Trump Falsely Targets Buffalo Protester, 75, as ‘Antifa Provocateur’



June 9, 2020

Martin Gugino, right, at a climate change protest last summer. Friends called him gentle.Credit...


It is true, his friends admitted: Martin Gugino is an activist, a seasoned peacenik who in a lifetime of protest has taken part in demonstrations against military drones, climate change, nuclear weapons and police brutality.

But Mr. Gugino is also a football fan, they said, a mild-mannered bachelor and a Buffalo native who returned to his hometown some years ago to care for his ailing mother.

The one thing he is not, however, those who knew him said, is what President Trump suggested he was on Twitter Tuesday morning: a wily Antifa provocateur.

Mr. Trump’s tweet — none of it backed by fact — raced across the internet all day even as Mr. Gugino, 75, still lay in the hospital, recovering from the serious head wound he sustained on Thursday night when two Buffalo police officers shoved him to the ground at a demonstration marking the police killing of George Floyd.

A cellphone video of the encounter has now been seen by millions of people and led to charges being filed against the officers on Saturday.

In the video, a tall and lanky Mr. Gugino can be seen in front of the police with what seems to be a cellphone in his hand. Two of the officers shove him and he falls backward, cracking his head against the ground. As blood seeps out of his right ear, several officers walk by him.

The president’s tweet on Tuesday, which appeared to accuse Mr. Gugino of having instigated or even faked the encounter, was not the first time Mr. Trump has sought to blame Antifa — a word that describes a loose collective of anti-fascist activists — for encouraging what has now become nearly two weeks of nationwide demonstrations.

The president and his allies have often tried to place anti-fascists and other “outside agitators” at the center of the protests as a way to delegitimize them and to deflect from the fact that the vast majority of the demonstrations have been peaceful.

But even by his own standards, Mr. Trump appeared to test the boundaries of credulity by trying to brand a retired septuagenarian computer programmer as a follower of Antifa, whose adherents are, for one thing, generally much younger.

Some Antifa activists, practicing a tactic called Black Bloc, have been known to dress like ninjas and wear masks or balaclavas during protests while shattering windows and scuffling with the police.

Near Buffalo, however, the idea that Mr. Gugino was one of them struck many as absurd.

“Antifa? Oh, heavens no,” said Judy Metzger, 85, a longtime friend who lives near Mr. Gugino in Amherst, a suburb of the city. “Martin is a very gentle, a very pleasant person.”

Born in Buffalo, Mr. Gugino spent most of his working life in Cleveland, where he specialized in creating computer databases, his friends and colleagues said.

He went back to his hometown to care for his mother, and after she died, he lived alone in her home, finding fellowship at the Western New York Peace Center and at other parts of the city’s close-knit left-wing activist community.

John Washington, 35, first met Mr. Gugino at an Occupy Buffalo event in 2011 when both men took to the streets of Niagara Square, the same place where Mr. Gugino was shoved by the police last week.

Mr. Washington was immediately struck by the older man’s vitality and youthful demeanor, and by his command of issues that ranged from energy efficiency to the military prison at Guantánamo Bay.

“He has this kind of thirst for justice,” Mr. Washington said. “He gets very latched onto powerful ideas and tries to really experience them, not just learn them.”

Nate Buckley, a co-owner of the Burning Books bookstore on Connecticut Street in Buffalo, said that Mr. Gugino was a regular customer who often came to hear the speakers in the shop — everyone from figures in the Catholic Worker Movement to Princeton University professors lecturing on race.

“Martin is interested in everything — he’s a very inquisitive person,” Mr. Buckley said. “He’s also a very social person with an active mind who’s always asking questions.”

Mr. Buckley said he was disturbed that Mr. Gugino — “a 75-year-old elder,” as he put it — had effectively been tarred as a thug by Mr. Trump and his supporters.

“He’s one of the most gentle people I know,” Mr. Buckley said. “He’s not aggressive at all. But people make up the most insane stories so they don’t have to deal with reality.”

Mr. Trump’s tweet seems to have been based on a report by One America News Network, a right-wing cable television channel, which claimed that Mr. Gugino had been trying to knock out the police officers’ radios with his cellphone — an idea that several of Mr. Gugino’s friends dismissed as ludicrous.

One America News, based in San Diego, was founded in 2013 by Robert Herring, a California businessman who made a fortune in the technology industry. The network rallied behind Mr. Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and its coverage increasingly shifted to cheerleading on behalf of the president and his administration.

Other conspiracy theories have surrounded Mr. Gugino in recent days on social media, among them that the blood seen leaking from his ear on the video was fake.

Hours after the tweet was posted, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo lashed out at Mr. Trump, saying that he should “apologize” and “show some humanity.” Mr. Cuomo said the tweet was “all made up,” adding that he was shocked the president would accuse Mr. Gugino of being an anti-fascist plant without any evidence.

“You think the blood coming out of his head was staged?” Mr. Cuomo asked, sounding incredulous. “How reckless, how irresponsible.”

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. also denounced the president’s tweet at a virtual fund-raiser Tuesday night with Senator Kamala Harris of California, noting that Mr. Trump tweeted “while George Floyd was being buried.”

“Did you see that? I mean, my lord. What have we become if we abide by this? So much we can do and must do,” Mr. Biden said.

Even some congressional Republicans questioned the post.

Senator Mitt Romney told reporters on Tuesday he thought the tweet was “shocking.” Senator John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said, “It’s a serious accusation, which should only be made with facts and evidence, and I haven’t seen any yet.”

At the end of May, Mr. Trump announced — again on Twitter — that he intended to designate Antifa as “a terrorist organization.” There were, however, two problems with the declaration: The federal government can only designate foreign-based groups as terrorist entities, and anti-fascism is a political idea, like pacifism or communism, not an organization.

With tens of thousands of people marching across the country, it is all but impossible to accurately determine how many Antifa activists have taken part in the protests. But it is definitely clear that they are not playing a leading role in the protests.

Terrence Bisson, a mathematics professor who has known Mr. Gugino for a decade, mostly through the Western New York Peace Center, said his friend would remain in the hospital for weeks. Mr. Gugino was still in a delicate condition, disturbed by bright lights and unable to move his head without tremendous pain, he said.

Sage Green, a former program manager at PUSH Buffalo, a local activist group, said the last time she saw Mr. Gugino was early in the spring when he was asked to critique the presentations of some students in an environmental studies class at the University at Buffalo.

“He was there giving feedback almost in a grandfatherly way,” Ms. Green recalled. “He was telling them they were all doing great work.”

In Ms. Green’s mind, Mr. Gugino was never without a smile on his face or an offer of help on his lips. He could also be astonishingly nerdy, she said, obsessed with wonky subjects like household utility budgets.

But now Mr. Gugino had become something he rarely wanted to be: the center of attention.

“Martin is a piece of the larger story,” Ms. Green said. “All he was doing was going out there to fight for black lives. And that’s something he should be able to do without being targeted as a provocateur.”

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