The Online Movement That Inspired the Buffalo Shooter
TThe suspect in the murder of 10 victims at a Buffalo grocery store seemed to follow a pattern. After becoming isolated during the epidemic, he began to consume white-supremacist information online. According to authorities, he had threatened to shoot at his high school. He was also sent for a mental evaluation. Local police believed that he was acting alone after he committed the brutal solo attack on Black shoppers. So it’s no surprise that Payton Gendron, 18, was widely portrayed as a “lone wolf” attacker, like many white-supremacist terrorists before him.
The gunman didn’t act alone. He saw himself to be part of an active, engaged community. The lengthy, online manifesto he submitted to authorities showed that he saw his crimes as part of larger movements. The document was written partly in conversational questions-and-answer format. It includes sections with titles like “what do you encourage us to do?” and exhaustively cites his “many influences from others” about how to take violent action to prevent white Americans from being “replaced” by Jews, immigrants, and people of color. This book contains dozens of pages that provide clear instructions for next attackers.
“I think that live streaming this attack gives me some motivation in the way that I know that some people will be cheering for me,” the alleged gunman’s manifesto states. He drove several hours to reach a local grocery store because of the large number of Black residents. There, he donned an army-style helmet and a GoPro camera to record the attack.
Analysts of racially motivated extremism see the Buffalo shooting as one of the most disturbing and under-understood aspects of recent domestic terror attacks. Although these crimes are often committed by isolated extremists only, they can be seen as part of larger movements. “There is a community of like-minded individuals that give these people strength and make them feel like they’re part of a greater cause,” says Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security senior analyst who authored a 2009 report warning of the rise of right-wing and white supremacist extremism. “And when you have that sense of community, it makes your cause seem more legit.”
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This online interaction with white-supremacist groups has replaced formal affiliations and group meetings for a new generation, experts and former officials say. It should still be treated with seriousness. It is common for manifestos to circulate among attackers, who claim allegiance to each other while setting the stage for the next violence act.
The Buffalo shooter’s manifesto is covered in anti-Semitic and racist memes and disinformation, making it tempting to characterize it as the delusional ravings of a madman. But such documents, however abhorrent, need to be understood as part of a coherent political ideology, former U.S. extremism officials and experts tell TIME—one whose reach extends far beyond fringe Internet forums. About 1 in 3 U.S. adults believes an effort is underway to replace white Americans with immigrants for electoral gains, according to a new poll, which is the root of the “replacement theory” cited by the Buffalo attacker.
That’s why portraying individuals like the Buffalo shooter as lone extremists whose self-radicalization on the Internet led them to commit inexplicable, “evil” acts divorces their actions from the larger movement they belong to. “We shouldn’t be dismissing these people as mentally ill or just a one-off,” Johnson tells TIME. “There are many, many people out there that are on a spectrum of radicalization following each other’s path.”
This feedback loop has rarely been so clearly outlined as it was in the Buffalo shooting. His manifesto, which he wrote about his radicalization as a gunman, did not conceal his motives. After “extreme boredom” during the early months of the pandemic, he wrote, his browsing on outdoor-sports and gun forums led him to white-supremacist material. But it wasn’t until he saw a video of the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings that he was inspired to action, he said.
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Significant sections of the Buffalo gunman’s document are copied from the manifesto of the New Zealand man who killed 51 people in the massacre he live-streamed in Christchurch. In Buffalo, the gunman also portrays himself as a hero, similar to Dylann Roof who shot nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C. in 2015. He situates his act as part of “the movement,” discusses using “techniques that increase media coverage,” and encourages fellow extremists to “use edgy humor and memes in the vanguard stage, and to attract a young audience.”
“This is not just violence in the name of what they believe to be a righteous cause. It’s also performance, it’s signaling…to potentially like-minded people,” says Seyward Darby, a journalist and researcher of the evolution of white-nationalist movements. “The proof is in the text: this has been signaled before, and someone has literally read it, adopted it and done it again.”
“There no such thing as a lone wolf,” Darby adds. “Racism and white supremacy, they are not mental illnesses, they are learned behavior. Saying that is a way for people in positions of privilege and power to comfort themselves that they have no responsibility here.”
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