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Relatives honor Ruth Whitfield, 86, as a devoted mom, wife and grandmother

Attorney Benjamin Crump, accompanied by the family of Ruth Whitfield, a victim of shooting at a supermarket, speaks with members of the media during a news conference in Buffalo, N.Y., on Monday.
Matt Rourke
Attorney Benjamin Crump, accompanied by the family of Ruth Whitfield, a victim of shooting at a supermarket, speaks with members of the media during a news conference in Buffalo, N.Y., on Monday.

Relatives of Buffalo shooting victim Ruth Whitfield paid tribute to their family matriarch and called for policy changes in her memory at an emotional press conference on Monday.

Whitfield's children and grandchildren shared treasured memories and calls to action at the event with their legal team, which is led by prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump.

Crump described her as "a great lady, a hero for this community [and] an angel for her family," including her four children and husband of 68 years, who has lived in a nearby nursing home for nearly a decade.

Whitfield visited the nursing home every day to care for her husband, and had stopped at the Tops grocery store on her way home from there on Saturday.

"When she didn't feel like it she did it, and she didn't feel like it on this past day either, but she did it anyway," her son Garnell Whitfield, Jr. said, referring to her daily visits. "She left there to get groceries on the way home, and she encountered this evil, hateful — she didn't deserve that ... Nobody deserves that."

Crump and his associates described Saturday's attack as an act of domestic terrorism by a white supremacist, referring to the racist writings reportedly written by the alleged gunman. They said it is not enough just to hold the suspect accountable, adding that there is a need to address the root of the problem by holding responsible the people who "curate" hate in environments like the internet and cable television.

Crump, who is known for representing many families of Black Americans killed by the police, said the tragedy creates an opportunity for positive change, which he said Whitfields' spirit commands.

He specifically urged federal lawmakers to renew stalled efforts to pass an anti-Black hate crime bill, similar to the Anti-Asian hate crime legislation that President Biden signed into law last May.

"[Whitfield's] family will define her legacy, her family will remember her for the love that she instilled in them, in this community and in this world," Crump said at one point. "Her legacy will be a legacy for love, not hate."

Whitfield took care of her husband, who still hasn't learned the news

Whitfield, Jr., a former Buffalo fire commissioner, described his mother as the glue who held his family together. She loved her family unconditionally and sacrified everything for them "even when she had nothing else to give," he said.

He added that his father still doesn't know about her killing.

"How do we tell him the love of his life — his primary caretaker, the person who kept him alive for the last eight years — how do we tell him that she's gone?" he said. "Not just that she's gone, but that she's gone at the hands of a white supremacist, of a terrorist, of an evil person who's allowed to live among us and keep perpetuating this mess. How do we tell him that?"

In a Monday appearance on CBS Mornings, Whitfield said his family is still working through questions like whether he should attend the memorial service and how to care for him in the way his mother would have wanted.

He also mentioned that he tried to reach his mom upon hearing about the shooting on Saturday, knowing that the nursing home is blocks away from the supermarket. He learned that she was among the victims when he went down to the store to help and saw her car in the parking lot.

Whitfield loved camping, cooking and time with her family

Whitfield's family members took turns sharing tributes and pleas at the press conference, with many saying that they hadn't planned to speak but felt compelled to honor her memory and push for change.

Whitfield Jr. said it was not an easy decision to go public.

"We're a private family," he explained. "But how else could we honor our mother, how else could we uphold the things she put in us, the things she beleived in? How else could we do that?"

One of Whitfield's daughters, Angela, described her mother as "an 86-year-old powerhouse," adding, "She was beautiful, she was immaculate, and she loved us.

Her youngest son, Raymond, called her "unapologetically an African American princess" who taught her children to be proud of their identity.

Another daughter, Robin, said Whitfield was not just her mom but her best friend, and reflected on the time they spent time fishing and camping together. She ended her tribute by asking the shooter: "How dare you?"

One of Whitfield's granddaughters, Kamila, spoke, describing her grandmother as "devoted" and sharing some of her other qualities.

Whitfield loved cooking big meals and hosting her family for Sunday dinner, she said, mentioning macaroni and cheese and poundcakes as standout dishes. She also made sure to always look her best and loved shopping, not hesitating to bring home an accessory or item of clothing that she thought would suit her family members.

She was also someone people could talk to without fear of judgement, she added, a good listener who "would choose her words wisely before she responded and speak love into any situation you had going on."

Kamilah added that her grandmother — who was also her downstairs neighbor — was building a "beautiful relationship" with her 17-month-old baby, who would knock on her door for a hug or kiss every time they came and went.

"I just try to walk so fast in and out the house now, so that she doesn't try to stop," she said tearfully.

Her family members don't want others to be in their position

Crump and Whitfield's relatives framed her killing as part of a much bigger pattern, and urged their audience to treat it as more than just a headline.

"This is not just some story to drive the news cycle," Whitfield Jr. said at the press conference. "This is our mother, this is our lives ... Help us change this, this can't keep happening."

Raymond, spoke of the guilt of not being able to protect his mother on Saturday. He said he felt an extra weight on his shoulders because him and his parents had moved back to Buffalo from California, where they had gone for his job.

He remarked that his mom would watch the news religiously, "fretting for the world."

"Many times I sat with her watching, and too many times we watched this man fight these same battles with other families standing behind him trying to fight back tears," he added, referring to Crump.

In the past, when the press briefings ended, they would wipe away their tears and go on with their day, he said. But this time, there's "no walking on with life."

"So I say to you, what are you willing to do so that the next time it's not you standing here before your broken-hearted family?" he asked those listening. "What are you willing to do?"

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.