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News brief: Buffalo shooting, white replacement theory, COVID deaths near 1 million

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For some in the city of Buffalo, prayer is the only solace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM BROWN: The only one we can lean on is God.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Amen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

BROWN: Because in a few days, all these cameras will leave...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yep, that's the reality.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: That's right.

BROWN: ...And it will just be us.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ten people are dead after a gunman opened fire. The alleged shooter is an 18-year-old white man from a small town more than 200 miles away. He's now in police custody.

MARTIN: NPR's Quil Lawrence is in Buffalo and joins us now. Quil, we just heard A say that this alleged shooter is in police custody. What else can you tell us about the state of the investigation?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Yeah, authorities have confirmed that he was actually picked up by state police a year ago after making some sort of general threat against his hometown high school. They did a mental health evaluation, and he wasn't deemed to be dangerous. He had previously been to Buffalo the day before the shooting, doing some sort of reconnaissance of the scene. And he's now on suicide watch in solitary confinement.

MARTIN: You've been talking to people in that community who've gathered around the Tops grocery store where this all happened. What have you heard?

LAWRENCE: There was a crowded interfaith vigil on the corner of Jefferson Avenue outside of the Tops supermarket yesterday. And Pastor Tim Brown, who you heard earlier, spoke - was one of many preachers to speak - clergyman to speak to the neighborhood, which is on the east side of Main Street, where 85% of Buffalo's Black population lives. And he also spoke about the alleged shooter.

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BROWN: And now on a terrorist attack on our community. And what we need now is unity. The indoctrination of a boy to kill people that don't look like him is only because somebody is having a conversation that divides our people as a race and as humanity.

MARTIN: New York's attorney general, Letitia James, also spoke at the service. Was her message in the same vein?

LAWRENCE: Well, you know, she was the only outside politician who tried - who waded into this crowd. But she was actually shouted down as she started speaking.

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MYLES CARTER: Letitia James hasn't prosecuted the police that were hurting our people. And now she wants to come here and console our people?

LETITIA JAMES: Listen, there's...

CARTER: She has not stood up for Buffalo since she's been in office.

JAMES: There's a lot of pain in this neighborhood, and I understand that.

CARTER: She hasn't stood up for Buffalo since she's been in office.

MARTIN: Wow.

LAWRENCE: So the crowd was sort of divided. Many were calling - you know, to let their guest speak. And James is a leading Black voice in New York. But others seem just tired of hearing promises when these killings just don't stop. And the man who interrupted her, Myles Carter, lived just one street over. And he was at a community meeting when the shooting happened and people started finding out who had died.

CARTER: I've heard a mother cry before when she loses a child, but it's not something that I've ever had to hear over and over and over and over again in one day. And it just - it really just got, like, deep into my soul. Like, I still feel it, and I can still hear everything.

LAWRENCE: He told me he's got five kids and he's afraid, not just of raising them here in Buffalo, but raising them in America today.

MARTIN: The governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, is actually from Buffalo, right? What's been her message?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. Yeah, she was talking about this neighborhood in very familiar terms. And she said that in the long term, she's just going to keep fighting to tighten gun laws, not just in New York, but in the surrounding states where some of these military-style weapons are legal and can be taken across borders. And she said she's also hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court will help New York uphold its gun laws. The court is considering a challenge to New York's strict concealed weapons law.

MARTIN: NPR's Quil Lawrence in Buffalo for us this morning. Thank you, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Rachel.

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MARTIN: So investigators are looking at a statement that the alleged shooter posted online.

MARTINEZ: The 180-page document cites a racist conspiracy theory. This idea has circulated for at least a decade among far-right extremists. And now it's becoming far more mainstream among certain corners in the GOP and also far-right media.

MARTIN: Odette Yousef is NPR's domestic extremism correspondent. She joins me now. Odette, in the spirit of trying to understand something in order to fight it, can you give us an overview of this false theory?

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Well, it's called the great replacement conspiracy theory. And it baselessly claims that a cabal of powerful elites are systematically replacing white people in America with people of color. Now, the term great replacement was coined around 2012, but this conspiracy theory has existed within the organized white supremacist movement for many decades. You know, they've longed claimed - they've long claimed, Rachel, that elites are bringing in immigrants and also promoting interracial marriage to dilute the white population.

MARTIN: It has its roots in antisemitism, right?

YOUSEF: It does. You know, the organized white supremacist movement, at its core, revolves around a conspiratorial belief that Jews control the media, they control Hollywood, they control the banking system, that they wield outsized influence in politics. But it was clear that this conspiracy theory was bleeding out of KKK and neo-Nazi circles in 2017, when, you'll recall, we saw footage of mostly young white men in polo shirts and khakis marching on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, chanting, you will not replace us or Jews will not replace us.

MARTIN: This used to be the stuff, Odette, of the far-right fringe, but it's just not the case anymore. I mean, it's become so much more mainstream.

YOUSEF: It has. And in fact, Rachel, a recent poll finds that now 1 in 3 American adults believes in replacement theory. Matthew Gertz of Media Matters has been following this conspiracy for years. He says initially it was only on fringe neo-Nazi websites.

MATTHEW GERTZ: And then they found their champion. It was Tucker Carlson, who started talking about the same conspiracy theories, night after night. Other hosts at Fox News started doing it, too, and then Republican politicians. And now here we are. It's a mainstream Republican talking point.

YOUSEF: Now, Fox News declined to comment when I reached out to them about this, but it's worth noting that earlier in Fox - in Carlson's time at Fox, the language was crafted more around political theory than race. So he wasn't saying Jews were replacing white people. Instead, he was advancing a baseless theory of voter replacement - this conspiracy that claims that Democrats are replacing so-called native-born Americans with immigrant voters.

But Gertz says you don't have to look too closely to read between the lines there. You know, Carlson focuses more on immigrants from Central America than those from Scandinavia. But he says that framing it as a political conspiracy has made it more palatable to a wider audience that might turn away if the racial subtext were more explicit.

MARTIN: I should ask. In this online document that may be linked to the gunman in Buffalo, was Tucker Carlson or Fox News cited anywhere in this?

YOUSEF: Neither was cited. You know, the author of the document says he was radicalized on the internet, primarily through those kind of fringe websites we spoke about earlier. What's disturbing, though, is that the walls have become so fluid, Rachel, between the violent and racist worldviews you find in those spaces and other conspiracist worldviews that have become more popular recently. So normalizing this can be very dangerous.

MARTIN: NPR's Odette Yousef. Thank you, Odette.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

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MARTIN: The U.S. is on the cusp of another grim pandemic milestone that once seemed unthinkable.

MARTINEZ: Nearly 1 million people have died of COVID-19. That's according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID tracker. And this comes as cases and hospitalizations are again on the rise.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: You got to wonder how many of these deaths could have been prevented by vaccines and other treatments that are now available to us, right?

AUBREY: Yeah. You know, I think the great paradox is that the U.S. has played an outsized role, a huge role in creating the vaccines, the medicines, the way out of the pandemic, thanks to the ingenuity of scientists, vaccine makers. But simultaneously, the U.S. has been hit so hard due to fragmentation and inequalities in our health care system, as well as vaccine hesitancy, often fueled by politically motivated misinformation.

Consider this. I mean, if you tally up the number of unvaccinated people who died from COVID after vaccines were open to all adults last year, it's about 319,000 lives lost.

MARTIN: Wow.

AUBREY: That's according to a Brown University analysis. That's nearly a third of all COVID deaths in the U.S., Rachel - people who could be alive today if they'd gotten vaccinated. I talked to a couple of doctors about this - Nicole Baldwin, a pediatrician in Cincinnati, and Calvin Johnson in Los Angeles.

NICOLE BALDWIN: It's really tragic.

CALVIN JOHNSON: It's just heartbreaking, you know, when it was preventable.

BALDWIN: And I wonder if there's something else we could have done.

JOHNSON: And yet it's not over.

AUBREY: Both Baldwin and Johnson have spent a lot of time tackling vaccine misinformation. They've had some successes, yet they point out only about 30% of kids age 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated. And this comes at a time when cases are rising.

MARTIN: Right. So say more about that. We heard Dr. Johnson say it's not over. Give us a snapshot of what's happening right now.

AUBREY: Well, cases are up about 60% over the last two weeks or so as the virus continues to spread in pretty much every region of the country. Remember, protection from the vaccine can wane. We just spoke about the number of people who remain unvaccinated, and only about half of adults in the U.S. have had a booster. Dr. David Rubin of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia says when you combine this with less masking, a lot more travel, it helps explain the rise.

DAVID RUBIN: It wasn't just the traveling around the holidays and spring break, but it was also the ending of the transit mandates. I think - subsequently, I think we've seen a lot of return of springtime large gatherings - not the smaller gatherings, but, you know, proms, you know, parties, sporting events, et cetera - that are now fully unmasked.

AUBREY: So even though many people talk about the pandemic as past tense, the virus is still very much around and circulating.

MARTIN: So here we are, marking a million people dead from COVID in this country, which is just - there aren't any words. The language is limited to kind of absorb what that means.

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTIN: But as you look forward, what are - what can we expect in the coming weeks?

AUBREY: Well, the number of people hospitalized with COVID has risen about 20% over the last two weeks, and the U.S. is currently averaging about 300 deaths a day. Looking at the CDC tracker now, deaths have been holding steady, not increasing. The hope is that the combination of prior infections and vaccinations, as well as the increased availability of the antiviral medication Paxlovid - that this will help prevent more deaths even as we pass this horrific milestone.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. She has covered this pandemic from the very first day. Allison, we so appreciate you and all your reporting.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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