Buffalo’s Poet Laureate Speaks on Aftermath of Tops Attack, Reopening

  • Tops grocery store reopened to the Buffalo community months after the deadly mass shooting in May.
  • It included renovations as well as a memorial as an ode to the victims who lost their lives in the attack.
  • Jillian Hanesworth told Insider about her journey of healing and the climate of the community amid the reopening.

Walking into Tops Friendly Market on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo, New York, was overwhelming for Jillian Hanesworth.

Just two months ago, Hanesworth — the city’s poet laureate — penned a poem to memorialize the victims who were killed on May 14 by a white gunman who drove hours to the predominately Black neighborhood and opened fire at the grocery store.

It took her almost a month after the shooting to step into any grocery store in general, she told Insider. But she’s been in the Tops location twice since the shooting — the first time being the pre-ceremony for the supermarket’s reopening in mid-July.

Ten people died and three others were left wounded as a result of the hate crime, which was live streamed in real-time, including people she knew, such as Aaron Salter Jr., the beloved security guard, and Pearl Young, who babysat her mother when she was a child.

Titled “Water,” Hanesworth’s poem was surrounded by waterfalls displayed in the store, which was met with an overwhelming reaction.

“I just wanted to do my little part. People do seem to find healing in it, and that is the whole purpose of having me do it,” Hanesworth, 29, who was born and raised on the east side of Buffalo, told Insider.

The second time Hanesworth went inside Tops was during the official opening after a news interview outside of the store. She went to go check on her aunt, who was with her, and as she was exiting, she noticed people near her tribute.

“I was walking out, there were a ton of people just kind of standing in front of my poem and just crying. And I’m like, ‘I can’t handle this. This isn’t it for me today ‘ then I just ended up leaving,” she recalled. “I haven’t been back since, and I don’t know if I’ll go in there. I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable going in there.”

For some residents, the reopening of Tops was essential due to food insecurity

Buffalo has been dealing with the aftermath of the attack, similar to other communities that experienced the impact of gun violence this year — like Uvalde, Texas, and Highland Park, Illinois — and were left to bear the brunt of the wave of mass shootings.

“There’s no way to emotionally prepare yourself for someone coming into a Black community in your city and just massacring it,” Hanesworth said.

After about two months, the supermarket reopened its door after a renovation that included emergency exits and evacuation alarms — a decision that has been met with different reactions from the community, The Associated Press reported.

Police officers in front of grocery store.


Police walk outside the Tops grocery store on May 15, 2022, in Buffalo, New York.

Joshua Bessex/AP

“We felt very comfortable early on that people needed and wanted a store as soon as we could possibly provide it,” Tops President John Persons told NPR last month. “We also understood that we needed to take steps to give them the best possible food retail store that we could, and for it to be different, for it to look different, feel different, something to be proud of that would serve them better.”

Tops is one of the main full-service grocery stores in the area and as a result a staple in a neighborhood experiencing food insecurity and an unemployment rate slightly higher than the national average.

Hanesworth said the attack only aggravated those issues.

Protesters gathered outside the store following the reopening, calling for more options to open in the area — especially for those who may need more time before entering Tops again, according to local news.

“We are being held hostage by inhumane decisions, options,” activist Jalonda Hill told Spectrum News. “So, it’s either that we choose to go back into a store where we’re walking on the blood of our elders, or it’s that we remain in a community where we’re experiencing food apartheid.”

“Regardless of what side of this people fall on, whether it is, ‘I’m going to go there every single day because I need something every day’ or I’m never going in there again,” it’s all valid,” Hanesworth said.

‘It was intense’

A memorial for the supermarket shooting victims is set up outside the Tops Friendly Market on Thursday, July 14, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. N.Y. The Buffalo supermarket where 10 Black people were killed by a white gunman is set to reopen its doors, two months after the racist attack.


A memorial for the supermarket shooting victims is set up outside the Tops Friendly Market on Thursday, July 14, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. N.Y. The Buffalo supermarket where 10 Black people were killed by a white gunman is set to reopen its doors, two months after the racist attack.

(AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)

Days after the reopening, Tops was met with another threat from a Washington state man who was accused of saying that he was going to shoot Black people at the store. Officials said that he was arrested and charged with making interstate threats.

“It’s exhausting and it’s infuriating to know that people are using this moment of fear against so many people making all these false threats,” Hanesworth said.

For Hanesworth, using her art to help the community is a part of the road to healing and helps her get out of bed every day, she said.

“For the first few days, I was just heartbroken but also shocked,” she said. “It took a while to fully process what happened, even though I was watching the aftermath right before my eyes.”

She remembers the moment when she first heard the shooting. She was at a friend’s baby shower when messages started pouring in — prompting her to make her way to the supermarket.

Hanesworth recalls seeing police at the scene and the crowd of people facing the store while gathering any information they could from social media.

“It was intense,” she said.

“I was out there as they started to line up the gurneys in front of the store to start to bring people out and was there when they brought a couple of the bodies out,” she continued. “That’s the only thing that if I could unsee, that’s what I would unsee.”

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