Buffalo’s Police Brutality Didn’t Start with Martin Gugino

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Buffalo protest

Protesters march through Buffalo, New York in response to George Floyd’s death. (Hsa htaw / Shutterstock)

BUFFALO. On June 4, two cops shoved this segregated and poor city into the center of the month-long national uprising precipitated by the killing of George Floyd.

The spotlight—the harsh glare which erases nuance—has moved on to new outrages in bigger cities. The local aftermath has fallen into familiar and frustrating tropes: police circling the wagons; a package of ill-defined reform proposals; and attempts at scapegoating that serve politics rather than progress.

The particulars of the incident have been well covered:

Shortly after 8 p.m. that night, the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team was ordered to clear the square in front of city hall. In response to unruly protests the weekend before—some isolated vandalism on the city’s relatively affluent and predominantly white West Side, a violent and chaotic police charge on the city’s predominantly black East Side—Mayor Byron Brown had imposed a weeklong curfew.

As they had each night that week, a handful of protesters, all of them peaceful, took their time complying.

Among them was Martin Gugino, 75, a Catholic Worker active with the Western New York Peace Center. Gugino, a motorcycle helmet in one hand and a cellphone in the other, stood before the ERT’s advancing line, engaging a couple of cops—maybe taunting them, maybe asking questions, definitely too close for comfort.

One of the cops, Aaron Torgalski, cross-checked Gugino with his club. Another, Robert McCabe, shoved Gugino with one hand. Gugino fell backward, struck his head on the pavement, and began bleeding from one ear. He lay stiff and still, except for his fingers, which curled and uncurled eerily. His skull was fractured.

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Torgalski, McCabe and other ERT members marched past Gugino’s prone body. One broke ranks momentarily, intending to see to Gugino. He was stopped by another officer, John Losi, who pulled the errant cop back into line. Just the day before Losi had made local news by taking a knee in Niagara Square with protestors—the first Buffalo cop to take part in that symbolic ritual. He’d presented the act as a transaction: I’ll kneel with you if you want me to, Losi told demonstrators, if in exchange you’ll clear out at curfew.

No such bargain was on offer the following evening.

New York State Police medics, following ERT’s advance, put Gugino into an ambulance, which took him to a trauma center. Two weeks later, he remains hospitalized.

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