During a time of dramatic racial turmoil, tragedy struck again at a Buffalo supermarket. On May 14, 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron opened fire, killing ten people and severely injuring three. The victims range from 20 to 86 years old. Among the victims is Aaron Salter, a former Buffalo police officer and the store’s security guard, who was shot while trying to stop the assailant. Armed with body armor and an assault weapon, Gendron, who is white, displayed his racial hatred in his targeted killings: 11 of the 13 people shot were Black. This shooting became one of the most lethal racist killings in recent American history.
Hailing from Conklin, New York, Gendron drove over 200 miles to reach the supermarket where he ultimately opened fire. Mounting a camera on his helmet, Gendron recorded and streamed the entire encounter on the streaming service Twitch. Although the stream was only up for two minutes before being removed, a clip of the video was posted on the sharing site Streamable, receiving over three million views before being removed again. This gave the video enough time to be downloaded and shared on larger platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
The online streaming of horrific events raises the question of the level of strictness for media censorship rules on media platforms. Especially as Elon Musk, the Chief Executive Officer of Tesla, has recently declared his intent to enact complete free speech capabilities for Twitter, the public is subjecting social media to greater scrutiny. Although experts say that Twitch’s response was the best possible given its current security features, the fact that the video was able to be quickly shared to other platforms sparks debate over whether live streams should be easily accessible to the general population.
There is no simple solution to the social media problem. The social media network is too large and interconnected to develop a way to completely restrict the cross-sharing of content. However, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Twitch have made progress in recent years to remove inappropriate content quickly. A shared tool used by these sites is an open database of hashes and keywords that can flag guideline-violating content quickly and subsequently have such content be removed.
Angela Hession, Twitch’s Vice President of Trust and Safety, said that the site’s actions had a “very strong response time considering the challenges of live content moderation, and shows good progress.” In a statement, Hession said Twitch is working with the non-profit union Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, as well as other social media companies, to prevent the distribution of the stream clips.
In a manifesto that was circulated online following the shooting, Gendron admitted to being inspired by the Christchurch mosque shootings. In March 2019, a gunman streamed himself on Facebook gunning down innocent worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. 51 people died from the Christchurch mosque shootings.
The manifesto, which was released online, also outlined that Gendron chose the Buffalo area because, among the regions near his home, Buffalo has the highest percentage of African Americans. Gendron also wrote that he aimed to murder as many people as possible. In one of his entries, Gendron discussed how he was excited to record the shooting so “all people with the internet” could watch and record. “I think that livestreaming this attack gives me some motivation in the way that I know that some people will be cheering for me,” he wrote.
The racist motivation for the attack drew comparisons to other shootings. In 2015, nine Black churchgoers were killed in Charleston, South Carolina; in 2018, 11 people were left dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue by an anti-Semitic gunman; in 2019, 20 Latinos were fatally shot in a Walmart in El Paso by a murderer who held anti-Latino beliefs.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said on Sunday that the attack will be tried as a racist hate crime: “The evidence that we have uncovered so far makes no mistake that this is an absolute racist hate crime. This is someone who has hate in their heart, soul and mind.”
During an indictment on Saturday, Gendron pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. Only speaking to confirm that he understood the seriousness of the charges—which could leave him with lifetime imprisonment—Gendron showed no noticeable remorse or emotion during the hearing.
Zaire Goodman, one of Senator Tim Kennedy’s staff members, was injured during the shooting. Goodman was shot in the neck but is currently recovering. In a lengthy statement, Kennedy said, “These victims and the families of these victims will see justice. While we grieve tonight, we will get through this together. I ask that you keep the families of those lost and injured in your prayers.”
By Daniel Seong