Son of Buffalo shooting victim appears before Senate hearing on domestic terrorism

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(WASHINGTON) — A son of the oldest victim in the Buffalo supermarket shooting, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday in a hearing on domestic terrorism, called on lawmakers to “yield your positions” if they’re unwilling to meet “the urgency of the moment” in the wake of the apparent racially-motivated attack that left 10 Black people dead, including his 86-year-old mother.

“You expect us to continue to just forgive and forget over and over again. And what are you doing?” Garnell Whitfield Jr., the oldest son of Ruth Whitfield, a victim of the Buffalo shooting, asked the Senate panel. “You’re elected to protect us, to protect our way of life.”

“I ask every one of you to imagine the faces of your mothers as you look at mine, and ask yourself, ‘Is there nothing that we can do?’ Is there nothing that you personally are willing to do to stop the cancer of white supremacy and the domestic terrorism that inspires?” he continued, maintaining his composure but holding back tears. “Because if there is nothing, then respectfully senators, you should yield your positions of authority and influence the others that are willing to lead on this issue. The urgency of the moment demands, no less.”

“My mother’s life mattered — and your actions here today would tell us how much it matters to you,” he added.

The hearing, which kicked off at 10 a.m., is titled, “Examining the ‘Metastasizing’ Domestic Terrorism Threat After the Buffalo Attack” and examines “the continued threat posed by violent white supremacists and other extremists, including those who have embraced the so-called ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory, as well as the federal government’s response to this threat,” according to a committee release. It comes amid a national reckoning over gun violence as lawmakers consider solutions this week.

Opening the hearing, Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called the Buffalo mass shooting “one of the worst domestic terrorist attacks in recent memory” and read the victims’ names into the record.

“Every one of these victims left behind loved ones who are grieving that loss — and several of those loved ones are in the room with us today. I think there are no words that fill the empty chairs at your dinner table or the empty spaces in your heart,” Durbin said. “But your willingness to sit in this room to honor the memory of those lost is a lesson in courage and love.”

“Please know that you are not alone,” he added. “We offer our deepest condolences, and most importantly, our commitment to do something.”

Ruth Whitfield was mourned by her family, including her son Garnell, a former Buffalo fire commissioner, in an emotional press conference last month. He said she was returning home from visiting her husband in a nursing home, what her son called “a daily ritual” for eight years of their 68-year marriage, when she stopped by the Tops grocery store to pick up groceries, and the gunman opened fire.

“For her to be taken from us and taken from this world by someone that’s just full of hate for no reason … it is very hard for us to handle right now,” Garnell said at the time. “We need help. We’re asking you to help us, help us change this. This can’t keep happening,” he added.

At the same press conference, civil rights attorney Ben Crump slammed what he called the “accomplices to this mass murder” and the cause of the indoctrination of hate among young people, referring, in part, to far-right-wing websites, politicians and cable news pundits.

“Even though they didn’t pull the trigger, they did load the gun for this young white supremacist,” Crump said. “Black America is suffering right now and we need to know that our top leader in America reacts and responds when we are hurt.”

To that end, Durbin, in his opening statement, played a video clip of conservative news hosts echoing rhetoric espoused by the shooter to illustrate what he called “the role of the media and the role that they played in dragging hateful rhetoric into mainstream America, and sadly, how it’s inspiring acts of racist violence.”

“More than 400 episodes of Tucker Carlson’s show have amplified the so-called “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, the guiding principle of modern white supremacist movement,” Durbin added. “As lawmakers, we must speak in one voice and repeat repudiating this incendiary rhetoric, along with any individual or extremist group that resorts to violence.”

Other witnesses on Tuesday’s panel include Michael German, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent and fellow at the Brennan Center For Justice; Robert Pape, professor and director of The Chicago Project on Security and Threats at The University of Chicago; Justin Herdman, a former U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Ohio, and legal scholar Jonathan Turley, a professor at the George Washington University Law School and a frequent witness called by Republicans on the committee.

The Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday morning warned of a “heightened” threat environment for “domestic violent extremists,” a term which the department uses to label those from a broad swath of the ideological spectrum from racially motivated extremists to white supremacists.

“Individuals in online forums that routinely promulgate domestic violent extremist and conspiracy theory-related content have praised the May 2022 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and encouraged copycat attacks,” The National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin said — marking the sixth time DHS has issued the NTAS bulletin since Biden took office.

ABC News previously reported on evidence indicating the Buffalo shooting was a calculated, racially-motivated execution by the suspect, an 18-year-old white male, according to multiple sources and a review of FBI cases and testimony. The gunman, who has pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder and is being held without bail, allegedly wanted a race war and live-streamed his attack in an apparent effort to spur others to kill minorities, sources said.

Included in a 180-page document posted online by the shooter was a far-right conspiracy idea called the “great replacement theory,” which baselessly claims that white populations are being intentionally replaced by minorities and immigrants. Democrats have slammed the theory and moved to fund new programs to target domestic terrorism, while some Republicans have faced backlash for echoing notions of the theory in their talking points.

Tuesday’s hearing comes as the Democrats on Capitol Hill ramp up efforts to push for legislation that would require stronger background checks for gun buyers and incentivize state red flag laws following the recent mass shootings. Twenty-one people, including 19 children, were killed in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, just 10 days after the mass shooting in Buffalo. Another mass shooting on June 1 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, claimed four lives after a gunman stormed a medical facility with an AR-15-style rifle that police say he bought hours before the massacre.

Zeneta Everhart, who says her 21-year-old son, Zaire Goodman, is still recovering from gunshot wounds in the Buffalo shooting, one of three others injured there, as well as Miah Cerrillo, a fourth-grader who survived the shooting in Uvalde, are both expected to testify at another hearing on gun violence on Wednesday before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Last month, Senate Republicans used the filibuster to block a bill designed to combat domestic terrorism from advancing to a key vote. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, D-Ill., was the only Republican in either chamber of Congress to vote for the measure, which would have created new offices within the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security and FBI to “monitor, analyze, investigate, and prosecute domestic terrorism.”

Tuesday also marks the third in a series of hearings this committee has held on domestic terrorism.

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