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Son of Buffalo shooting victim presses senators on domestic terrorism: "What are you doing?"

Families of shooting victims testify on Capitol Hill
Families of shooting victims testify on Capitol Hill 02:36

Washington — The former commissioner of the Buffalo Fire Department whose 86-year-old mother was fatally shot at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, last month, pressured senators to address the rising threat of domestic terrorism, asking if there is "nothing that you personally are willing to do" to stop the spread of extremist ideology at the root of numerous violent attacks in recent years.

"You expect us to continue to just forgive and forget over and over again. And what are you doing?" asked Garnell Whitfield Jr., whose mother, Ruth Whitfield, was among the 10 people shot and killed in the attack at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo on May 14. "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?"

Whitfield testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing on the growing domestic terrorism threat following the massacre in Buffalo. Noting assessments by federal law enforcement that white supremacy is the greatest domestic threat, Whitfield lamented that "nothing has been done to mitigate it or eradicate it."

"Is there nothing that you personally are willing to do to stop the cancer of white supremacy and the domestic terrorism it inspires?" he asked the panel. "Because if there is nothing, then, respectfully, senators, you should yield your positions of authority and influence to others that are willing to lead on this issue. The urgency of the moment demands no less."

Buffalo victim's son pleads with senators to address domestic terrorism 04:24

The attack in Buffalo last month, followed by a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, 10 days later, mobilized Democrats in Congress to take action to reform the nation's gun laws and combat domestic terrorism. The Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing, which also featured testimony from constitutional law and security experts, was part of those efforts.

But it's unclear whether Republicans and Democrats can coalesce around a legislative plan to bolster efforts targeting domestic terrorism. The Senate last week failed to advance a bill requiring the FBI, Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security to open offices dedicated to tackling domestic terrorism and create a task force to address white supremacy in the U.S. military. The bill passed the Democratic-led House days after the Buffalo shooting.

The accused gunman in the Tops massacre, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, is a self-described white supremacist who is believed to have detailed his plans and racist motivation in writings posted online before the attack.

Investigators have said the suspect drove three hours from his home in Conklin, New York, to target Black people in the largely African-American neighborhood. Gendron was charged by the state with domestic terrorism motivated by hate and 10 counts of first-degree murder, among other charges. He pleaded not guilty to a 25-count indictment returned by the grand jury on June 1.

During his opening remarks before the Senate Judiciary panel, Whitfield paid homage to his mother and said her murder is "impossible to understand and even harder to live with."

Ruth Whitfield. Family photo

"But we're more than hurt. We're angry. We're mad as hell because this should've never happened," he said. "We're good citizens, good people. We believe in God, we trust in God. But this wasn't an act of God, this was an act of a person, and he did not act alone. He was radicalized by white supremacists whose anger and hatred were metastasized like a cancer by people with big microphones in high places, screaming that Black people were going to take away their jobs and opportunities."

Whitfield said lawmakers have to hold entities that amplify extremist ideologies and racist beliefs accountable in order to stamp out domestic terrorism.

"White supremacy, it's a problem, and this young man, though he pulled the trigger, others loaded the gun. Others fed him. Others radicalized him," he said.

At the start of the hearing, committee chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said acts of domestic terrorism are part of a larger pattern in the nation that has continued to grow and played a video featuring clips from Fox News, most of which featured comments from host Tucker Carlson.

"White supremacist violence has swept across the America, and this trend rises the obvious question: Why is it getting worse? We cannot deny that hate has a big platform," Durbin said.

In urging the Senate to take action to address the threat of domestic terrorism, Whitfield said he has throughout his life encountered racism, and that experience should not be ignored.

"We're not here to ask for favors. We're not here to debate this. This didn't start with my mother's passing," he said. "This has been going on my whole life. I was born Black and I was treated differently from the day I was born in this country, and it's time we stood up and recognized that. It's not OK and we can't keep ignoring it."

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