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“Abject Failure” in Buffalo: Blizzard Death Toll Rises as Activists Slam City’s Failed Prep, Response

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Buffalo, New York, is experiencing a Katrina moment after this weekend’s historic blizzard. The death toll has climbed to at least 32 as people froze to death in their homes and cars, with nationwide fatalities surpassing 60 people. State and military police have been deployed to Buffalo to enforce the city’s ongoing driving ban as road conditions remain treacherous after a 51.5-inch snowfall. We’re joined by India Walton, former Buffalo mayoral candidate and longtime community activist, as well as Cariol Horne, a community organizer and racial justice advocate who was arrested by Buffalo police during the storm, to discuss the nation’s latest climate emergency and the city government’s role in the tragedy.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We’re turning now to Buffalo, New York, where the death toll from this weekend’s historic blizzard has climbed to at least 32 as more and more victims are discovered. State and military police were deployed to Buffalo Tuesday to enforce a driving ban, as road conditions remain treacherous after Buffalo was buried in more than 50 inches of snow. Many people froze to death in snowbanks, as well as in their homes and cars — among them, a 22-year-old woman named Anndel Taylor, whose family said she was stuck in her car for 18 hours before she died. Her body was found on Christmas after rescuers were unable to reach her earlier. She had moved to Buffalo to care for her ailing father. Her family in Charlotte, North Carolina, spoke to the WSOC-TV.

JAURDYN JOHNSON: Just after midnight, at 12:09 a.m., on Christmas Eve, Anndel texted another video. Inching down her window, you can see conditions completely deteriorated.

WANDA BROWN STEELE: Called 911, and she was waiting for them.

JAURDYN JOHNSON: At this point, her sister Tomeshia says, she began to get angry. She says it seemed no one was coming to her sister’s aid.

TOMESHIA BROWN: Absolutely everybody that tried to get to her got stuck — fire department, police. … Why didn’t they have chains on their tires? This is a state that’s known for snow.

AMY GOODMAN: That report from WKBW. As thousands were left without power, heat or food, pleading for help, Buffalo’s Mayor Byron Brown complained about reports of looting.

MAYOR BYRON BROWN: I just want to add that people who are out looting when people are losing their lives in this harsh winter storm is just absolutely reprehensible. I don’t know how these people can even live with themselves, how they can look at themselves in the mirror. They are the lowest of the low.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Buffalo by India Walton, former Buffalo mayoral candidate, longtime community activist, and Cariol Horne. She’s a former Buffalo police officer who was fired for stopping a white cop from choking a handcuffed Black man during an arrest in 2006. Ultimately, she got back pay for the years she fought in court against her unjust fighting. Cariol is now an activist. She was arrested Sunday night on charges of disorderly conduct, obstruction of justice, and harassment, as police responded to reports of looting.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Cariol Horne, let’s go first to you. Talk about what happened, and talk about the gravity of this, the horror of this storm. Hi, Cariol. Can you hear me?

CARIOL HORNE: I can hear you.

AMY GOODMAN: Great.

CARIOL HORNE: Are you able —

AMY GOODMAN: We hear you, too. So, if you can talk about what happened to you, how did you got arrested in this storm, and then the seriousness of this storm and the deaths of over 32 people at this point?

CARIOL HORNE: Well, actually, what happened for me to get arrested is that I was driving along one of the major streets, which is Bailey Street, and when I was driving down, I saw a car with a trunk open. And there were people sitting on the ground in the snow, and the police were there. So, I was going to drive past, but, you know, I was saying that’s not right for them to be in the snow, because it was cold. They could get hypothermia. So I don’t know why the police placed them in the snow.

And I went and asked the — well, I got out of my vehicle and went around, and the officer came to me and said, “How can I help you?” And I said, “I know that these people probably were stealing, but you need to get them out of the snow.” And he said that if I didn’t stop impeding his investigation — which I was not — that I would be in the snow. And then he proceeded to point his finger into my face, and then he pushed me.

And then, after that, then I’m not sure what I did. I think I pushed him back. And he picked me up, slammed me on the ground and then arrested me and charged me with those three charges, all because he had people on a cold, wet, snowy, icy ground and didn’t feel like I should have the audacity to ask that they not be on the ground.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Cariol Horne, was it your sense that the officer recognized who you were, or he was just being normally uncivil to any civilian who might question what he was doing?

CARIOL HORNE: I am not sure, because when he first approached me, he was polite, and immediately that changed. Immediately. It’s the culture of the Buffalo Police Department to treat people that way. And that is why I even wrote the law, Cariol’s Law, in the first place, was to try to change the culture.

There’s people in senior citizen buildings. My father is 97 years old, lost power. And for days I couldn’t get to him. And calling the police, they actually said they couldn’t do anything. They were not answering calls. There were dead bodies. There was a dead body on the ground for like two days, and they — they’re just down the street, so how they were not able to get that body, I’m not sure, but it took two days and the persistence of just regular people in order for them to go get that body. And that was only one of the bodies. There were bodies on the expressway in their cars, because they were stuck.

They were not prepared at all in the senior housing, LBJ. I’ve been working with Myles Carter and David Louis, community advocates, and Myles is also a building — I mean, a housing inspector. We went in. There’s water leaking from the ceilings onto electrical lines. I mean, we called the fire department, and they said, well, they knew about it and that BMHA knew about it. And as far as I know, like, they have gone into the building, but they did not evacuate those people at all. So, these people are living in deplorable conditions with no backup generators.

The body count, I think, is more than what they’re saying. If there’s live news crews to come to Buffalo, you should come, because now it’s about to get warm, where the snow is going to melt, and I am sure the body count is going to be up there. The city was ill-prepared, and they basically left people to die. And they’re trying to say people are looting — I mean, not trying to say, because it did happen, but they are trying to mask the fact that they were not prepared and people died because they were not prepared, so now they want the looting to be the top story.

And now they want to lump me in there to make it seem as if I was looting, when they know that I was only asking them to take the people off of the snow, because when you arrest someone, why is — when is it that somebody puts somebody on snow, on ice? You put them in a police car. It’s only commonsense. So, now I have to face three frivolous charges, knowing that I didn’t do anything wrong. But the city of Buffalo has targeted me and my family, and it continues to happen even during this storm, when I was out there helping people because they were not answering calls.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in India Walton to the conversation, as well. Buffalo is famous for having these major snowstorms, although, obviously, this was a far greater blizzard. I wanted your assessment of how the city and the state were prepared or responded, especially considering that Governor Hochul is from Erie County, so if anyone knows the problems with these storms, it is the current governor of New York.

INDIA WALTON: Yeah. Good morning, Juan and Amy. Thanks for having me on.

I think that the city’s handling of the storm has been deplorable. I do applaud Kathy Hochul for a swift response. And I think that her and her collaboration with the county executive is more of a model of what the people of Buffalo and western New York should expect in the collaboration between our state and local government when it comes to at least keeping people informed.

I know that many state resources have come into the area. And I think folks like me, who have basically served as a de facto triage center, where folks calling, DMing, emailing me to get help, we wonder where those resources are going, because it is everyday people, like myself, like Cariol, like the Buffalo Mutual Aid Network, who are delivering food, who are going and rescuing people, who are going on search missions and doing wellness checks. It is the people of Buffalo, the everyday, hard-working folks of this city, who have been taking care of one another.

And there has been an abject failure on the part of our municipal and city government to make sure that those things are being done. In fact, as Cariol alluded to, there’s a lot of victim blaming going on. The story that is being told is about looting, but what I know is that I’m not looting because I am in a comfortable home, I have power, I have food, and I have resources. And when a community is disinvested from and does not have resources, you create the kind of conditions where folks who are already in desperate situations and in needy times feel that more afraid that they won’t be able to get their basic needs met.

AMY GOODMAN: How many warming centers, India, are there in Buffalo with this freezing cold weather? India, can you hear me?

INDIA WALTON: I can now.

AMY GOODMAN: How many — how many warming centers are there in Buffalo?

INDIA WALTON: The city of Buffalo had two warming centers open. And I live very close to a private college. So, it opened its doors, independently of any collaboration with the city. So, you know, there were a lot of private citizens who were opening their homes. But as far as any city-sponsored warming centers, I know of about two. And at one point, there were 30,000 Buffalonians without power, two warming centers open, no public transit, a travel ban and no emergency services. 911 was basically suspended. They said, out of their own mouths publicly, “Don’t even bother calling, because we cannot help you.” And I just don’t understand how folks pay taxes, work hard trying to do the right thing, and still receive this type of treatment.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you something. I mean, you’re in Buffalo Bills territory. Why would we raise this now with this Katrina-like moment in Buffalo? Well, in March, New York officials approved a record-breaking $850 million in public subsidies to help the Buffalo Bills build a new football stadium, the deal including $600 million from the state of New York, $250 million from Erie County. Your thoughts on this, and what kind of money is being spent to prepare for these massive storms, that are increasing?

INDIA WALTON: Buffalo has a public works fleet of snowplows that is inadequate. Those departments remain understaffed. We spend more money on policing than we do making sure we have basic resources. In fact, the Buffalo police were calling for private citizens who own snowmobiles to come help rescue people. Why doesn’t the city have snowmobiles? Why doesn’t the city have smaller equipment? Why doesn’t the city have heavier equipment, right? There are lots of why, why, whys.

But I think that when it comes to spending a billion dollars to fund, you know, a billionaire’s new stadium project, we need to look at the infrastructure of the city. We need to look at why we see photos of literal houses being blown over because we have the oldest housing stock in the nation. We have to look at why people are still with inadequate basic infrastructure, why people have been without power for four or five days. I think that a billion dollars is much better invested in infrastructure, in adequate, safe affordable housing and, you know, other things that keep people truly safe, than it is in our sports team — which I love very much, I’m a huge fan, but I just think that there are many other ways that we can better use our resources than subsidizing folks who could very well build a new stadium themselves if they really wanted that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, India, I wanted to ask you, given the possible warming weather now, your concerns about flooding and how the city will have to deal with flooding?

INDIA WALTON: Yeah. Interesting fact: The automated sump pump was invented in Buffalo.

The weather is warming. We’re already seeing a warming trend. Not only will there be massive flooding, there’s also going to be ice and slick surfaces, slick roads. The conditions, although warmer, are going to continue to be very hazardous. And as of now, I’ve not heard any plan to deal with any of this.

I’m hearing reports of as the snowplows are making it down the street, as people are shoveling out, they are still finding dead bodies. There are just so many things that have gone unaddressed. There are people who have been unable to get to a full-service grocer in five days. There are folks who are hungry, who are cold, you know, people who have been stuck at work for three, four days. There are so many issues, and it seems like there is no plan, no communication. But, as always, you know, we come together as a community and do as best as we can to take care of one another.

AMY GOODMAN: India Walton, we want to thank you for being with us, former Buffalo mayoral candidate and community activist with RootsAction and Working Families Party, and Cariol Horne, the former Buffalo police officer who in 2006 was fired after she stopped a white officer from putting a Black man in a chokehold. In 2020, Buffalo adopted Cariol’s Law to require police to intervene if a fellow officer uses excessive force. She was arrested again during this storm.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, as thousands of Southwest Airlines passengers remain stranded across the United States amidst an unprecedented operational meltdown, we’ll get response from the Southwest Airlines flight attendants’ union and from the president of FlyersRights. Stay with us.

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