The Pittsburgh Killer And Kroger’s Gunman Didn’t Just Kill. They Stole Our Memory.
As the names and ages of those lost in last week’s horrific massacre during Shabbat morning services at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue were released, one heartbreaking fact stood out: The victims were 11 worshippers, all between the ages of 54 and 97.
The US Black community also lost two elders last week in a white supremacist shooting at a Kroger market in Louisville, Kentucky. The shooter allegedly attempted to enter a Black church just 15 minutes before gunning down Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Lee Jones, 67, at the nearby grocery store. Stallard was killed while shopping with his 12 year old grandson for supplies for a school project and Jones was shot as the killer fled through the parking lot. Both victims were Black.
These tragedies are deeply connected, not only as white supremacist terror attacks fueled by white nationalism and the incitement of President Trump, but in the fact that they created a very specific kind of pain and loss: that of losing elders to violence.
Speaking on the importance of oral history, Malian writer Amadou Hampaté Bâ famously said, “Each time an old person dies, it’s a library that burns down.”
While the losses of the Pittsburgh Shabbat massacre and the Kroger shooting are felt first and foremost by the communities and loved ones of those killed, Jewish and Black Americans collectively lost 13 irreplaceable libraries of sacred and secular knowledge of our people. While we cannot bring these precious souls back, we can still honor and learn from their lives, even after they are taken from us.
For many Jews, one important association with elders in our community is the story of surviving genocide and displacement. This may explain why many publications mistakenly reported that 97-year-old victim Rose Mallinger was a Holocaust survivor. While Rose herself may not have personally experienced the Holocaust, she lived through a time on earth in which fascism reigned and Jewish people faced potential annihilation at its hands. She was a witness to our pain, and our survival. She was part of a generation that lived through times that give us perspective on both the painful urgency and potential hope of our own moment, in which white supremacy makes a desperate attempt to hold on to it’s grasp over a diverse and changing nation and world.
For many in the Black community, elders hold similar legacies of surviving Jim Crow and the Great Migration.
Hearing the story of Maurice Stallard hit close to home for me. My own grandfather, Charles Armstrong Sr., was born the son of a former slave and fled a sharecropper’s life in Tennessee as a youth before settling down in Illinois. He went on to found a Black weekly newspaper in Chicago and became heavily involved in local politics and civil rights organizing.
I never had the chance to meet him because he was killed in a shooting in his newspaper offices before I was born. While he’s physically gone from this world, his story lives on with my family.
I carry his life and legacy with me as a reminder of what is possible in the face of powers determined to dehumanized you.
The Kroger shooter, Gregory Bush, spared a white patron who pulled a gun on him as he fled the parking lot, saying, “I won’t shoot you. Whites don’t shoot whites.”
After days of silence from authorities on the nature of the shooting, the attack is now being investigated as a hate crime. Bush appealed to bystander complicity in white supremacy as he terrorized Black people, a tactic as old as lynch law in this country.
We can honor his victims and resist this complicity by joining with racial justice advocates in envisioning a just and equal society, and committing to soundly rejecting and unlearning white supremacy when it rears its ugly head in our own Jewish spaces and institutions.
Synagogue shooter Robert Bowers is a white nationalist obsessed with the conspiracy theory that Jews wield undue influence on global politics and are responsible for influxes of migrants and refugees in the United States. He fixated on the work of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which began as an organization helping Jews flee pogroms in Europe, and now aids refugees of all faiths.
While Bowers may have been successful in his aim at terrorizing our community, he cannot defeat us. We can defeat him and his cause by doing as our lost elders did, and standing firmly with the displaced and oppressed in this world, knowing that this is our own story as well.
We are caught in a painful moment of deep uncertainty, but our elders remind us that this isn’t the first fight, and it likely won’t be the last.
May their memories be a blessing that encourages us to know ourselves as a people who struggles for justice for all.
And may we have the strength and clarity to use this blessing to banish the white supremacist legacy that enabled these tragedies from power, forever.
Rebecca Pierce is an African-American and Jewish filmmaker, photographer and journalist. Her work highlights racial justice issues from the United States to Israeli and Palestine, with a focus on issues affecting African Asylum seekers.