A video of the assault in front of Buffalo City Hall has now been viewed 1.7 million times on YouTube. A mob of police in body armor (who arrived with an armored car) entered Niagara Square. 75-year old Martin Gugino walked up to one of them and talked to the officer for under five seconds. As another cop repeatedly shouted, “Push him back!” the first cop raised his club crosswise in both hands and used it to shove Gugino in the arm, while a second cop pushed him in the chest with one hand. Gugino stumbled backward then fell, with his head striking the sidewalk.
After knocking him down, police continued forward and formed a line across the street and sidewalk. They arrested another protester who was holding his hands up. When the first cop who pushed Gugino hesitated to examine his injuries, one of his fellow officers grabbed the back of his bulletproof vest and steered him away. Protesters shouted, “He’s bleeding out of his ear!” and “Get a medic!” but the cops did not immediately render first aid. A National Guard soldier marching with the police slung back his tear gas gun and knelt to examine Gugino.
One cop then walked up the steps of City Hall, waved her hand in the camera lens of the reporter who was filming, and ordered him, “Back up, back up, back up. Get off the steps. Let’s go. Get back. Get back!” and forced him to stop filming. Police had already cleared and occupied the whole street.
A Buffalo Police Department spokesperson gave their statement on the events less than an hour later. BPD told the media Gugino “tripped & fell” even though there were perhaps fifty police witnesses and at least five journalists in front of City Hall who observed the incident in broad daylight. The police claimed they arrested five protesters for the “disorderly conduct” of blocking traffic and alleged they intervened in the square after conflicting protesters fought amongst themselves. The statement blamed Gugino’s injury on “this skirmish involving protesters,” of which there is no evidence, and which was nowhere to be seen when he was struck down by cops.
The BPD’s lie fell apart in less than thirty minutes when WBFO-NPR posted the video online. Now that the truth was undeniable, Police Chief Byron Lockwood suspended those two cops and declared the department would carry out an internal “investigation.” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown made a statement that the video “deeply disturbed” him.
However, aside from the assault on the 75-year old man, Brown, who is an African-American Democrat, completely supported BPD. He declared that the protesters had been “participating in an illegal demonstration beyond the curfew.” He said he believed the police’s story that they intervened during a fight between conflicting protesters. And he told the public, “After days of peaceful protests and several meetings between myself, police leadership, and members of the community, tonight’s event is disheartening. I hope to continue to build on the progress we have achieved as we work together to address racial injustice and inequity in the City of Buffalo.”
Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo immediately told the press the recorded assault was “unjustified” and “disgraceful” because “Police officers must enforce — not abuse — the law.” The next day, Cuomo gave a press conference on the issue in which he said, “I think the city should pursue firing” the two assailants within the rules of the police union collective bargaining contract “and I think the District Attorney [i.e. local prosecutor] should look at the situation for possible criminal charges…on an expeditious basis.”
He even suggested cranking “the wheels of justice” faster because, like in Minneapolis, he expects popular questioning of the system. In other words, the ramifications of this event scare him. The governor mused on the fact that people watching the video are beginning to question the intentions of the police, given their assault on a person who obviously did not threaten them in any way and then left him to bleed. He philosophically considered: “You say who are we? How did we get to this place? Incidents of [police] pushing the press. You have incidents of police getting hit with bricks in the head. [Note: this has been a talking point for Donald Trump.] You say, where are we?” Cuomo is concerned that conflict and outrage to do with attacks by police are now impossible to avoid. But this is the same governor who has said the racist NYPD can manage protests in NYC, sent in the National Guard, and imposed the curfew under which the NYPD are arresting thousands of New Yorkers. He even previously mocked protesters’ concerns: “What do you want?!…It’s not enough to come and say I’m angry. I’m frustrated.” Today, he is careful to tell people that violence against the police is as big a problem as violence by the police, which is a lie in every way.
The Police Decide to Defend their Own
On Friday, BPD police officers launched a massive show of support for their two brothers who knocked down Gugino. All of the 57 cops on the “Emergency Response Team” (ERT) anti-riot / anti-protest squad resigned from that unit (but not from their BPD employment) in solidarity with the two cops who pushed Gugino and to protest their suspension. The Buffalo police union (PBA) declared on its website that, “These guys did nothing but do what they were ordered to do. [Their suspension] is disgusting.”
The Buffalo PBA’s president, John Evans, doubled down: “Our position is these officers were simply following orders from Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia to clear the square. It doesn’t specify clear the square of men, 50 and under or 15 to 40. They were simply doing their job.” Evans then shamelessly repeated the lie the BPD told before the video was released. “I don’t know how much contact was made. [Gugino] did slip in my estimation. He fell backwards.”
As police began massive resistance against the mere suspension of two fellow officers guilty of striking down a defenseless elderly man in front of City Hall, BPD police chief Lockwood supported their pro-brutality quasi-strike by making a press statement that participation in the ERT riot police squad was voluntary. Lockwood bullishly declared, “I know that our officers are fully committed to serving and protecting our community” before adding, “I want to reassure our citizens that they will be protected in any peaceful gatherings that ensue.”
Mayor Brown made a toothless and evasive statement that he was “aware of developments related to the work assignments of certain members of the Buffalo police force” and ludicrously promised to “maintain police services and ensure public safety.” Brown’s county counterpart, Mark Poloncarz, was willing to state the obvious, that the ERT cops’ resignations shows “that they did not see anything wrong with the actions last night.”
Dynamics In Motion
The last week in Buffalo reveals dynamics of nationwide importance. Thursday’s brutal and cowardly assault in front of City Hall occurred 24 hours after five BPD cops knelt in supposed “solidarity” with the movement in the exact same spot in front of Wednesday’s protest. They also participated in a moment of silence and gave handshakes and hugs.
But in fact, this gesture of sympathy and promise to oppose racism and respect protesters was part of demanding that people accept an earlier 8 PM curfew imposed on Tuesday.
On Saturday, Buffalo police arrested 18 people from crowds showing their anger against police. The county began a 10:30 PM curfew. According to local station WGRZ, “Officials said the people [arrested during the ‘unrest’] were from outside of the Western New York area [but] records show all of the people arrested are from [Western New York].” Just like in many other cities, officials denied that many people view the police as basically illegitimate. Police and prosecutors are trying to give one local 21-year old, Daniel Hill, seven years in prison for allegedly joining with others to break into a liquor store and then throw bottles at and fistfight police.
Beginning Tuesday, Buffalo moved its curfew forward to 8 PM. That day, the mayor and the chief of BPD came to Niagara Square and spoke to protesters promising they were both committed to working for racial justice. The police chief symbolically knelt in front of the protesters. The planned march was cancelled to listen to them, and the main organizer said the event was now a “solidarity movement” instead of a “protest,” announcing that her organization no longer believed daily protests throughout June were necessary. WGRZ reported that when the 8 PM curfew came, “Law enforcement surrounded the square after the fourth announcement telling people to leave, and the protesters left the square peacefully.”
According to journalist Ali Ingersoll, on Wednesday, the BPD kneeling was explicitly presented as a quid pro quo: “Detective Losi just approached the crowd and told them if the group agrees to disperse at 8pm, no action will be taken against them and the police who are here will come out at 7:55 and kneel with them.”
In short, on Thursday night, a small portion of the Buffalo demonstrators defied the arbitrary curfew and peacefully stayed out on the public town square past 8 PM. Earlier in the day, the Buffalo city council had spit in the face of the movement for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sean Read, Tony McDade, David McAtee and other Black people murdered by the police by voting to maintain the city’s police budget at the same level: $143.3 million. The city council dismissed a call by a community group to cut a mere $1 million from that budget and spend it on more public services in Black and Brown neighborhoods. And the council president said he voted to keep giving police a 30% share of all the city’s money because residents “want good police officers, trained police officers, police officers that care about us.”
The BPD responded to the civil disobedience of Martin Gugino and other protesters who defied the curfew by shoving them down and handcuffing them. The mask that was on when the BDP knelt came loose when two cops assaulted the slim 75-year old. And it came off further when the entire riot squad and the police union (with the tacit support of the police chief) declared they support the attack on Gugino and refuse to tolerate even suspension for two cops who deserve far more than that for aggravated assault and assault on the democratic right to protest.
What has happened in Buffalo is a shocking lab experiment on the structural role and political stance of the police in this racist capitalist society. Buffalo proves:
1. Mayor — Police Chief — Selected Activist Leader roundtables and scripted rallies are
dangerous political posturing.
2. The problem is not “bad cops” but in fact all cops.
3. Both the racist police forces and mayors, including liberal ones, are working hard to physically and politically demobilize this movement so things can go back to “normal.”
4. The decision of numerous police forces to kneel at protests, say they want justice for
victims of cop murder like George Floyd, and smile and shake hands with protesters is
“copaganda” consciously intended to fool and weaken the movement for freedom.
5. Far from “enforcing the law” on everyone, police take every opportunity to use their
wide discretion to assault and oppress.
Speedy recovery to Martin Gugoni who was seriously injured but is now “alert” in the hospital! Fierce response to this affront by everyone protesting the police!