Payton Gendron: How the Buffalo shooter descended into the underworld of white supremacy
EL PAÍS reconstructs the psychological and physical journey that took the 18-year-old from an idyllic suburb in Conklin to a supermarket in a Black neighborhood, 200 miles away, where he murdered 10 people
On the porch of the Gendrons’ house, in Conklin, a town of 5,000 inhabitants in the south of New York state, there was a stone with Payton Gendron’s handprint. Someone had made the cement handprint, stamped the boy’s first name in block letters, made a heart shape and marked the date: 2008 – when Payton Gendron was only four years old.
Last Saturday, at about 2.30pm, that same hand was in a supermarket in Buffalo, 330 kilometers (205 miles) from his home, pulling the trigger of an AR-15-style assault rifle, which had been altered to carry more ammunition than legally allowed. The boy – now an 18-year-old white supremacist indoctrinated by online conspiracy theories on social networks such as Reddit and 4chan – was looking to kill as many Black people as possible.
Gendron arrived at the Tops Friendly Market parking lot driven by the so-called “Great Replacement” theory, which falsely claims that white people are being demographically and culturally replaced by non-white immigrants and minority groups as part of a master plan concocted by leftist elites. This theory emerged in France, but has a strong foothold in the United States thanks to support from within the Republican Party and popular TV hosts such as Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson. Before Gendron was arrested, he murdered 10 Black people and injured three others in the supermarket on Jefferson Avenue, in the eastern part of Buffalo.
Dressed in military gear, including a helmet and bulletproof vest, and sporting white supremacist symbols, the shooter had driven his car to Buffalo the day before and spent just over three hours there. He first drove down the typical American highway, with its homogeneous rest areas on both sides. Then up a two-lane state highway through quaint towns with wooden farms and well-kept houses.
The house Conklin lived in with his parents and two brothers perfectly captures the essence of American suburbia, with its neatly mowed lawns and basketball hoop in the driveway. On Thursday afternoon, as yellow school buses were returning the children from school, the street was deserted. The sun was finally shining after a bleak morning of fog and rain, but the porch lights at Gendron’s house were on. No one answered the door. Earlier, a lady had politely refused to give any information about the family. “I respect their privacy,” she said. Nearby, a teenager about the same age as the shooter described his neighbor as “evasive” before disappearing behind a garage door.
From this idyllic suburban home, one number – 14208 – guided Gendron last Saturday to his destination. While preparing for the attack, the young man cross-referenced all the ZIP codes in New York state with the demographic data of each area until he found the one with the highest concentration of Black people. This is how he ended up in the supermarket on the east side of Buffalo, one of the most segregated cities in the US. But, in reality, his journey had begun much earlier.
During the first coronavirus lockdown, in the spring of 2020, a bored Gendron began to descend into the darkest corners of the internet, moving from one chat group about guns to another about political extremism, until he ended up in forums that warned about the extinction of the white race. In June of the following year, when he was finishing his studies at a high school in Conklin, a town where 90% of the population is white, the students were asked to explain what they planned to do after graduating. The boy, then 17 years old, replied that he was planning a “murder-suicide,” an act of violence that has become all-too-common in the US: a shooter murders multiple people then takes their own life. The school called the police, he said it was all a joke and he was sent for a psychiatric evaluation.
Two weeks later, he graduated and fell off the police’s radar. According to state law, the police should have put down his “murder-suicide” comment on his record, which would have prevented him from being able to purchase a gun. But this did not happen. Susquehanna Valley High School, where Gendron had studied, on Thursday put up two banners made by students with the message: “We stand with Buffalo.”
Between that first alarm and the massacre in Buffalo, Gendron descended further into the underworld of white supremacy – a descent that neither his parents nor authorities knew how to recognize. This journey is detailed in a chilling 180-page manifesto that Gendron published first on a social network called Discord and then on 4chan. According to the document, which is filled with racist conspiracy theories and discussions on the pros and cons of different weapons, Gendron bought a huge arsenal in January of this year. He purchased the weapons from a gun store 20 kilometers from his home, in a town called Endicott. The store owner said this week that he did not remember Gendron, but the store records show his purchase.
Gendron’s manifesto is, in substance and form, an imitation of the one written by 28-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant, who murdered 51 Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019. Tarrant, who was sentenced to life in prison, live-streamed 17 minutes of the killing spree. The Buffalo shooter also broadcast the massacre on Twitch, a live video platform owned by Amazon that is popular among video game lovers. By the time Twitch managed to remove the video, it was too late: it was already being shared across the internet.
Gendron chose Tops Friendly Market precisely because it served as a meeting place for shoppers in the neighborhood, many of whom were older customers. Among the evidence uncovered by the police, there are hand-drawn plans of the store, which he visited in March and last Friday at 4pm, which he considered the perfect day and time to carry out his plans. It is not clear why he did not carry out the attack on Friday. Investigators have concluded that he slept in his car that night, in a parking lot in the nearby town of Cheektowaga.
“He looked like he wanted to be shot”
It is also not known why he ruled out other targets, such as a barbershop in Buffalo, a Walmart in Rochester and a shopping mall in Syracuse. What does seem clear is that he intended to kill more people after leaving the supermarket, which he exited a few minutes after he stopped shooting. He then stood motionless before police. “It seemed like he wanted to be shot,” said one witness. The situation has prompted many people in east Buffalo to ask: “What would have happened at that moment if the shooter had been a Black man?”
The same Saturday of the shooting, he was taken to court, and police officers searched his family home in Conklin. Gendron is currently charged with first-degree murder. He appeared in court again on Thursday, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and wearing a mask. In the room were several relatives of the victims. One of them yelled at him: “Payton, you are a coward!” He didn’t speak. Gendron was indicted by a grand jury and is scheduled to return to court on June 9.
The police officers have already concluded the investigation at the scene of the crime, so the supermarket will be able to open again soon, which will be a relief for residents who have been stocking up on fresh products in improvised stalls placed by charities in the back of the Tops.
Investigators are now focusing on an invitation Gendron sent to his private Discord chatroom just half an hour before the shooting. The invitation, headed “Happening: This is not a drill,” was accepted by 15 people, who were then able to access the plans he had been hatching for months as well as the livestream, which was filmed from a camera in his helmet. One of the attractions of Discord is the anonymity it promises its users. The police are now trying to clarify to what extent those who accepted the invitation are complicit in the massacre.