Everybody knows about the second of two violent police attacks on peaceful citizens in Buffalo last week.
On June 4, two members of the Buffalo Police Department Emergency Response Team knocked 75-year-old Martin Gugino to the ground in front of the city hall steps. They were clearing the area of demonstrators, even though city hall had, at that point, been closed for four hours, there were only a few demonstrators, and they weren’t doing anything but standing there.
When he was shoved to the ground, Gugino was just trying to talk to them. He had a helmet in his left hand, a cell phone in his right. After he hit the ground, with blood streaming from his right ear, a policeman went to help him, but a superior officer pushed him away. The line of police moved on, leaving Gugino unconscious on the sidewalk.
The police department and Mayor Byron Brown’s office issued a statement saying Gugino had tripped and fallen. Old guys do that, dontcha know. Unfortunately for the police department and Mayor Brown, long-time WNED (public radio) reporter Mike Desmond was on the city hall steps documenting the entire incident with his smartphone. His brief video has now been seen more than 70 million times on YouTube and countless times on news broadcasts around the world. The story even made The Onion.
Ironically, WNED got the official press release saying that Gugino had tripped and fallen just as Desmond was getting his video out on Twitter.
That required some backtracking and gibberish by Mayor Brown in several TV interviews the next day. The two cops involved in the incident were suspended, whereupon the head of the police union announced that (a) they were innocent of anything, (b) the union would fully support them, and (c) the union would not fund any lawsuits brought against that squad in the future. All other 57 members of the ERT then announced they were quitting the squad. They weren’t giving up their jobs as Buffalo cops, but if nobody was guaranteeing their legal fees, they weren’t going to be ERT cops. Back to writing parking tickets, or whatever.
It was all an attempt to strongarm the city into backing off disciplining the cops who had injured Gugino. That’s what many police unions do. It’s been a problem in Buffalo for decades. A while back, the very competent head of the homicide squad retired; he was replaced, because of union seniority agreements, by someone whose primary experience was in traffic management. Homicide cops were distraught, but they kept their mouths shut.
This time, the union strong-arming didn’t work. Desmond’s video went viral and it was unambiguous. Both cops were charged with felonious assault. When they came out of court after their arraignment, a large crowd of Buffalo cops greeted them with vigorous applause.
When the riot squad quit, two members told reporters it wasn’t because of the suspension of the two officers who’d assaulted Guigino. It was just about the liability insurance. The vigorous applause pretty much put the lie to that. (It reminded me of the time when the New York City PBA had a grudge against Mayor Bill De Blasio. They turned their backs on him at a police funeral and then, in December 2014, they made two-thirds fewer arrests and wrote 94% fewer tickets than they had the previous December.)
Even Donald Trump got into the act. On June 9 he tweeted: “Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than he was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?”
Like most of Trump’s slanderous tweets, he is short on declarative statements, long on questions and conditionals: he says things without owning them: he loves “could be” and quotation marks.
Everything Trump said in that tweet was bullshit, except for Martin Gugino’s name and age. He got it from a fringe news agency he loves, which in turn got the story from someone who also writes for Russian propaganda agencies. Because of the “could be” and quotation mark, Twitter refused to take the lying tweet down.
Had it not been for Mike Desmond’s video, the phony story about Martin Gugino getting his head cracked because of his own elderly balance issues would have stuck and there would have been no story.
Imagine the murder of George Floyd without that nine-minute twelve-second video. We wouldn’t even know his name.
The other Buffalo incident happened a few days before Martin Gugino was knocked to the pavement. There is only a partial video of that. It is a more complex event. There is enough video to have warranted a serious look by the city’s daily newspaper, The Buffalo News, but, except for sports, the paper’s news staff has been sorely cut in recent years, and lately they’ve been furloughing staff on a rotating basis. It was an important story, but there was, apparently, nobody around to go out and do it. Or perhaps the editors didn’t think it interesting.
A group of marchers had gathered at City Hall and walked peacefully toward a police precinct on Bailey Avenue, two miles away. There are photographs along the march by News photographer Sharon Cotillion. The last in her sequence is a policeman in the turret of an armored vehicle; he is holding a huge weapon. The News didn’t assign a report to accompany Cotillion, and none of her published photographs show what I’m going to tell you about now.
Someone on the second floor of a cross-street facing Bailey Avenue made a 28-minute video. (Click here to watch the whole thing.) I don’t know who he is and I cannot understand the language he speaks when he comments to other people near him. In the past decade (until Trump slammed the door) immigrants from several strife-ridden countries have started new lives in Buffalo.
The video shows a line of police along Bailey Avenue. Some are in Buffalo police riot gear; some, probably state police, are in greens. An armored vehicle pulls up behind them. They face a group of benign demonstrators. The demonstrators are holding their arms over their heads, documenting the cops with their smartphones, or taking a knee.
The police precinct where Sharon Cotillion took the photo of the cop in the armored vehicle is around the corner, out of range of the person making the video.
Thirteen minutes and twelve seconds into the video, the police, with snarling dogs, charge the demonstrators and begin clubbing people who, so far as I can tell, were doing nothing other than standing in the street with their arms raised or documenting the moment with their iPhones.
There are popping sounds. Shots? Teargas? Flash grenades? Impossible to tell.
Did something happen down Bailey avenue to the right that invoked the police assault? No video has emerged of that, nor has there been any report of anything happening in front of the police station that might have occasioned that brutal attack.
Then, thirty seconds later, a vehicle enters the frame, coming out of the street where the precinct is. People scatter. Two or three policemen are knocked down or run over by the car.
There are more popping sounds. Police rush down the sidestreet where the video is made with drawn guns and with more snarling dogs.
The Buffalo News would later report that the driver of the car had a bullet wound in her abdomen. The reporter didn’t know if she had been shot before or after the car plowed into the police line. The article also said that a pistol had been found in the car, and since all three occupants of the car had previous felony arrests, they all had been charged with felony possession of a weapon. The article didn’t say whether the driver was attacking the police or fleeing them. At this point, we don’t know what happened around the corner from where that guy on the second floor was making his astonishing 28-minute video. The only local organization with the ability to look into what happened and tell us about it—The Buffalo News—has taken a pass.
All we know is that a line of cops, for no apparent reason, charged a group of apparently peaceful demonstrators and began beating them, after which shots were fired, a car injured three police officers, one seriously, a woman was shot, and three people were arrested.
Someone gave the order to attack, and they did.
That’s two incidents in Buffalo in the space of a few days, both involving citizens not doing much of anything and cops behaving violently.
Both incidents are awful, but, there’s nothing extraordinary about them. In the two weeks since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis we’ve seen
—police in a residential neighborhood in Minneapolis chasing people off their own porches. One cop yells, “Light ‘em up,” and they start shooting paint canisters or gas.
On and on it goes. There’s now a website of people police brutality videos. When I last checked it had footage from Houston, New York City, Las Vegas, Fort Wayne, Minneapolis, Denver, Louisville, and Lincoln, Nebraska. There’s probably more now.
The cops who responded to the demonstrations the past two weeks with gratuitous violence consider us all their enemy. So do the commanders who told them such behavior was permissible or who ordered it outright.
How do we explain this behavior?
Part of it is probably the hardware and the uniforms: over the past twenty years, we’ve permitted an absurd militarization of urban police forces. They have weapons and vehicles designed for military combat. If you’re dressed for military combat, armed for military combat, and provided vehicles suited for military combat, you are missing only one thing: the enemy. Those cops who perpetrated all that gratuitous violence the past two weeks found themselves the enemy they’d been trained to encounter and had perhaps been longing for: us, all of us.
That’s part of it, but it’s not sufficient. I looked through my bookshelves from back in the days when I was doing a lot of writing and research on criminal justice. No help there.
The book that, thus far, offers the most useful insight was in another set of shelves: books on the Holocaust: Christopher R. Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992).
The question Browning sets out to answer is, How could a group of 500 policemen, only a few of them Nazis, most of them working stiffs until they were drafted, take part in an operation that resulted in the deaths of at least 83,000 Jews? What transpired between the time when they were ordinary men in every sense of the word, to the time when they were those guys in those uniforms doing those things?
There’s no comparison between what happened in Europe in those years and what is happening here now. I know that. I’m not trivializing the Holocaust or blowing the past two weeks in America out of all proportion.
But the process that allows ordinary people to inflict purposeful harm on other ordinary people, people who are not threatening or harming anyone—that warrants thought.
Walter Reich’s insightful reviews of Browning’s book, published in the April 12, 2012, edition of the New York Times, contains a paragraph that, with only a few changes, could apply to all of the events I just told you about:
Clearly ordinary human beings are capable of following orders of the most terrible kinds. What stands between civilization and genocide is the respect for the rights and lives of all human beings that societies must struggle to protect. Nazi Germany provided the context, ideological as well as psychological, that allowed the policemen’s actions to happen. Only political systems that recognize the worst possibilities in human nature, but that fashion societies that reward the best, can guard the lives and dignity of all their citizens.
We’ve provided our police with arms that dazzle the imagination. And we’ve given them a job wholly beyond their capacity. It’s long past time for demilitarizing them and addressing directly the blights afflicting American society—racism, poverty, urban decay, corruption at the highest levels of government, and all the rest.
You can’t do that with tanks and clubs.
You can’t do that with a police ideology that envisions itself as an occupying military force. You can’t do that by cracking an old man’s head on the pavement.
You can’t do that with unions that seek privilege and immunity at the expense of justice and service.
You can’t do that with an attorney general who orders police to club and gas peaceful, legal demonstrators in the service of a presidential photo-op featuring an unread Bible.
And you can’t do that by bullshitting on Twitter, even if you’re doing it from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.