President Joe Biden on Tuesday called the deadly supermarket shooting in Buffalo, N.Y. an act of terror and excoriated the white supremacist ideology that inspired the alleged gunman, but he stopped short of announcing a political agenda in the massacre’s aftermath.
“What happened here is simple and straightforward: terrorism,” Biden said during a visit to Buffalo. “Terrorism. Domestic terrorism. Violence inflicted in the service of hate, and a vicious thirst for power that defines one group of people being inherently inferior to any other group.”
In an emotional speech before the victims’ families, local officials, and community leaders, Biden assumed a familiar role of grief counselor and empathizer-in-chief; his first wife and daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972, and his son Beau died of cancer in 2015. “The day’s going to come where the loved one will bring a smile as you remember him or her, a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye,” the President told the families gathered at the Delavan-Grider Community Center on Buffalo’s East Side.
The setting was minutes away from the Jefferson Avenue Tops where the suspected assailant, Payton Gendron, killed 10 people on Saturday. Gendron, 18, allegedly drove more than 200 miles from Conklin, N.Y. to carry out the attack in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Officials said he scoped out the grocery store a day earlier, with the deliberate intent of killing as many Black people as possible. He said as much in a 180-page manifesto he posted on the internet hours before the carnage, espousing what is known as “replacement theory”—the belief that a cabal of elites is systematically replacing white people with ethnic minorities.
The President took aim not only at Gendron’s warped worldview, but also alluded to right-wing media personalities and politicians who have amplified versions of “replacement theory.” Biden didn’t call anyone out by name, but suggested prominent figures bore moral responsibility for the movement they were helping to grow. “I call on all Americans to reject the lie, and I condemn those who spread the lie for power, political gain, and for profit,” he said.
“White supremacy is a poison,” Biden said. “It’s been allowed to fester and grow before our eyes. No more.”
Biden didn’t use the occasion to push for any policy prescriptions, whether by calling for more restrictions on guns or a crackdown on social media platforms that become havens for hate speech. He told reporters before boarding Air Force One on Tuesday that he has “to convince Congress to go back to what I passed years ago,” referring to an assault weapons ban he helped pass as a Delaware Senator in the 1990s that expired in 2004. “It is going to be very difficult, but I am not going to give up.” In an evenly split Senate, Democrats almost certainly don’t have the votes to pass such a measure.
Several people who attended Biden’s speech appreciated his focus on the community’s grief instead of on Washington gridlock. “I don’t think he wanted to politicize the visit,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown told TIME shortly after Biden’s speech. “He met with 10 families of loved ones who were taken from them by a racist, domestic terroristic attack on this community. I think he wanted to show his concern and his empathy and his compassion for the families.”
The family members of victims agreed. “It was a heartfelt, beautiful speech, man,” said Wayne Jones, whose mother Celestine Chaney was killed in Saturday’s attack. “He hit it right on the nose.”
Chaney’s grandson, Phillip Bell, also said he valued the President’s remarks. “You can tell it was genuine, and it was really touching to know that he took time out of his busy schedule,” Bell told TIME in the bleachers, minutes after Biden left the auditorium. “There’s a lot of people hurting now.”
Both Jones and Bell met with Biden backstage with the rest of their extended family before his address. There, they say, Biden was more forthcoming about his policy goals; Jones says the President told them he would push for an assault weapons ban.
For now, though, any looming policy fight isn’t at the forefront of Jones’s mind. He’s still waiting for authorities to release his mother’s body, and he’s planning her funeral in the coming days. “I just wish I had her back,” Johnson said. “All of this is nice and fine, but I’d rather have my mom.”
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