BUFFALO, New York — A weekend trip to the grocery store descended into a bloody tragedy for dozens of people Saturday. Jennifer Tookes, of Buffalo, had been in the Tops Friendly Market shopping with a cousin in separate aisles for about two minutes when she heard multiple gunshots coming from the front of the store. When it was over, 10 people were dead and three were wounded. A white 18-year-old who dressed in tactical gear and carried an assault weapon was arrested at the scene. He was arraigned Saturday evening on a first-degree murder charge and jailed without bond.
Maybe it’s a problem but what most ties up my emotion with the mass shooting in Buffalo is the extent to which the shooter Payton Gendron is like me and mine. The Fox News/Buffalo shooter is from Conklin, NY, a village of about 5,000 about 20 miles southeast of Binghamton on the Susquehanna River at the meeting point of Rt 68 and I 81. Conklin and the neighboring town of Kirkwood form a rural district of about 10,000. My own home town of Waverly is about 50 miles west of Conklin and grouped with three small Pennsylvania towns into what’s known locally as “The Valley.” When I was taking social studies classes in elementary school, the Binghamton area was thought to be on the verge of booming because of IBM, highway construction, etc. But by high school gradation, the whole region was in decline. That was especially the case with “The Valley” as IBM moved out of Binghamton and Owego and railroad repair shops and a highway equipment company moved out of the area. With an Amazon distribution center and a Dick’s Sporting Goods facility, Conklin and Kirkwood look to be doing better than Waverly with its empty downtown stores and boarded up houses. But declining opportunities, shrinking populations, and various drugs epidemics are the order of the day and both towns are “Trump Country.”
Waverly is not listed on this Google map of the trip between Conklin and Buffalo but Waverly is like Conklin in being right on the NY/PA border and Gendron would have dipped into PA at the two Waverly exits on Rt 68 as he was driving from Conklin to Buffalo to kill as many black people as he could.
Beginning with the racism.
Regional notions vary but I’ve always thought of the “Southern Tier” of Upstate NY as extending from east of Binghamton to Ithaca in the North and Elmira/Horseheads in the West. I last lived in the area in 1977, but have rock-solid confidence in saying It’s a racist place. I went to a lecture by a Binghamton University prof at the University of Louisville in the late 90’s where she mentioned the racism of the Binghamton area but I also remember reports of Klan groups associated with guards at the Elmira, NY prison and Klan meetings in Athens, PA just across the border. Waverly had an unusual number of black families who worked at the big restaurant on the hill and I knew a number of black guys growing up. But the fact that all my black acquaintances left town and didn’t come back says a lot about the strain of living as a black family in Waverly. My own family was racist to the core. My mother bragged about her adapted home town of Sayre, PA (actually she lived in Athens but graduated from Sayre High and always referred to Sayre as her home town) having a law against black people residing there (something which I’ve never confirmed or disconfirmed) and my parents had a broad early hostility to rock as “n-word” music. My father was even more racist and made a sustained effort to socialize me into white racism in my early teens as part of his effort to “make a man” out of me. Remembering, my father’s racism had an abstract quality. As far as I remember, he never said anything derogatory about any of the black people living in the Waverly area and it’s not like he spent much time in areas with black populations either. It’s like my father had animosity toward black people as a “category” and viewed that animosity as important to both his and MY being a “man.” Because of the categorical character of the animosity, my father’s racism was always impervious to counter-arguments, examples to the contrary, or anything having to do with the real world. It was necessary and obvious, and my disagreement made him less in his eyes without bringing his own self-esteem into question. Anyway, the effort backfired and reinforced the sense of him being repulsive that I had been forming for a couple years as a result of his abuse of my mother and more than occasional pummeling of me. Over time, I began to perceive Waverly as part American Graffiti, part “Harper Valley PTA,” and part Blue Velvet with nice people socializing in the living room while Dennis Hopper tortured Isabella Rosellini in the basement. I grew up in a Blue Velvet family and racism was an ingrained part of the experience.
The Racism and the Guns.
I wonder where Payton Gendron developed his interest in guns. Was it part of a “hunting culture” in which guns are central to stories about the hunt, the kills, the misses, dressing the carcasses, being with your buddies, and the male identity with that? Or was Gendron more into the fetishism of “gun culture”–the brands, names, fire power, ammunition, cammo gear, and all their possibilities, how all of that is displayed, counted, priced, and shared competitively with relatives and friends. When Payton Gendron travelled from Conklin to Buffalo for his massacre at the Topps market, he carried two guns with him, ammunition, body armor, and a helmet, and started opening fire. Like my father’s racism, there was an abstraction about that. Gendron not only did not know any of people he killed, he picked out the neighborhood because it was the zip code with the highest concentration of black people in Upstate NY. The aim was to kill black people generically and that killing black people was a kind of categorical imperative to Gendron. My father was also a dangerous gun owner as I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s and shot at least three of our family pets in the head when they began to decline in health or got run over by cars. But the guns were never part of the bullying, gas lighting, or beatings that he dished out to my mother (who got it bad), myself, or my siblings. It’s like he never made the leap from thinking of guns as an instrument of hunting and display to guns as an instrument for the family abuse to which he was so highly committed. Once I became aware of murder-suicides, I am very grateful for my father never catching on to the idea.
The Racism and the Guns.
I wonder where Payton Gendron developed his interest in guns. Was it part of a “hunting culture” in which guns are central to stories about going on hunt, getting the kills, the ones that got away, dressing the carcasses, being with your buddies, and all the white male identification that goes with that? Or was Gendron more into the fetishism of “gun culture”–the brands, names, fire power, ammunition, camo gear, body armor and all how all of that is displayed, counted, priced, and shared competitively with relatives and friends. When Payton Gendron travelled from Conklin to Buffalo for his massacre at the Topps market, he carried two guns, ammunition, body armor, and a helmet, and started opening fire after a day of scouting. He also wrote about them in his 180 page manifesto. Of course, there’s a great deal of overlap between hunting culture and gun culture but I’m wondering if Gendron’s interest in guns morphed from hunting culture or gun culture into mass murder or whether he first developed an interest in guns AFTER beginning to see himself as a mass murderer on the examples of Charleston killer Dylan Roof and New Zealand shooter Brenton Tarrant. In political discourse, Roof, Tarrant, and Gendron are accurately seen in terms of accepting the “Great Replacement Theory” of white people in the United States and Europe being “replaced” by a combination of Black, Asian, Muslim, and Hispanic non-white populations and the whole thing orchestrated by a global Jewish conspiracy. What’s unique about Gendron is that he chose being a mass murderer before he decided which mass murder narrative he was adapting. At first, Gendron showed interest in shooting up Susquehanna Valley High School in Conklin. But some of his writing on the topic was seen and he was sent to a psychiatrist for evaluation. It was only after the “school shooter” path to mass murder was closed that Gendron adapted his race war blather to his ambitions to become a mass murderer. In this sense, answering the question about Gendron’s interest in guns might concern figuring out his path to the persona of a mass murderer.
Being a racist mass murderer was Gendron’s second choice, but being a mass murderer was most definitely a choice. There are a variety of identities available to small town white guys. In my case, it was the college prep path that I took because I wanted to leave town and leaving town was my overriding purpose from age 7-17. Gendron could have chosen “getting out of Dodge” as an identity as well. Or he could have just chosen college prep. Gendry’s parents were both college graduates and engineers, Gendry himself did well at school, and he could have chosen a college path without an overriding plan to leave town. He could have also chosen to adapt a hunting and fishing or golfing identity. If Gendron wanted to be working class, there are working class jobs at the Amazon Distribution Center in Conklin. I went to high school with guys from Waverly who lived to hunt and fish, other guys who lived to play golf, and still others who wanted more physical, traditional working-class kinds of jobs. Payton Gendron refused all these modes of white male identification and more in favor of being a mass murderer.
But why! It may be that Gendron had some sort of psychological disability that prevented him from taking any of the established paths for small town guys. Likewise, there may be some sort of trauma in his background. All of that may or may not come out as Gendron’s case is investigated. But the “positive” aspects of being a mass murderer need to be considered as well. I remember several cases in which mass killers reveled in the expectation of their posthumous celebrity and their association with other famous mass murderers and that association seems to be a real plus for Gendron. But I haven’t seen any consideration for the kinds of pleasures and ego boosts involved in mass murders. When I was forty years younger, I certainly got a lot of pleasure from separating from all the “losers” I grew up with in Waverly and I noticed the same imperative when I was teaching small town students in Kentucky. The Kentucky term was “dumbasses” but the feeling is the same. Given all the taboos against murder, the murder of people who are defenseless, and the murder of people with no reason. It may be that the breaking of all these kinds of taboos enhances the pleasure of separation in ways that are not recognized in mainstream culture. The same pleasure in breaking taboos can be seen in the 1830’s and 1840’s blackface minstrelsy that broke many of the taboos involved in racial boundaries. The same intensity of pleasure can be seen in the behavior of slave owners in the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. In certain ways, mass murder is an even more extravagant expression of “I don’t give a shit about anything” as antebellum slave ownership. Indeed, mass murderers have a not entirely dissimilar power of life and death over their (short-term) victims as slave owners. For a few minutes, the mass murderer is the lord of everything he surveys.