Remembering the racist attack at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., a year later
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
We won't call it an anniversary.
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MICHEL MARTIN: We are learning more about a mass shooting that took place at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., this afternoon, where 13...
RASCOE: We'll just say it was a year ago today.
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MARTIN: Authorities say a heavily armed white man drove from several hours away to a Tops Friendly Markets in a predominantly black neighborhood in Buffalo and began shooting.
NA'KYA MCCANN: It's literally right in the center of the community. It's right in the center of the east side of Buffalo.
RASCOE: That's Na'kya McCann.
MCCANN: A lot of people, you know, can walk down the street or, like, you know, walk a couple of blocks, and Tops is there that day. Me and my mom did have plans to go to Tops. And it essentially did not go that way.
RASCOE: A year ago today, McCann was working at a gym a couple of blocks away from Tops. It's a cheerleading gym called Buffalo All-Star Extreme, BASE for short. On her way to BASE, McCann and her mom realized they were running late and decided to skip their stop at Tops, instead heading straight to the gym. That's where another parent told them of the attack.
MCCANN: At that moment, my mom and I went into protection mode, which is to lock the BASE doors. BASE was all glass at the time. You can literally see right through it. The split decision to lock the doors essentially came from, you know, we don't know if we're next.
RASCOE: A 19-year-old man targeted Na'kya McCann's neighborhood. He wrote of being a white supremacist. The east side of Buffalo was the closest area to his home with the highest percentage of Black residents. He shot and killed 10 people and injured three others before police took him into custody. In February, a judge sentenced him to life in prison with no possibility of parole. Na'kya McCann is in college now and is still a junior coach at BASE. And in a new feature of NPR's Embedded podcast, this one called Buffalo Extreme, she weaves together the attack on her neighborhood with her experiences as an athlete, teammate and coach.
MCCANN: BASE is a predominantly Black gym. We have a whole lot of ages. They range from age 4 all the way up to ages 18. We have a dance and a cheer program. We also have a gymnastics program, as well. Buffalo All-Star Extreme means a lot to me, and I know it means a lot to a lot of younger girls who are inside of that BASE family.
RASCOE: And so you get into cheering. I think at first, you're just kind of, like, flipping around and stuff like that a little bit. That's the way my daughter is. She's not into cheering yet. She's in dance. But she would do a one-handed cartwheel just anywhere she's at.
RASCOE: (Laughter) So - but you get into cheer, and you you are in a Black gym. But this is a sport that is predominantly white.
RASCOE: And can you talk about what that is like and, like, how you would go places, and you wouldn't really be treated with respect?
MCCANN: Honestly, when we go to cheer competitions, we were looked at as essentially, like, the black sheep of the cheer world because the cheer world is is made for predominantly white teams, white teams with money, white teams that have hands-on programs that can, you know, enhance children's skills, whereas, you know, BASE - we work with what we got. And honestly, being one of, like, the only Black gyms going to cheer competitions with predominantly white teams, it's not a good feeling. You know, we went there to do a job. We went there to perform. We went there to have fun.
And instead, you know, we got there, and we're judged. We got there. We got nasty looks. We got nasty comments, comments on along the lines of, you know, Black girls shouldn't be on the gym, you know, on the mat. We had comments from judges like, you know, girls' moves are too provocative. And, like, you know, you wouldn't get those comments if we were a predominantly white team.
RASCOE: And when they were saying provocative, they're saying because of the way you move...
RASCOE: ...The way your body's shaped.
RASCOE: You know, they're claiming that it's suggestive, but this is something that Black girls have to go through all the time - is being treated as if they're adults or sexual when they're just kids.
RASCOE: And how old are you during this time when you're going to these competitions and stuff?
MCCANN: Around that time, I was 10-ish, 11, between there.
RASCOE: So 10-ish, 11, you're already seeing race thrown in your face, seeing the differences in treatment. But then you end up in this place where there's a shooting in your hometown near where BASE is located. Can you take us back to that day when you found out about it and then found out that that was also about someone who had hatred based on race?
MCCANN: In a BASE perspective, it was supposed to be a good day, like, you know, full of excitement because we're walking into a new season. And instead, we walked into a nightmare, which was a massacre in our city. So, like, my coaches' face - like, some of my old coaches' face went blank. My mom's face was just really blank. My Auntie Yani - her face was blank as well. Like, it was just, like, what do we do? And, you know, what can we do?
RASCOE: And Auntie Yani is your coach. Or she was your coach.
RASCOE: She's over the team - she's over the whole gym, right?
MCCANN: Yes. Auntie Yani is one of the co-founders of BASE. She was my cheer coach. And that relationship, just went from coach to aunt.
RASCOE: And one thing that stuck out to me is how hearing Coach Yani and the other cheer moms - they felt like they had to protect the team from the racism that you'd experienced at competitions. But then this happens, and they felt helpless. Like, how do you protect your children from this world where these horrible things can happen at a grocery store. And you talk to them about that. You did these interviews. Were you surprised to hear them feeling so helpless?
MCCANN: Yes, I really was surprised hearing that they didn't have any answers and hearing that they were helpless because I'm used to my mom and, you know, my Auntie Yani just always shielded me from certain things, whether that's from the cheer world or just, like, the world in general. So knowing that they didn't have any answers; they couldn't protect us from it - it made me feel like, you know, this is really big. Like, this is really something that, clearly, is going to take an impact, and it's clearly going to affect us.
RASCOE: I mean, you are a young Black woman. Your community was rocked by someone coming from the outside, targeting black people. And then you are seeing, you know, just, like, in your day to day what you're trying to do with dance - like, you're seeing the impact of it. Like, how does that shape, like, how you view yourself? Or how does it shape how you look at and interact with the world?
MCCANN: Honestly, from a young age, I really wasn't confident in my skin already. And that honestly does come from just the world that we live in. And especially from, like I said, cheer - it stems cheer, as well - us going to competitions and getting stares because of our skin color. And after the massacre, it really puts things in perspective that I can't live because of my skin color. I can't live freely because of the way that I look and the color of my skin. Honestly, that's where the emotions really kick up because it's - you know, why can't we just live like humans?
After the massacre, I can definitely say I feel less again, like how I felt when I was cheering. Like, you know, like, we can never go anywhere without getting stares. And now we can't even go to a grocery store and do day-to-day activities without looking over our shoulder and worry about, oh, well, is this white person safe? Or is this white person going to do something? Will this white person say something. Like, you know, now we live in fear of everybody's a bad person.
RASCOE: Part of what makes this, like, so cruel is, like, this was the grocery store. This was like really the only one that was very convenient for the community. Everybody has to get food to eat. It reopened two months after the shooting. Do you still go to that store?
MCCANN: I do not go to Tops. I honestly don't even ride by Tops. I do not go over there anymore. Me and my family do not shop there. I especially have not been to Tops since the massacre has happened.
RASCOE: So how do you feel like the community is doing a year after the attack?
MCCANN: It's 50/50, basically. I feel like some people are like, you know, we just have to move on. Then it's the other 50%, which are essentially the families, you know, like, the victim or the family, which are, this still hurts, and this is still a big impact. And I'm still living through grief and through depression and through mental and emotional feelings. There's a lot of people that still feel that way.
RASCOE: Why do you think it was important to tell the story of this community that was impacted by this attack through your cheer team? And, like, what do you think that that signifies?
MCCANN: When I did this circle with the girls after the massacre, I realized that this is trickling down on our youth. You know, I had to go back to college at the end of August. And when my mom was just, like, telling me, like, you know, like, the girls are just, like - they're not in it for some reason. I started thinking that's because of what happened literally, like 2 or 3 months ago. You know, who can't cope from that? And, you know, I'm 19, and there's girls that are way younger than me that are feeling so strongly opinionated not only mentally but also emotionally. I wanted them to have a voice, and I wanted pretty much to show some representation of when adults do things, the children are also affected. It's not just an adult situation.
After the massacre, kids have acted out. Some have probably stopped going to school. We have kids that have dropped out of BASE because of it. We have kids that, like - you know, they get jumpy when people talk about certain things or say certain things or hear certain sounds. And that shouldn't be. No child should feel that way in that space. Like, nobody should feel like that. So honestly, the youth inspire me. Especially, like, the BASE kids inspire me to do this.
RASCOE: That's Na'kya McCann. She is the host of the new podcast Buffalo Extreme. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
MCCANN: Thank you.
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RASCOE: Buffalo Extreme is produced by the team at NPR's Embedded. Look for it on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.