process would not stop at capturing, killing and expelling Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color. Border wars would continue with “new” race-based nations. But, importantly for them, the white-led nation-building process would probably turn inward and begin targeting white folks deemed “less racially pure,” “deviant,” “criminal,” and “unworthy” of citizenship and life. There would not be any refuge for poor and other marginalized “white” folks in this nation-state. The Buffalo massacre highlights the inherent violence of white nationalism, as its primary goal is to eliminate non-white and “undesirable” groups. There is no such thing as a nonviolent genocidal ideology.
Yesterday’s racist attack in Buffalo underscores the need for a multiracial socialist movement based in the working class. While the murderer and other white nationalists contend that white power and dominance is the answer to economic inequality, political powerlessness, and even a changing climate, we know how deadly wrong that is. Only bringing various groups of peoples into a system grounded in gender, racial, environmental, sexual and reproductive justice can address fundamental problems and even provide the more enriching community that disaffected workers from all backgrounds might crave. A willingness to disrupt white radicalization and build solidarity can lay the foundation for defending against racist attacks.
Liberals’ calls to designate these attacks as “domestic terrorism” and charge racist murderers accordingly will not deter a group of people who are committed to murdering Black people, people of color more broadly, Jewish people, and trans folks in the name of preventing “white genocide.”
It is also quite possible that reactionaries will turn these “domestic terrorism” laws against leftists, especially if another Trump-like figure is elected president. We also cannot rely on the U.S. state to totally wipe out this movement, as it has a history of surveilling, disrupting and wiping out Black-led political organizations. We cannot ignore the history and contemporary reports about the overlap between white nationalists, the military and police forces.
We must develop grassroots strategies to disrupt the growing white supremacist movement. How does one proceed to confront an organized reactionary movement that believes it is fighting a war? As historian Kathleen Belew contends, these killers are not “lone wolves.” They are constructing their own strategies and drawing from intellectual and political traditions of prior generations of white power organizing. White nationalist theories of the “great replacement” and older discredited notions of race science have gone mainstream and/or made a comeback. Ultimately, the network of ideas, political and cultural institutions, and people willing to murder racial and ethnic minorities encourages perpetrators of these murders to claim allegiance to an organized movement.
We must counter racist attacks with a diversity of tactics, ranging from community protection and self-defense to mutual aid and deprogramming and deradicalizing white Americans. We must counter racist white solidarity with a solidarity grounded in economic, racial, gender, environmental and reparative justice. It is important that we join with the organizers and groups that continue to demonstrate that living in a world organized around these principles will be better for all of us.