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After the Buffalo slayings, parents struggle through talks with their children

Rev. Denise O. Walden-Glenn and Alia Williams each raise a fist— a symbol of solidarity and Black power— at the VOICE office in Buffalo, New York.
Rev. Denise O. Walden-Glenn and Alia Williams each raise a fist— a symbol of solidarity and Black power— at the VOICE office in Buffalo, New York.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The mass shooting in a Buffalo grocery store that police say was committed by an 18-year-old man radicalized by white supremacist ideology has left the western New York city torn and searching for answers.

For many parents, confronting the ideology espoused by the murder suspect means having difficult conversations with their children about the realities of violence and racism in the United States.

"One of my sons is 18 years old, and his very first question to me was like, 'Mom, how does someone my age do something so hateful?' " said the Rev. Denise O. Walden-Glenn. "How do you explain that to your child?"

Walden-Glenn is a mother of 12 and the executive servant leader for VOICE – a social activism group in Buffalo.

When she learned of the shooting spree Saturday that left 10 Black people dead, and an additional three victims injured, her thoughts immediately went to how she could support her community, including her children, ages 13 to 26.

When NPR spoke with Walden-Glenn on Monday, she said her middle school-aged children did not go to school that day. The emotional burden, she said, was too much for children to be expected to deal with in a classroom.

"We went through such a violent violation, and we are so shaken," she said. "I don't understand how it feels as though it's expected to go on with life as normal when there is nothing normal about what we just encountered."

Tyrell Ford also works at VOICE. He is the father of two young boys, who he said are too young to completely process the magnitude of Saturday's attack.

"I don't think they fully understand until they get a little bit older and start to see the world for what it truly is," Ford said. "And that's the risk we run exposing them to the dark side of the world so early on.

"My wife took the opportunity, as we discussed, to talk to them, to let them know that there's people out here that will target you based on the color of your skin, and to be vigilant all the time, even though they're so young."

Since the attack, Ford, who is Black, said he and his wife have discussed getting a gun. He said the shooting has stirred up a redoubled a sense of protectionism toward his family.

"The war on black and brown bodies is real, and we don't know when the next occasion will happen," he said.

Flowers at a memorial at the scene of the shooting.
/ Alana Wise/NPR
Flowers at a memorial at the scene of the shooting.

At a Tuesday vigil on the block where the Tops supermarket stands, still cordoned off with yellow police tape, strangers came together to pray, sing and support one another.

Danielle Wisinski was there with her two teenage daughters. They had dropped off flowers at the vigil. Balloons and other commemorations of the lives lost were piled high.

Wisinski, who is white, struggled through tears as she explained how she and her husband sought to raise their children to view everybody as equal.

"I'm just honest with them – my husband and I always have been," she said. "We teach them that we are all one human race, and things like this should not happen."

Her two daughters, 19-year-old Julia and 17-year-old Sarah, said they were shocked that someone so young could have been so radicalized to carry out such violence.

"It's just awful that so many young people can be influenced like this to do bad things," Julia said.

Her sister, Sarah, said, "It was really infuriating to me that it could happen so close to where I live."

Their confusion was echoed by 5-year-old Alina, who was at the Tuesday vigil with her parents and younger sister, helping to distribute food and diapers alongside the family's church group.

"We actually just spoke to her before we came," said Candice Erni, her mother. "Didn't fully get into details, but just let her know that an individual hurt a lot of people within a grocery store. And we just kept it at that for now. Of course, kids have a whole bunch of questions."

Erni, whose family is Black, said her daughter asked her if the gunman had attacked the store because he had a bad day or if evil was responsible.

"We let her know that someone who had views that were against the word of God decided to act out of fear and violence rather than peace," Erni said.

Alina was glad to be out with her family and helping the community, but as the sun set over Tops, the 5-year-old still had a question.

"How did it happen?"

Her mother did not have an answer.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise covers race and identity for NPR's National Desk.