A Family Grieves After the Buffalo Shooting

Katherine Masey made a list. She had to buy meat, fruits and paper towels. Buffalo-born Buffalo resident, 72, used to visit the grocery store once every two weeks. She stocked up when necessary. Warren, Warren’s brother, asked Warren to be her driver on Saturday May 14th.

The three Massey siblings—Kat, Warren, and Barbara—all lived on the same street in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, a tight-knit, predominantly Black and working-class community on the city’s East Side. Warren, aged 66, was chauffeured by Barbara 64. Their eldest sister is now a passenger. This time, it was Warren’s turn.

“Usually, I sit in the parking lot,” he says. “But she told me to go home. That was something she had never done before. She said, ‘Come back in 45 minutes.’”

Warren arrived back at the Tops market, Jefferson Avenue, just after 2:30 pm. It was full of police and paramedics. It was covered in blood. The ground was covered in bodies.

Warren was not allowed inside the shop by the cops. This was an active crime spot. Barbara appeared outside as he stood. She had been mowing Kat’s lawn for her when a neighbor ran up, frantic, to say that there had been a shooting at Tops. Barbara felt her heart tighten. In minutes she made it to market. “There were so many police,” she recalls. “It was, like, Oh my God. Oh my God.”

Then she approached another officer. “My sister’s in there,” she told them. “Can you just let me know if Katherine Massey is OK? She’s a little thing. She’s probably 110 pounds.’”

Now she closes her eyes and takes in a deep, long breath. “I must have made that same speech 20 times to 20 different officers.”

Four days after the shooting, Warren and Barbara told me about Kat, who was one of the 10 people killed by a racist gunman who picked his target because of the surrounding neighborhood’s high concentration of Black residents.

Since more than 60 year, the Massey family lives on Cherry Street, Fruit Belt. We sat in Barbara’s darkened living room, with its brown leather couches, blue carpet, and plants. One flower had a “Happy Mother’s Day” balloon still attached.

You can wear pink FriendsBarbara shared with me her story about her younger sister who was a civil activist and spoke out in Buffalo to support stricter gun safety laws. She wrote an open letter last May to The Buffalo News Increasing oversight of firearm sales. (The assailant allegedly bought the AR-15 gun despite having undergone a psychological evaluation because he allegedly threatened violence at high school.

According to her friends and family, Kat’s advocacy against gun violence was emblematic of her character. “She was about educating her people,” says Sharon Belton-Cottman, a close friend of the family who serves on Buffalo’s Board of Public Schools. “She was about making a difference in the lives of her community. And she was about action.”

Kat, who was single and worked as an insurer for Blue Cross Blue Shield for 40 years, often put on theatric presentations in the city’s schools to encourage healthy eating. A Block Club she ran was for cutting grass in Fruit Belt. She co-founded a nonprofit advocacy group for Buffalo’s inner-city residents called We Are Women Warriors. Her lobbying efforts at City Hall and the Common Council to create a park near Cherry Street were successful. She had the residents of Buffalo enter the sidewalk inscriptions with African proverbs.

“Each one of these symbols represents who Kat was,” Belton-Cottman pointed out as we walked down Cherry Street. She pointed out one which said Sakombe. “That’s the spirit of giving back—go and retrieve wisdom, knowledge, and the people’s heritage.”

Barbara’s entreaties toThe cops at Tops didn’t get a response. So she and Warren stood sentry at different ends of the supermarket’s entrance. As they waited for signs of their sister, more family members showed up—seven in all.

The gunman killed 10 and injured three more people in his rampage, which was quickly confirmed by authorities. However, officials were unable to identify the victims.

Warren felt a gut feeling as he watched the police evacuate survivors from the building. “I knew she was dead,” he says. “When they marched them all out, I was at the side of the building. She wasn’t there. It was over.”

The family waited on the pavement outside the store until it got dark and an FBI special agent told the assembled crowd that authorities wouldn’t have any updates for many more hours. Warren and Barbara went home. Barbara took a shower and prayed that she could fall asleep, but she couldn’t.

Some of the children left. Barbara received a call from her nephew in the morning. He had seen Tops being emptied of body bags around 4:00 a.m.

“But nobody called us,” Barbara says. “Nothing. So I’m getting a little pissed.”

Calling 9-1-1, she said that Katherine Massey was her sister and was at Tops when the shooting occurred. The operator told her to visit the Buffalo Police Department’s website, to get the number of the coroner.

Barbara called Kat to get her on the telephone. The coroner wanted to know about Kat’s appearance.

Barbara checked off the following identifying characteristics: blue eyes. Blue clothes. Black skin. Brown scarf. “She’s got rheumatoid arthritis,” Barbara added. “Just look at her hands.” The coroner promised to call back in 20 minutes.

“She called me back crying,” Barbara says. “The coroner was crying. A coroner.”

“I’m sorry,” the coroner said. “I’ve got your sister.”

The next dayWarren and Barbara were gathered together with extended families, where they fought between despair and anger, obsessing about the small twists in fate that could have made the difference between life or death.

“I just wish it was my turn taking her,” Barbara says, “because we go to the Tops on Elmwood. But she didn’t ask me. She asked Warren.”

“At first, I was blaming myself,” Warren says. “But [my family] made clear it wasn’t me.”

Barbara, a soft-spoken woman, couldn’t stop thinking about the shooter. “I wanted to choke him out. I wanted him to die,” she says. “I know that’s not where I was supposed to be, but that’s where I was at.”

New York State has no death penalty. Barbara felt that this would make it a more difficult punishment to be held in isolation in a cell all his life.

“We know he’s going to get life,” she says. “Eighteen-year-old piss pot. Still so young he’s got mucus on his breath. I just don’t want him to commit suicide. That’s the coward’s way out. I want him to sit there and hopefully think about the consequences—how many lives he ruined.”

Barbara can’t fall asleep since Saturday. In her mind, she keeps replaying the horrors of Saturday. At the same time, she’s caught between the competing demands of grieving her sister and making arrangements—for the obituary, the wake, the funeral, the burial. There will also be a ceremony to designate the street where the family lives as “Katherine Massey Way.”

Kat already had a 2019 last will and testament, so the writing of an obituary was easy. The letter she wrote to the family about her wishes “was all uplifting,” Barbara says. “She put in there, ‘Barbara, don’t be a wimp. You got this.’”

On Wednesday morning, the coroner had yet to set the body release time. I was there with Warren and Barbara. Warren felt the need to see his sister’s, even though he was aware it would be grisly.

“He shot her head off,” Warren says. “So until I see her fingers, I’m gonna say that ain’t her. But I know it’s her.” (The coroner was able to identify Kat by her clothing and arthritic fingers.)

The funeral will be Monday at the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, a stone’s throw away from Kat’s house. Until then, Warren and Barbara are hoping that Kat’s obituary of her life—and not her death—will define how she’s remembered. They would like people to see it and feel as if they were her friends.

“If you met Kat, you couldn’t forget her,” Barbara says. “I’ll tell you that.”

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