The Path to Radicalization

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On May 14, 2022, 18-year-old Payton Gendron committed a deadly act of racist violence that shocked the nation. He killed 10 people and injured 3 more when he opened fire at the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, located in the predominantly Black neighborhood on Jefferson Avenue. Gendron reportedly posted a white supremacist manifesto online before the attack and live-streamed the shooting on the platform Twitch. The Buffalo supermarket massacre provides sobering evidence that hate and guns continue destroying lives in America at an alarming rate.

Payton Gendron grew up in the small town of Conklin, New York over 200 miles from Buffalo. Those who knew him described Gendron as an isolated loner with few friends. As a student, he had made threats serious enough to warrant a mental health evaluation. Though doctors did not find signs requiring involuntary confinement, concerns remained about Gendron‘s interest in violence.

According to his online postings, Gendron became radicalized during the COVID-19 pandemic, immersing himself in racist and violent extremist content online. He cited the "great replacement theory," a baseless white supremacist conspiracy alleging the extinction of the white race. Analysis of his Discord logs revealed he first contemplated killing Black people in Dec 2021. Gendron also researched local demographics to target a Black community, settling on east Buffalo.

Experts say the pandemic likely exacerbated many elements contributing to radicalization – social isolation, mental health issues, time spent online, and economic anxieties. These provided fertile ground for white supremacist ideologies to take hold in Gendron‘s mind. Tragically, few red flags were raised by his inner circle until it was too late.

On Saturday, May 14th, Gendron drove over 200 miles from his hometown in tactical gear. He brought along an assault rifle purchased legally in New York. The rifle had been illegally modified to hold high capacity magazines banned in the state. At around 2:30pm, Gendron arrived at the Tops Friendly Market and shot 4 people in the parking lot.

He then entered the store, firing over 60 rounds and killing a total of 10 people. 13 were shot in all, 11 of them Black. The victims ranged from 32 to 86 years old and included store employees and shoppers. Gendron wore body armor and a helmet equipped with a camera to live-stream the attack. A security guard fired at Gendron but could not penetrate his armor. Police convinced Gendron to surrender when they arrived on scene.

After his arrest, Gendron pled guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder, 10 counts of second-degree murder as a hate crime, and other charges. In November 2022, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole – the maximum penalty. The judge condemned Gendron‘s "cold, calculating, premeditated and racially motivated" attack.

Gendron live-streamed his attack on the gaming site Twitch. The graphic footage was viewed by thousands in real time. While Twitch removed the stream after just 2 minutes, copies had already been downloaded. Links rapidly spread across platforms like Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and fringe sites like 4chan.

Despite most major platforms quickly detecting and blocking copies, the video continued circulating for days in the depths of the internet. Encrypted messaging apps like Telegram also aided distribution. This demonstrates the immense challenges moderating harmful content at today‘s scale.

Sites like Reddit and 4chan generally rely on community reporting rather than proactive monitoring. Fringe platforms often ignore violence and hate speech in the name of "free speech." Facing public scrutiny after such events, sites often promise more resources for moderation. But lasting change remains elusive.

Table 1 compares content moderation policies across different platforms:

Platform Live Video Moderation Hate Speech Policies History of Video Removal
  • Mostly relies on users reporting
  • Some automated detection for safety
  • Stream delay allows blocking in real time
  • Prohibits hateful conduct
  • Bans extremist groups
  • Removed Buffalo video in 2 mins
  • Criticized for allowing violent content prior
  • Combines AI detection and human review
  • Large moderation workforce
  • Bans certain white supremacist content
  • Spotty enforcement record
  • Took down some copies of Buffalo video
  • Allows many hate groups to remain
  • Primarily relies on community reports
  • Limited proactive monitoring
  • Select bans on hate subreddits
  • Many toxic communities remain
  • Slow and incomplete removal of copies
  • Harbors violent extremist groups
  • Anonymous. No registration or moderation
  • Trusts "self-policing"
  • Almost no hate speech or conduct rules
  • Buffalo video spread rapidly, mostly unchecked
  • Epicenter of violent radicalization online

While the platforms bear some responsibility, individuals also need greater awareness to avoid sharing traumatic content that can inspire copycats. We must take care our online information ecosystems do not become polluted by hate.

The Buffalo attack occurred against the backdrop of rising white supremacist violence in America. Hate crimes tracked by the FBI have reached their highest levels in 12 years. Far-right domestic terrorism now accounts for the majority of security threats. Experts point to multiple cultural and technological changes fanning the flames of racial hatred and violent extremism:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic‘s disruptions – Social isolation, economic uncertainty, mental health crises, and heavy online engagement helped spread radical ideologies.

  • Persistent racism in society – High-profile racist incidents, enduring economic inequality, and inflammatory political rhetoric contribute to white supremacist narratives of minority groups "replacing" whites.

  • Online disinformation and radicalization – Social media algorithms, anonymous message boards, and influencers spread hate to young men vulnerable to radicalization. Extremist content engages users and drives platform profits.

  • Access to high-powered firearms – Lax gun laws in many states allow civilians to acquire assault weapons, often the weapon of choice for mass shooters. Calls for restrictions face steep political opposition.

  • Unresolved mental health issues – Stigmas and lack of funding hamper access to critical services. Many mass shooters exhibited mental health red flags before their attacks.

Table 2 shows recent trends in factors linked to racist hate crimes:

Year Hate Crimes Reported to FBI Far-Right Attacks Assault Rifles Sold Depression Diagnoses
2018 7,120 0 1.2 million 7.1%
2019 7,314 5 1.4 million 7.9%
2020 7,759 17 5 million 32.8%
2021 8,263 70 10 million TBD

Slow social progress and isolation caused by COVID created conditions for white supremacist movements to thrive both online and in the real world. Their myths propagate fastest when underlying societal issues go unresolved.

While the shooting shook Buffalo to its core, it also catalyzed an outpouring of solidarity and resolve. Citizens across racial, religious, and socioeconomic lines united to support the victims‘ families and demand reforms. Nearly every day since the attack, community groups have organized rallies, vigils, voter drives, fundraisers, counseling sessions, and more.

Below are just a few of the grassroots leaders driving change:

  • Tamika Harper, WNY Peace Center – Providing spaces for youth healing through art and dialogue. Partnered with lawmakers on "Alyssa‘s Law" requiring silent panic alarms at schools.

  • Jackie Stover Bigtree, Indigenous Women‘s Initiatives – Raising funds via quilt raffles to revitalize the Jefferson Avenue business corridor, pushed advocates to pass new gun regulations.

  • Dr. Myron Glick, Jericho Road Medical Center – Offering free mental healthcare to the community. His clinic treated victims after the shooting. Coordinating support groups led by people of color.

  • Bishop Perry Davis, Buffalo Dream Center – Leading daily street prayers and delivering food to affected families. Brought the community together for an ecumenical service of lament, hope and unity.

By choosing love over hate, the resilient people of Buffalo provide a powerful antidote to the forces that produced the tragic shooting. They model how communities can heal together and create positive change. Their efforts continue the long march towards a more just world.

The Buffalo shooting resonated with Americans fed up with racist violence and the suffering it causes. We all have a role to play in building a society of mutual understanding and respect. Here are some actions you can take:

  • Reject replacement theory – When you hear racist conspiracy theories, speak up with facts. Model compassion and critical thinking for others.

  • Support community groups – Follow groups like Buffalo Dream Center online and donate if possible. Uplift their work.

  • Contact lawmakers – Advocate for reforms like strengthened background checks and red flag laws to reduce mass shootings.

  • Volunteer locally – Look for opportunities to support minorities, immigrants, the poor and others targeted by hate groups.

  • Confront intolerance – If a friend or family member expresses racist views, engage them with empathy. Help them unlearn prejudice.

  • Consume media thoughtfully – Evaluate news and social media sources. Avoid those profiting from hate. Seek out solutions-oriented voices.

When ordinary citizens commit to making positive change, our communities grow stronger. Do your part to spread compassion where you live. Let the heroism of Buffalo in responding to tragedy inspire us all.


Written by Alexis Kestler

A female web designer and programmer - Now is a 36-year IT professional with over 15 years of experience living in NorCal. I enjoy keeping my feet wet in the world of technology through reading, working, and researching topics that pique my interest.