‘Enough is enough’: Harris addresses funeral of Ruth Whitfield after Buffalo shooting

<span>Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The last funeral for victims of a gunman’s racist attack on a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, two weeks ago took place on Saturday afternoon, as the oldest person to die in the mass shooting was laid to rest.

Ruth Whitfield, 86, was shot and killed along with nine other people, all of them Black, when a white supremacist and self-declared “eco-fascist” extremist allegedly traveled far from his home to wreak violence and tragedy.

The vice-president, Kamala Harris, and second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, attended and the civil rights activist Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy at the service at Mount Olive Baptist church in Buffalo.

Harris met bereaved families before the service and, according to the White House, had made clear before the funeral that she did not intend to speak at the church.

However Sharpton in the moment insisted that Harris come forward an address the congregation.

Harris said: “The pain that this family is feeling right now, and the nine other families here in Buffalo – I cannot even begin to express our collective pain as a nation for what you are feeling in such an extreme way, to not only lose someone that you love, but through an act of extreme violence and hate.”

Whitfield was inside the Tops Friendly Market, the only supermarket in the predominantly Black neighborhood of the city in northern New York state, close to the Canadian border, when the gunman entered.

Overhead view of church with pews full and people singing at the front
The memorial service for Ruth Whitfield in Buffalo on Saturday. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP
seated people hug standing people
Angela Crawley and Robin Harris are embraced next to a portrait of their mother, Ruth Whitfield. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

She had been visiting her husband of 68 years in a nearby nursing home on that Saturday, 14 May.

The gunman, identified by police as 18-year-old Payton Gendron, who is white, opened fire, after traveling three hours from his home in Conklin, New York, and previously having scoped out the store as a target.

In all, 13 people were shot in the attack, which federal authorities are investigating as a hate crime after finding racist screeds online linked to the gunman. Three people survived.

Whitfield was the mother of the former Buffalo fire commissioner Garnell Whitfield.

Gendron was apprehended on the scene as, law enforcement said, he was in the process of turning the gun on himself. He is charged with first-degree murder and is being held without bail. His attorney has entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf.

Related: ‘It’s how we grew up’: Buffalo’s struggle to escape the shadow of segregation

Buffalo residents spoke out about the past and present living in an acutely segregated city and about battling back against extremists promulgating, as the gunman did, false and racist theories about white Americans being under threat of “replacement”.

At the time of the shooting, Harris condemned the “epidemic of hate across our country that has been evidenced by acts of violence and intolerance” while Joe Biden said the massacre was “abhorrent to the very fabric of this nation” and decried the “poison” of white supremacy.

On Sunday, Biden plans to travel to Uvalde, Texas, where, four days ago, another 18-year-old, also armed with an assault rifle, shot 19 young children and two teachers at the small city’s Robb elementary school.

“Evil came to that school in Texas, that grocery store in New York. We have to stand stronger. I call on all Americans this hour to join hands,” he said.

harris at mic, sharpton behind her
Kamala Harris speaks alongside the Rev Al Sharpton during the service. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

At Whitfield’s funeral on Saturday, Sharpton called on “all good people” stand up to the injustice of mass shootings.

Friends and family of Whitfield crowded into the church and hugged each other, weeping and looking at a large picture of their loved one placed at the front of the pews.

Whitfield’s son Garnell Whitfield talked about how his mother loved the family, including his siblings and her grandchildren, “unconditionally”.

He told the congregation, to the sounds of loud weeping, that the he was busy building his mother a raised wooden planting box on the day she died, as a Mother’s Day gift, so that she could grow vegetables.

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump delivered a fiery tribute to Whitfield at the beginning of the service, calling for all “accomplices” who aided and abetted “this monster” who opened fire in the supermarket to be held accountable, from the gun manufacturers and distributors to the parents of the suspect.

Crump said those who “instructed and radicalized this young, insecure individual” should also be held to account for taking Whitfield from her family, the Buffalo community and the planet. He called her an “angelic figure”.

Harris mentioned some other mass shootings in recent years, saying: “There’s a through line to what happened here in Texas, in Atlanta, in Orlando, what happened at the synagogues ... and so this is a moment that requires all good people who are loving people to just say we will not stand for this. Enough is enough … we are all in this together.”

After the service, Harris and Emhoff made an unannounced visit to the Tops supermarket site, where floral tributes, photographs and notes have been placed by the hundreds since the killings.

They stepped from their vehicle with Harris carrying a large bouquet of white flowers and she and Emhoff appeared somber almost to the point of tears as they prayed and viewed the makeshift memorial, according to the White House pool report.

Several hundred people had gathered in anticipation that the vice-president might stop by and they applauded and shouted well wishes.