'Traumatizing' Buffalo massacre strikes a chord with families who have lost loved ones to racist mass shootings

By Nicquel Terry Ellis, CNN

    (CNN) -- For Tito Anchondo, the racist mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, reopens wounds that never completely healed. Anchondo lost his brother and sister-in-law to the 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

The Latino couple was victimized by the same racist-fueled gun violence that left 10 people dead at the Tops Friendly Markets store last Saturday in a predominately Black neighborhood of Masten Park.

Anchondo said the Buffalo shooting is a piercing reminder of the grief his family has endured for the last three years. Anchondo's mother is now raising his brother's 2-year-old son who survived the shooting.

"It's been kind of rough," Anchondo told CNN. "We wake up every day trying not to feel depressed and trying to move forward."

As the Buffalo community reels from the violence that hit their beloved grocery store, the shooting strikes a chord with families who have lost loved ones to other racist shootings in recent years. Family members from the El Paso shooting; the Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre in 2015; the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania synagogue shooting in 2018; and the Atlanta-area spa attacks in 2021 say the sudden tragedies left a hole in their hearts.

And for some, every anniversary of the event and every racist mass shooting forces them to relive the moment they learned their loved one was killed. While some have found forgiveness, the Buffalo shooting, they say, only proves that the nation has made little progress in combating the hate that is motivating young White men to attack people of color and Jewish communities.

Civil rightsactivists are decrying the racist violence that devastated the Buffalo community.

Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of the Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the organization is "heartbroken" and "outraged" that this kind of White supremacy openly festers in the United States."

"This shooting was not an isolated incident, and the gunman's hateful ideas are increasingly moving from marginalized to mainstream," Espinoza-Madrigal said in a statement. "Whether the targets are Black churchgoers in Charleston, Latinx shoppers in El Paso, Asian women in Atlanta, or the latest victims in Buffalo, White supremacists continue to terrorize people of color for merely living their lives."

Bishop Mark Seitz, of the Diocese of El Paso, said in a statement that the El Paso community was standing in solidarity with Buffalo.

"Faith compels us to say no to the rotten forces of racism, no to terror, and no to the mortal silencing of Black and brown voices," Seitz said. "My heart is heavy for those in Buffalo and for everyone re-traumatized by this base act of terror, including my sisters and brothers in El Paso who walked this cold road three years ago. May God stop the hate, the bullets, the bloodshed and tears."

'Still grieving'

Anchondo said lawmakers need to enact legislation that would boost surveillance of White supremacist groups, particularly those who gather and communicate on online networks. Authorities say the suspect in the Buffalo shooting tried to broadcast the attack on Twitch, a livestreaming platform.

"The government needs to be looking at what people are doing on the internet," Anchondo said. "They need to get their act together."

The Rev. Anthony Thompson, whose wife Myra was killed along with eight other people at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015, said he commiserates with the families who lost loved ones in the Buffalo massacre.

"It bothers me that there is another family that's going through what I went through," Thompson told CNN. "Because I know it's terrible, it's hard and rough to go through that."

Thompson said he still cries and reminisces on what life was like with his wife. But he's found peace in forgiving the White supremacist shooter Dylan Roof.

"Forgiveness is the thing that releases you from all the hurt, all the anger, it takes it out of your heart and gives you the power and capability to move forward in your life," Thompson said.

Robert Peterson, whose mother, Yong Ae Yue, was among the eight people -- mostly Asian women -- killed in the Atlanta-area spa attacks, said it is both "emotional" and "traumatizing" to learn that another racist mass shooting took place.

Peterson said the Buffalo shooting spree shows the nation's leadership has failed to address gun control and race and gender-based violence. Part of the problem, Peterson said, is that authorities sympathize with White male shooters, often citing their mental health issues instead of racism. The alleged gunman in the Atlanta attacks has not been tried in a state or federal court for a hate crime.

Peterson said he worries that Buffalo won't be the last racist shooting and that more families will suffer his same grief.

"We just wanna live in peace and do our best to succeed in America," Peterson told CNN. "But when we have things like this happen, it feels like defeat. It feels hopeless. And again, these people are grieving again. I'm still grieving the loss of my mother. And when I see this, I relive it again."

'A constant state of fear'

Some psychologists say mass shootings exacerbate the racial trauma that Black and brown families and communities are already facing with unequal access to healthcare, jobs and other opportunities.

People of color are now trying to overcome the sudden and violent nature of racist mass shootings while the threat of another White supremacist attack looms, said Jocelyn R. Smith Lee, an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Lee specializes in the effects of violence and homicide on Black communities.

"Someone at any moment could decide that just because of your physical presentation in the world that you deserve to die. It can certainly create depression, anxiety and also this constant state of fear," Lee said. "It shapes the way parenting happens, shapes the way relationships are formed living under this constant threat."

Carol Black, who survived the Tree of Life synagogue shooting but lost her brother in the attack, said she struggles to understand how the government allows civilians to access assault weapons and why mass shooters target innocent people.

Black said she has found healing through speaking out against hate and connecting with other communities affected by mass shootings. In 2019, she traveled to Charleston to meet with the community at Mother Emmanuel AME Church.

"It pains me that other people are going to have to experience the same thing that I did," Black said. "It's a club that nobody wants to belong to."

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