BUFFALO, N.Y. — Adrian Marble sat alone in the early morning light before a makeshift memorial for the 10 people shot dead in a Buffalo grocery store and wept.
The lifelong East Side resident slowly rocked back and forth as the tears streamed down her face, hands with green-painted fingernails clasped in prayer. For two months and one day since a gunman drove 200 miles to target Black residents at the Tops Friendly Markets on Jefferson Avenue, mourners have formed a living altar here, leaving candles, cards, flowers and messages.
The revamped store — the only full-service grocery on the city’s East Side — quietly opened its doors to shoppers around 7:30 Friday morning following an official ceremony the day before. Before it did, a few community members had already arrived alone and in groups: to pray, to bear witness, or simply to wait.
Marble’s lips trembled as she sat cross-legged and quietly prayed. She wasn’t related to the victims, she said, but they were her brothers and sisters in Christ, and she felt “the weight of the tragedy.”
“I think it’s too soon,” she said through tears. “I think they should have relocated it. I myself don’t see me going in there. It’s a lack of respect. … Tops could have did better.”
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Some residents of this neighborhood have acknowledged they sorely need a grocery store, but said they should have been more involved in the reopening process following the May 14 shooting. Others added they felt hurt by their exclusion from Thursday’s ceremony, which separated onlookers with a wire fence around the perimeter of the Tops parking lot and featured a tour of the store for media and officials, but not for residents.
Michael Roberts led about a dozen others in a 4:30 a.m. worship service outside Tops to pray over the store and over the community before the reopening. Worshippers knelt and stood in front of the memorial, heads bowed as the sun colored the sky above them. The morning was chilly before the heat of day arrived, and most attendees wore jackets and hoodies.
This was prayer for “a new start, a new beginning,” said Roberts, an East Sider whose family shopped at the Jefferson Ave. Tops. But he still believes the store’s opening came too quickly for the grieving community.
“Two months ain’t enough time,” he said, “but people need it. I believe Tops could have had a food truck going around and gone neighborhood to neighborhood. They have enough money and they have enough resources to do it. I think they opened it too soon.”
He also criticized the store’s increased police presence and surveillance, safety enhancements touted during Thursday’s ceremony. It feels, he said, more like punishment than protection.
“How are you policing a community that’s hurting?” he said. “You should be able to open up your arms to these people and take them in and not control them. … I feel like they were policing us the whole time this happened, like we’re the ones that did it.”
Nearby, George Winfield stood in front of the large memorial, which sprang up organically at the corner of Landon Street and Jefferson Avenue. He, too, was waiting.
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“I need to go shopping,” he said. “Now it’s open, and it’s an in-your-face to the message [that the shooter] was trying to send. Like, nah − you did not accomplish anything.”
Winfield, who said he lives down the street, believes criticisms over the Tops are too harsh. After all, he said, they’re here in this neighborhood.
“Tops has stepped up again,” he said. “As much as you want to criticize them, you’re criticizing the only grocery store that is there that stays there. … Look at Wegmans, like, ‘Why are you making Tops carry all of it?’
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“Capitalism-wise, what’s going on?” he added. “There’s nothing but money to be made for grocery stores on the East Side, and it can support at least two more.”
Winfield left the memorial to sit on the base of a light in the parking lot. He waited another hour for a chance to shop, staring straight ahead at the nearby store’s closed doors.
By the time he got his wish, the bright sun fully illuminated the Tops parking lot. Tops officials and employees huddled outside the store just before it opened, cheering and praying together. The backs of their black shirts bore the message “All one Jefferson Strong” in white letters, forming a circle around a red heart.
Winfield was one of the first through the door; he entered to applause and cheers from Tops officials.
Media were not allowed inside Friday, but Thursday’s guided tour offered a glimpse of what Winfield would see: to his right, gleaming produce. To his left, a water memorial for the victims, including a poem that opens with the words, “Let hopeful healing waters flow.” Above him, security cameras documenting his entrance into the store.
The layout is different from the one Winfield and other shoppers remember from two months ago. The feel is different, by design, officials said Thursday.
But some community members said those differences are not enough to erase the pain.
Roberts was still there four hours after he arrived, joined by others including Jolanda Hill, Ebony Eisen and Anthony X. They held signs with phrases such as “This is not a win!! This is not justice!!” and “Two months is too soon to reopen these wounds,” a slogan for the anti-reopening movement. Cariol Horne protested during Thursday’s event as well; she and others stood in a prominent spot near the entrance of the store where cars entered and exited.
“I think it’s a time for us to reimagine these sacred grounds and what could potentially be here,” Hill said. “There still needs to be a public community discussion of what could be here, and we need time.”
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The group is proposing a public meeting for the community to decide how the space should be used. The community, she said, has been forced into an unfair dilemma.
“We either go back into a store where our people have been murdered, or we don’t go at all, and then we don’t have access to food. It cornered us to make decisions out of desperation,” Hill said.
Jerome R. Wright, an East Side resident who came to protest, has started a petition against the reopening that already has almost 200 signatures. He pointed out that children in Uvalde will not return to the elementary school building where a mass shooting unfolded just 10 days after the Buffalo shooting.
He wonders why Black Buffalo residents are expected to shop in the building where 10 of their own were gunned down.
“I am here because I am appalled, I am disgusted, I am angry, and I will not rest until they level this place and give the respect, dignity for those people who died and those people who were injured,” he said. “I’m not going to call that “Tops,” I’m calling that “Target.” And my respects to that organization, but all they did was make us a target again.
“The reason that racist coward came here is because you had one store where you could kill Black people. You still only have one store where you can kill Black people.”
LeCandice Durham and her family also came out Friday morning to the store, but they came in support of the store’s reopening. She held two bright red balloons and a sign that read, “Welcome Back Tops” with a red heart surrounding the words “Jefferson 10 4ever.”
Her family had been inside the store already, she said. But even though she came to celebrate, she can’t bear the idea of going back inside.