Posted on May 20, 2022

Did the Buffalo Mass Shooting Suspect’s 90% White Hometown Fuel His Hate?

Connor Sheets, Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2022

This corner of upstate New York is threaded by roads winding up from the banks of the Susquehanna River into low, tree-covered hills. Commuters choose this community for its good schools and proximity to jobs in Binghamton, often settling in developments marked by vast lawns, expansive views and two-car garages.

Others are drawn to Conklin’s country feel and rustic rhythms. There’s a sod farm near where the main drag meets the Pennsylvania border, and a produce operation on the way out of town headed north. Fishing for smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna is a favorite pastime, and it’s not unusual for locals to wear camo to the Dollar Tree.

It’s a small enough place that purchasing a stump grinder and issuing permits for mobile home communities constitute major agenda items at town meetings. Conklin has long enjoyed — even taken pride in — its speck-on-the-wall anonymity, a town unnoticed by and unconcerned with most of the outside world.

But the world and its messiness landed fiercely here on Saturday when one of Conklin’s own, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, a former worker in a local deli, allegedly killed 10 people and wounded three more in a racially motivated shooting 3½ hours away in Buffalo. An avowed white supremacist, Gendron, who wrote a 180-page manifesto to explain his views and the carnage they would unleash, is the son of a town that doesn’t know how to explain him.

His rage, according to police, played out in hate-filled online netherworlds populated by mostly young men who spout venom, crave attention and are becoming an increasing danger in towns like this, where extremism is seeping into the mainstream even as mass shootings across the nation have become so common that the response to them is almost rote.


Ninety percent of Conklin’s just over 5,000 residents are white. That’s down from 96.8% in 2010, largely because of an increase in its multiracial and Latino populations, according to the most recent census. The number of Black residents has fallen from 56 to 52, census data showed.

Lilly Freer has grown up with this whiteness and what she and others see as widespread intolerance fed by insularity. She was in Gendron’s graduating class at Susquehanna Valley High School. She said “he was always a nice, smiling face,” though she was not friends with him. She said that she believes “people are brought up to hate,” and that racism is not a rare trait in their hometown.

“I do know a lot of people in the Conklin area that went to school with him and have a lot of hateful views, whether it being them trying to be ‘cool’ or just them actually being hateful towards people or things,” she said.

Not everyone feels that way. Robbie Miller said he had classes with Gendron, but they were not “exactly friends.” Similar to Freer, he described Gendron as “a really happy guy,” and he said he did not “think anyone that knew Payton thought he would be capable of doing this.” And Miller said he did not believe the place where Gendron grew up was a contributing factor in his extremist views.

“Conklin is a very good and quiet area,” he said. “I wouldn’t say his surroundings had anything to do with the situation.”

But for some those surroundings can appear cruel. Osha Mabilog emigrated with her family from the Philippines to a small town about six miles north of Binghamton when she was 13. Now 18, she’s a student at SUNY Broome Community College, which Gendron briefly attended before dropping out in March. Mabilog said that as a person of color she feels unsafe in many peripheral areas of the city, including Conklin.

She was nervous to talk to a reporter, but said she wanted to raise awareness about the racist attitudes she encounters here.

“I see people’s eyes looking at me because I’m not white. In the white Republican areas near Binghamton, I won’t say that they’re all racist, but a good chunk of them are,” Mabilog said. “I don’t typically go to that area because I don’t know what’s going to happen so I’m not going to risk it.… I kind of know where to go and where not to go.”

Victoria Fleury, a white 19-year-old who also attends SUNY Broome, said she has repeatedly witnessed overt racism both in rural areas around Binghamton and in Greene, the small community where she grew up about 18 miles north of the city.

“People say the N-word left and right. It’s people thinking they’re funny, and then there’s people using it against people of color. It’s very common to hear it in school and also from older people,” she said. “I think it’s the lack of diversity.”

In Conklin and similar communities outside Binghamton, distrust of media and fear of reprisal for talking freely are common, especially among older residents. Time and again this week, people shared their opinions before declining to provide their full names. They live in a slice of America — like many others — that often appears resistant and at times resentful of a nation changing around them, a notion that has fueled the steady rise of identity politics.

Debbie has lived across the Susquehanna from Conklin in Kirkwood — an 89.4% white town of about 5,480 people as of the 2020 census — for most of her life. As the 65-year-old sat on a park bench overlooking the river on Tuesday, she laid out a warped version of reality that echoes the “replacement theory” that was included in a document Gendron allegedly posted online before the Buffalo massacre.

“We are minorities today. We’re down here and they’re up there in the world,” she said, referring to white and Black people, respectively. “Blacks can get what they want, and they can get a job because they use their race. I think that’s probably driving how white people feel today.”

Debbie, who declined to give her last name, said she believes that sentiment was likely a key driver of Gendron’s descent into extremism.

“That kid, he’s feeling all that,” she said. “That’s, in my opinion, why he probably felt that way is because of how it’s going with Black people lately.”


Their community too is divided. In Broome County, home to Conklin and Binghamton, Joe Biden garnered 50.6% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election, while Donald Trump received 47.2%, according to county election data.

But unsurprisingly, as a relatively rural community, Conklin is redder than the overall county. That year, 60.3% of the votes in Gendron’s hometown were for Trump and 37.4% for Biden.


Kent Schull, chair of the history department at Binghamton University, has a close relative in a mixed-race marriage living in Conklin. The couple, who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, told him “they’ve felt very safe.” Though “they do get stares,” he said, they have never mentioned encountering hostility.

At the same time, Schull said he sees “maybe even more” Confederate flags in upstate New York than he ever did when he lived in Memphis, Tenn., from 2007 until 2012. And he said that when his kids’ sports teams play at schools in some of the whiter, more rural parts of the area, they often find themselves on the receiving end of hateful remarks, both from other players and from their parents.