Commentary: As violence against protestors escalates, local officials push peace

Martin Gugino, 75, is seen above at left as a Buffalo Police Department officer shoves him as Gugino took part in a non-violent demonstration against police brutality on June 4. Gugino then tumbled to the ground, struck his head on the sidewalk and lay motionless in a pool of his own blood while police continued to detain peaceful protestors in downtown Buffalo’s Niagara Square..

OSWEGO — It may have started in downtown Buffalo but the nation now knows the name of Martin Gugino and saw him become the new, white face of police violence in America.

Protests against systemic law enforcement bias and brutality against people of color — catalyzed by the killing of unarmed black man George Floyd on May 25 — have exploded across the United States in New York City, Atlanta, New Orleans and hundreds if not thousands of other municipalities around the nation.  Protests in Syracuse at points turned contentious last week, but at least locally, upstate New Yorkers had largely been spared their own high-profile  instance of an assault caught on video by a police officer of a peaceful protestor — until Thursday night.

In a video from public radio station WBFO, Gugino is seen approaching a line of helmeted officers holding batons as they clear demonstrators from Niagara Square around the time of an 8 p.m. curfew. Two officers push Gugino backward, and he hits his head on the pavement. Blood spills gruesomely from his ears and pools on the sidewalk as officers walk past. One officer leans down to check on the injured man before he is urged along by another officer. Gugino and the officers all appear to be white, but details of their backgrounds were not released. Two have been suspended.

“Why? Why was that necessary? Where was the threat?” asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo at his daily briefing Friday.

The governor said he spoke to Gugino, who had been hospitalized in serious condition. “It’s just fundamentally offensive and frightening. How did we get to this place?”

A hospital official said the man was “alert and oriented,” according to a Friday morning tweet by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

As video of the incident rocketed around social media Thursday night and Friday, many people of color reacted with an exasperated, “What took you so long?”

The video of the assault on Gugino is shocking for a number reasons: the police aggression, the apathy of the other officers, the blood, the screaming. But maybe the most shocking thing about the entire sad situation is how much it has exposed the difference between caring about a cause and feeling angered to the point of action. For many white Americans, we find nothing controversial about the statement that black lives matter because, yes, ALL lives matter! But this movement, right now, is about police violence against African-Americans, so we’re focusing on their lives in particular at this time. I promise there’s enough to go around.

The disturbing video of George Floyd’s death — which Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is now prosecuting as a murder — was outrageous in its banality. Four Minneapolis police officers, in the course of doing their jobs, ended the life of a black man in the street. It was not dramatic. George Floyd begged for his life, then he was dead. It was, in an extremely depressing way, something we had seen before many times over in many cities over many years.

Think of the names that come and go: Freddy Gray. Eric Garner. Breonna Taylor. Botham Jean. Michael Brown. If you remember anything about those people, it’s probably a vague memory of a newscaster saying their name, or maybe a few details of their cases. Protests against those deaths also filled city streets and prompted cries for reform.

Gugino, of course, is different. He’s old and white, the demographic opposite of the five individuals named above. He’s a new victim. He looks like white America, and we are maybe only now starting to understand how it feels to watch a member of our community nearly murdered by the police  without a hint of reasonable justification or the possibility of justice for the killers. Take a moment and imagine carrying that feeling around all the time, every day of your life, never knowing if your life will be the next to end, or your brother’s, or your sister's, or your grandfather’s. If you can put yourselves in those shoes, you may start to understand the conventional wisdom that a riot is the language of the unheard.

This newspaper editor personally covered the demonstration in Oswego last Sunday when hundreds crowded in front of City Hall to remember George Floyd and protest... what? It wasn’t a protest of The Police. It wasn’t a protest of Murder. It wasn’t a protest of the flag. It wasn’t a protest of violence. It was, however, a protest against the continued violence by some police officers against peaceful people, and the system that protects those officers.

This shouldn’t be a lightning rod opinion.

“We’ve made an effort to get police officers walking the beat, riding bikes, having a regular presence in parks, downtown and in neighborhoods not just  when something goes wrong, but all the time, to foster relationships, improve communication and build trust,” Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow told The Palladium-Times Friday. “That’s important and I think police departments nationwide need to do more of it, particularly in minority communities.”

Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, says he expects the state Legislature to reconvene next week in Albany with an agenda spurred by recent events. Capital observers expect lawmakers to take up a number of measures to change aspects of the criminal justice system. As a limited-government Republican, Barclay says it’s a tough situation to navigate.

“It was horrifying,” Barclay said Friday, referring to the Gugino video. “Everyone’s horrified — Democrat, Republican. Count me as someone that’s right up there with a healthy distrust of government, but we have to recognize that law enforcement does play an important role.”

“Whatever the majority conference comes with, we’ll listen.”

Fulton Mayor Deana Michaels on Friday announced a city police officer who posted racist messages publicly on social media had resigned from the force after an investigation by the city’s Police and Fire Commission. The posts said that “black people” “didn’t care” about the murder of other African-Americans until it is perpetrated by a caucasian.

“There is no tolerance for any behavior that shakes the public trust,” she said. “We’re not going to turn a blind eye and pretend it didn’t happen.”

The center in this discussion has shifted and I would advise everyone to hop on board. It’s not enough to be not racist. This fight affects all of us. Martin Gugino could have been my father, and yours. George Floyd could have been my uncle, or yours. We’re all in this together — and have always been even if it wasn’t easy to see. It’s easy to see now. It’s written in blood on the Buffalo sidewalk.

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