Did the Mayor of Buffalo Call 75-year-old Martin Gugino ‘an Agitator’?

Amid criticism of his local police department for its treatment of 75-year-old Martin Gugino that was captured on video and spread online, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown further inflamed the situation by attempting to smear the victim by implying he deserved to be shoved down and left on the ground as his head and ear bled onto the sidewalk.

“What we were informed of was that that individual was an agitator,” Brown claimed during a news conference on June 5, 2020. “He was trying to spark up the crowd of people. Those people were there into the darkness. Our concern is when it gets dark, there is a potential for violence. There has been vandalism, there have been fires set, there have been stores broken into and looted. According to what was reported to me, that individual was a key and major instigator of people engaging in those activities.”

Besides being reported by local outlets like WREN-AM, the accusation was amplified when it was picked up by bigger outlets like Gothamist and The Daily Beast, among others. Brown’s remark spread even further when it was picked up by “@USAProtests,” a Twitter account with more than 26,000 followers:

BREAKING: Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown claims that the 75-year-old protestor violently pushed to the ground by two police officers was an “agitator” and a “key and major instigator” of activities such as vandalism and looting

— US Protests: News & Updates (@USAProtests) June 6, 2020

Brown’s claim that Gugino is an “agitator” is the latest verbal attack on Gugino since he was pushed to the pavement at Niagara Square in Buffalo on June 4 2020. Authorities initially said that Gugino “tripped and fell.” However, footage shot by WBFO-TV soon spread of Gugino peaceably approaching two officers who were part of larger group in riot gear, who then shoved him to the ground.

Just about an hour ago, police officers shove man in Niagara Square to the ground (WARNING: Graphic). Video from: @MikeDesmondWBFO pic.twitter.com/JBKQLvzfET

— WBFO (@WBFO) June 5, 2020

In describing the incident, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said:

The officer who pushed the individual down, I think he realized right away the gentleman was severely hurt, and it looked like he was reaching down to help him. And then his superior seemed to push him to go forward. That one action, I hope, does not destroy the efforts of so many to reach that agreement for all, that we can work together.

By comparison, Brown said that Gugino “was asked to leave numerous times last night. He was in the area after the curfew. One of the things that happened before that incident is, there were conflicts between protesters. There was a danger of fights breaking out between protesters. The police felt it was very important to clear that scene for the safety of protesters.”

Brown’s administration has not released any evidence supporting his claim. Gugino is a longtime member of the Amistad Catholic Worker charity group. According to Spectrum News, he is also a member of several other advocacy groups, such as the Western New York Peace Center. And the Buffalo News reported that Gugino had criticized the mayor in a letter to the newspaper in 2019, and also had criticized the local curfew — just a day before he was pushed to the pavement by the officers.

“Protests are exempt from curfews because Congress (and mayors) may make no laws that abridge the right of the people peaceably to assemble and complain to the government,” Gugino wrote on his Twitter account. “The government should receive the complaint with thanks, not arrest the people or beat them.”

Father James J. Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit publication America, highlighted Gugino’s work on his own Twitter account:

#MartinGugino, the 75 year old man knocked to the ground by police in Buffalo, is a longtime peace activist and volunteer at the Catholic Worker, a movement dedicated to justice and peace, founded by Servant of God Dorothy Day, who also took to the streets to advocate for justice pic.twitter.com/9SxDS0705Y

— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) June 6, 2020

Gugino is reportedly listed in serious but stable condition at a local hospital. His encounter with the officers has become the latest flashpoint in a series of Black Lives Matter movement protests around the United States and internationally against police brutality in response to the extrajudicial killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and Tony McDade in Florida, among many more victims.

Two officers, 32-year-old Robert McCabe and 39-year-old Aaron Torgalski, have been charged with second-degree assault in connection with the incident. They were also suspended without pay. Shortly thereafter, 57 members of the department’s “Emergency Response Team” resigned from their position, though not the police force itself, which the officers’ union, the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association (PBA) initially described as a show of solidarity with the two suspects.

However, at least two officers from that team have claimed otherwise, telling WKBW-TV that they actually resigned because the PBA declined to pay legal fees for members of that team or the department’s SWAT unit. According to an email obtained by the station, BPA president John Evans said the union reached its decision to protect a “sound financial structure” for the group and suggested that Brown was targeting them.

“This Admin in conjunction with DA John Flynn and or [US Attorney] JP Kennedy could put a serious dent in the PBA’s funds,” Evans wrote, adding “OVER BULLSHIT” in capital letters.

The two officers, who requested anonymity, rebuffed Evans’ message to the public that the mass resignation was a show of support for the two suspects.

“We quit because our union said [they] aren’t legally backing us anymore,” one said. “So why would we stand on a line for the City with no legal backing if something [were to] happen? Has nothing to do with us supporting.”

The two suspects were, however, also greeted by a cheering crowd that included fellow officers following their arraignment, footage of which has also spread online:

Buffalo police officers applauded by their colleagues as they leave the courthouse pic.twitter.com/t9DGC07ijZ

— Acyn Torabi (@Acyn) June 6, 2020

The attention and criticism surrounding the incident has set up a clash between local and state leadership; the state attorney general called the two officers’ actions “horrific display of abuse and lack of concern for New Yorkers.” Governor Andrew Cuomo — who has also been criticized for his denials of apparent abuses on the part of New York City police — called the incident “frightening.”

“Let’s focus on the facts. What we saw on that video is abuse and we must put a stop to this kind of abuse. Enough is enough,” he wrote on Twitter. “In this moment change is possible. New York will be at the forefront.”

But Brown — who is Black — has resisted calls to fire the two suspects, saying he didn’t “want to jump ahead of that investigation.” And John Evans, who heads the PBA, has maintained that the suspects were “simply following orders from Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia” in their treatment of Gugino.

“It doesn’t specify clear the square of men, 50 and under or 15 to 40,” he said. “They were simply doing their job. I don’t know how much contact was made. He did slip in my estimation. He fell backwards.”

On June 11 2020, Brown appeared on local radio station WBEN to address the June 8 press conference, saying that his comments about “that individual” were not about Martin Gugino, but about another incident involving state police that day in Buffalo:

“I did not ever call Mr. Gugino an agitator,” said Brown as he clarified that his remarks during a Friday new conference aired LIVE on WBEN were in relation to a separate incident on Bailey Avenue involving New York State Troopers.

“Everyone, in a situation like this, whether it’s the media or law enforcement, whether it is members of the community, can make a mistake because things are heppening so quickly.”

WBEN regrets the error which led to other news agencies repeating the report.

“I thank you for giving me the opportunity to correct that record,” stated Brown on WBEN.

In light of this “clarification” and the lack of clarity around Brown’s initial statements, we have changed our truth rating from “True” to “Unknown.”

Update June 8 2020, 2:16 pm PST: Updated with comments attributed to former members of the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team.

Update June 11 2020, 4:18 pm PST: Updated with later comments from the mayor; changed truth rating from “True” to “Unknown.”