BUFFALO, N.Y. — Saturday’s funeral for 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, the oldest and last of the victims of a gunman’s racist attack on a Buffalo supermarket to be laid to rest, became a call for action and an emotional plea to end the hate and violence that has wracked the nation.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who addressed the mourners at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Buffalo at the insistence of Rev. Al Sharpton, said this is a moment in time for “all good people” to stand up to the injustice that happened at the Tops supermarket on May 14, as well as the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and other mass shootings.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, state Attorney General Letitia James, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, state Senator Tim Kennedy and Congressman Brian Higgins, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes were also in attendance at the service.
"The pain that this family is feeling right now, and the nine other families here in Buffalo, I cannot even begin to express our collective pain as a nation for what you are feeling in such an extreme way," Harris said.
Whitfield, the mother of former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield, was inside the Tops Friendly Market after visiting her husband of 68 years in a nursing home May 14 when a gunman identified by police as 18-year-old Payton Gendron opened fire.
“We’re not going quietly into the night,” Garnell Whitfield said. “My mother deserved more than that. She didn’t deserve to die like that; she didn’t deserve it.”
"We will not allow small people to create fear in our communities," the vice president continued. "We will not stand for this. Enough is enough. We will come together based on what we have in common and we will not let those people who are motivated by hate separate us or make us feel fear."
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who delivered a fiery tribute to Whitfield at the beginning of the funeral service, called for all “accomplices” who aided and abetted “this monster” who opened fire in the supermarket to be held accountable, from the gun manufacturers and distributors to the parents of the suspect.
“Will you stand with us against hatred? Crump asked. “Will you stand with us against bigotry? Will you stand with us against inhumanity? Will you stand with us against senseless violence? Will you stand with us against pure, unadulterated evil?”
Crump said those those who “instructed and radicalized this young, insecure individual” should also be held to account for taking Whitfield from her family, the Buffalo community and the planet. He called her “one of the most angelic figures that we have ever known.”
“It is a sin that this young depraved man, not a boy, went and killed Ruth Whitfield and the ‘Buffalo 10,’” Crump said, referring to the victims.
Whitfield had been inside the supermarket after visiting her husband of 68 years in a nursing home when a gunman began the deadly onslaught. In all, 13 people were shot in the attack which federal authorities are investigating as a hate crime. Three people survived.
The service not only honored Whitfield’s life, it also served as a platform addressing the conscience of America that the same gun violence and dangerous mentalities that led to tragedies in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas need to be addressed not as a political issue, but as a concern of humanity.
“If there ever was a time between Texas and Buffalo, Buffalo and Texas, that we need to come together, all communities, and say that we may not agree on everything but we have got to stop the hate and the violence and we have got to disarm—we have got to disarm the haters,” said Rev. Al Sharpton.
Harris attended the service and although she initially did not plan to speak, she expressed solidarity not only with the city of Buffalo, but with all lives lost to hatred and racism.
“I am here to say that we are all in this together," Harris said. "No one should ever be made to fight alone. We are stronger than those who try to hurt us think that we are; we are strong.”
Leaders called both racial hatred and gun violence epidemics, with Harris saying the cure to the latter already exists, and it lies in gun reform.
“We’re not looking for a vaccine," she said. "We know what works on this. It includes, let’s have an assault weapons ban. You know what an assault weapon is, you know how an assault weapon was designed; it was designed for a specific purpose, to kill a lot of human beings quickly.”
Whitfield's repass was held at Durham Memorial AME Zion Church, the same church she devoted many years of her life to as a member of the congregation.
Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff visited a memorial outside the Tops Friendly Market after the funeral. The vice president laid flowers, and the pair paused to pray for several minutes.
The visit comes just over a week after President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden made a stop in Buffalo to meet with the families of the victims.
"The feeling of having that, as I said to some of you when we talked privately, you feel like there's a black hole in your chest you're being sucked into, and you're suffocating, unable to breathe," Biden said last Tuesday. "That's what it felt like to us, and I'm sure some version of it feels like that to you. The anger, the pain, the depth of the loss that's so profound.
Vice President Harris visits Buffalo