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Son of woman slain in Buffalo pleads for Senate to move on frozen domestic terror bill

"What are you doing?" Garnell Whitfield Jr. asked the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A man whose 86-year-old mother was killed during the mass shooting last month at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, delivered an impassioned speech to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, telling its members they should resign if they cannot get domestic terrorism legislation over the finish line.

"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?'" Garnell Whitfield Jr. said.

"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," Whitfield continued. "The urgency of the moment demands no less."

The bill in question would encourage the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to cooperate with each other and with the FBI on domestic terrorism cases and extremist prevention work. It already passed by the House in a near-party line vote days after the May 14 shooting in Buffalo, but the legislation is unlikely to gain any ground in the Senate, which failed to start debate on the bill last month.

"We're taught to love even our enemies, but our enemies don't love us," Whitfield chastised the legislative body this morning "What are we supposed to do with all our anger and all of our pain? Expect us to continue to just forgive and forget over and over again?

"And what are you doing?" he asked. "You're elected to protect us, to protect our way of life."

Whitfield's mother, Ruth, was among 10 people, most of them Black, who were killed by an 18-year-old white supremacist at Tops Supermarket, a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo.

Police said the shooter specifically targeted the store, driving three hours from his home, to kill as many Black people as possible in the attack he livestreamed online.

Online, the shooter ranted about “replacement theory,” a conspiracy nurtured by the right wing that says white power and the white race generally face an existential threat from the growing population of nonwhite people in the United States. It’s a belief oft described as fringe despite dating back to the early days of America when white people stoked fear about what it would mean for their monopoly on power if Black and nonwhite people gained freedoms such as emancipation, reproductive autonomy or the right to vote.

Whitfield told Senate lawmakers Tuesday that the racist views of the Buffalo gunman make plain the country's responsibility to act. “This should have never happened. ... This wasn’t an act of God. This was the act of a person and he did not act alone," the man spoke through tears in his testimony. "He was radicalized by white supremacists. His anger and hatred were metastasized like a cancer by people with big microphones screaming that Black people were going to take away their jobs and opportunities.”

Authorities apprehended the Buffalo shooter at the scene. While the Justice Department and FBI are still investigating whether to charge him with federal hate crime violations, Payton Gendron is charged with domestic terrorism motivated by hate and 10 counts of first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

President Joe Biden swiftly denounced the massacre as "straightforward terrorism" in a speech where he condemned white supremacy as "a poison" running through America and American politics.

Less than 24 hours after the Buffalo shooting, there was a racist shooting at a Taiwanese church in Laguna Woods, California, that left one person dead and five injured. And though law enforcement officials say the man who carried out this shooting had harbored a hatred of Taiwanese people, no hate crime charges have been filed in this case to date.

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At the start of Tuesday's hearing, Senator Dick Durbin, the chairman and highest ranking Democrat on the committee, played a compilation of Fox News pundits talking about immigration as a “war” and “invasion” followed by news coverage of the families grieving loved ones murdered in Buffalo.

Referencing racist mass shootings over the years, including the attack at the Emanuel AME Church in 2015 and on the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, Durbin argued white supremacy and racist violence are a prominent domestic threat.

“While each of these attacks was committed by a lone gunman, they're part of a larger pattern,” Durbin said.

Former FBI Special Agent Michael German, now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, told the committee that, when it comes to domestic terrorism, "law enforcement has a history of prioritizing lesser threats, particularly protests led by people of color, civil rights activists, peace activists, environmentalists," while white supremacy is underemphasized.

In 2020, the FBI reported the highest number of hate crimes since 2008 including a surge in violence targeting Black people. The majority of hate crime victims were targeted because of their race, ethnicity or ancestry, according to the bureau.

"While recent attacks have raised public awareness of white supremacist and far-right militant violence, it isn't new. It's been a threat in the United States since its founding and the law enforcement response remains deficient, despite deadly results," German said.

Earlier Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security released a bulletin warning that domestic violent extremists pose the most prevalent security and safety threat in the U.S.

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah meanwhile insisted at the hearing this morning that the prevalence of white supremacist violence in America could be a phase.

"With domestic terrorism, as in so many other areas of criminal law, there is a high likelihood that what's big one year might change the next year; what's happening a lot in one season of one year might change in the next season of that same year. So my concern would be if we start adopting legislation that directs our activities, devotes more resources to one particular ideology over another, that might leave prosecutors flat footed when the circumstances change," Lee said.

The bulletin from Homeland Security, which is scheduled to expire Nov. 30, warns that the U.S. threat environment will become "more dynamic" in the coming months given tensions over the Supreme Court's expected decision in an abortion case, the upcoming midterm elections and the future of a federal policy that has allowed the government to limit immigration asylum during the coronavirus pandemic.

Homeland Security authorities said they are seeing a broader range of grievances motivating people to violence and threats of violence.

Robert Pape, professor of political science and director of The Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago, testified at the Senate on Tuesday about how many examples in the public of racist violence have been driven by the combination of easy access to guns and the media's diffusion of racist language such as the great replacement theory.

"We have volatile capabilities now combined with volatile ideas and beliefs in the mainstream. It's not one or the other," Pape said. "And this is a very important combination. That's a deadly cocktail. This is more violence going forward. The second big change is we're now seeing those who advocate the great replacement receive political benefits and financial benefits. If we look at politicians, politicians in America in the mainstream, are either directly or indirectly stressing the great replacement and becoming more popular. Donald Trump, the president of the United States, is more powerful today as a result of January 6 than he would have been without January 6."

Democrats are pushing for new legislation on gun control to address the recent string of mass shootings, but the path forward remains uncertain and lawmakers have yet to announce a bill that stands a chance at overcoming the filibuster in the highly partisan Senate.

"I think that the connection to firearms here, between violent extremism and domestic terrorism and white supremacy, the great replacement theory, that combination of toxic poisonous forces with firearms is unmistakable," Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said.

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