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Poet Laureate Jillian Hanesworth on an Anniversary We Never Wanted but Can’t Ignore

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

(EDITOR’S NOTE — To mark the one-year anniversary of last year’s May 14 racially motivated mass shooting at a Tops supermarket on Jefferson Avenue which left 10 dead, 1120 Press spoke with Buffalo’s Poet Laureate Jillian Hanesworth to get her thoughts on how the attack has impacted the East Side community in which she was born and raised, and where Buffalo needs to go from here. — Images: Portrait of Jillian Hanesworth provided; credit Blanc Photographic Studios... Memorial photo by Matt Smith)

1120 Press: We’re now a year removed from the deadly May 14 mass shooting at Tops. As we mark the first anniversary, from your point of view, as someone who was raised on the East Side and as an artist whose work often focuses on both Buffalo as a whole and your community, did this attack change Buffalo at all?

Jillian Hanesworth: My answer is a little nuanced. I have to say 'yes' and 'no.'

'’No’ in the sense that all of the issues that existed on May 13 of last year still exist today. The lack of access to food; Tops is still the only grocery store. It’s still a very easy place to target for anybody who wants to cause that kind of harm again. Locally, statewide and nationwide, there has been no new legislation or tightened measures for flagging people with mental-health issues or a past history of violence since May 14 of last year. I think the biggest thing that has changed is that people are finding ways to cope with the mass violence that we are seeing around the country, instead of being able to have confidence in knowing that our legislators are going to keep us safe.

But on the other hand, I think the biggest change that we have seen in Buffalo is we’ve seen a boom of new voices and leaders step up. We have our Common Council election this year and we have so many people who have never run before throwing their hat in the ring. People are like, ‘I’ll do it. We need people who are going to keep us safe that we feel are representing us. I’ll try.’ These are not professional politicians. These are educators and people from the community who just want to be more involved. We have also seen the formation of more service-centered nonprofits. Even when you look at Agents for Advocacy, which is a non-profit started by Mark Talley, whose mom was one of those killed at Tops, instead of doing what he justifiably could have done and revert inward, he created a non-profit and has been actively on the ground supporting the community ever since. So, we’ve really seen people notice the gaps and figure out on a grass-roots level how we can start filling those gaps in. That has been the biggest change.

1120: Everything you’re describing fits the DIY culture, which in part, we’re trying to highlight: People getting active on their own.

JH: Yeah.

1120: The attack seemed to highlight the needs that exist on the East Side, which to us speaks of the neglect. It’s disturbing that it took a mass shooting to do so. You know better than most what those needs are. Can you talk about the needs of the community and how officials have done in responding to those needs over the past year?

JH: Obviously, we need access to food. We need grocery stores. How have officials responded to meeting that need? From my perspective: they’ve done nothing, unless there are conversations happening behind closed doors that the general public is not privy to. But, Alex Wright will be building an African Heritage Co-Op – the physical location of which will be in Buffalo – which is going to help meet the need. And that goes back to this grassroots strategy, having people in the community step up to meet the needs. We need more investment, and ownership.

The difference between how I would describe the East Side and how you just described the East Side is: I don’t think the East Side is neglected. I think it’s divested from. I think the East Side is being actively divested. So, we need people who live in this community to be able to have more ownership over the community. We need more land trusts. So, we know we have the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust that’s designed to make sure we know people in the community can be homeowners and stay in their community and not be pushed out as the development of the Medical Campus expands. We need that around the East Side. I’m 30 and the possibility of being able to buy a house in my community just feels so far-fetched. And that’s not OK. That can’t be how people feel about a community that they were born and raised in and have spent their entire lives contributing to. So, we need ownership.

I really do think that when you look at all areas of justice, they intersect. Housing justice is racial justice. When you can start to tackle poverty and eliminate poverty, we will start to see a lot of the other issues associated with poverty be resolved on their own. But we need people on the East Side to have ownership over parts of our community and to have an opportunity to step out of survival mode because otherwise you never get the chance to. Thriving is not an option for a lot of people, who everyday are just focused on: ‘What I can put on my table tomorrow?’ A lot of people here don’t have the option to say: I know I’m going to be fed. I know I am going to be safe. I know I am going to be financially OK to make goals.

And, lastly, we really need to start talking about public safety, and kind of reimagine what public safety means to us. The relationship between the police and the people on the East Side, historically, is extremely toxic. So, we really need to sit down and talk about what does safety mean in our community. When you talk about the Tops shooter, that wasn’t the first time he was inside that store. When it’s been reported that he was in the grocery store calling community members the N-word, we should know if that’s something we report that it’s going to be addressed and it’s going to be taken care of. We need to know that we have a relationship with those who are keeping us safe, to feel safe going up to them and saying there’s somebody in (this store) who is making us uncomfortable, and he shouldn’t be in here. That didn’t happen the prior times he visited the store (before the May 14 shooting.) When you have that contentious relationship with the police, you just don’t feel comfortable calling the police.

1120: As someone who was born and raised on the East Side, how did this attack impact you personally, and as an artist?

JH: Personally, this was super traumatic. Probably the biggest instance of collective trauma I’ve ever experienced. I was at my best friend’s baby shower actually when we first started getting calls that something was going on. I ended up leaving and when I got (to the scene), people still didn’t know who was killed. They were bringing people to the family reunification center. So being out there and experiencing the waves of trauma happening that day, because one thing we don’t really talk about too much is that after the Tops shooting a lot of people started making statements that they were going to go to another Tops and shoot people. There was a person walking down the street a few blocks down from Tops carrying an (assault-style) gun. So now you have people running, trying to get away and some people trying to go toward where they think the shooter is, like ‘We’re going to get him before he gets us.’ So, there were just these constant waves of trauma and after that I think it took me maybe a month-and-a-half before I could bring myself to go into a grocery store.

The Tops on Jefferson (where the shooting happened) opened a month later and I have only been in there once. We know that there is community violence and we know you can never fully bet that nobody is going to try to enter space to bring you harm. But that sense of, ‘this is our community, we know each other so we’re going to be ok because we’re going to take care of each other,’ that was taken from us. We’ve regained some of that back. But I think some of it we’ll never get back. Now we’re in this position where we’re just trying to adjust to our new normal knowing this happened in our city.

As far as artistically, that was probably even harder for me. After May 14, people started contacting me and asking me to write something, to use my poetry to help them. But I never imagined I would have to use it for something like this, and it just felt like too big of a responsibility. I remember calling my mom, crying after they asked me to write the memorial that’s now at Tops (titled ‘Water’ and found HERE)… ‘Who in their right mind can write a poem to help their community heal from a terrorist attack?’ It didn’t make sense to me. It’s too much. It’s too big a task. I was like: ‘I’m hurting too. I don’t want to say anything helpful. I’m angry. I don’t want to write a healing poem right now.’ So that was hard.

I’ve always said I create poetry to help my community. In that moment, I asked myself, ‘Alright, am I really about this? Now I’m going to be tested. Are you really about what you say you’re about?’ So, I’m thankful that I was able to write. But even now, writing memorial pieces and prepping for the one-year anniversary is very overwhelming. I can feel the anxiety in my stomach all day every day. But I know other people in my community feel the same way, not because they have to write or speak, but because this was their grocery store. They understand that safety we felt as a community is gone. I know it’s not a unique feeling that only I feel. But in a really odd way, there’s comfort in that because it’s validating. And that’s important because often we’re told to just power through how we feel and not spend time sitting with those feelings. So, as a community we’re definitely in a position where we have to spend some time sitting with it.


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