BUFFALO—A video of police officers shoving an elderly police activist to the ground, then walking by him as a pool of blood collected around his head, shocked the nation.
Their colleagues? Not so much.
All members of the Buffalo Police Department Emergency Response Team resigned from the unit on Friday in support of the officers who were suspended without pay for their aggression toward Martin Gugino, 75, after curfew the night before.
“Fifty-seven resigned in disgust because of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply executing orders,” Buffalo Police Benevolent Association President John Evans told local station WGRZ. The officers remain on the police force but are no longer on that team.
Erie County Executive Marc Poloncarz said he was “exceptionally disappointed” by the mass resignation. “It indicates to me that they did not see anything wrong with the actions last night,” he said at a press conference.
The New York State Police said it would send additional troopers to the region as the city braced for another night of protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said “contingency plans are in place” to handle the situation, now made even more tense by what happened to Gugino.
Protesters gathered Friday evening in Niagara Square, where Gugino was injured. There was no show of force from city police this time, though four police vehicles did follow marchers as they left the square at 8 p.m. chanting “Fuck the curfew!”
Gugino, who was in serious but stable condition in the hospital, had made no public statements but was still very much on the mind of those who came out.
“I always knew this was happening in my own backyard,” Solomon Harrison, 30, told The Daily Beast. “And the fact that it happened to a 75-year-old white man kinda solidified the specific violence and hatred or the disdain or whatever it is that cops feel towards the people in general.”
J Coley, 28, has been protesting for social justice issues for years but took a break from it and had not taken to the streets after Floyd’s death—until seeing the video of Gugino hitting the concrete.
“I was like OK, I need to go out,” said Coley, who brought water and face masks for fellow demonstrators.
“I thought if they would do this to a 75-year-old white man, they would absolutely do it to me and everyone that I love. So I need to be out here.”
Carolina Martinez, 35, Buffalo bartender, wept as she talked about Gugino and the officers’ mass resignation.
“They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do, and we’re gonna do what we’re gonna do,” she said. “But the world is watching us right now, and if that’s the message that they’re gonna send the world, then I hope everyone knows where we stand and to stand with us!”
The Buffalo Police Department initially reported that Gugino, a longtime peace activist, was injured during protests on Thursday night when he tripped and fell in Niagara Square.
They switched gears after video surfaced showing that he was clearly shoved and fell backward, cracking his head on the ground, causing blood to trickle out of his ear immediately. Officers simply walked past Gugino as he lay motionless.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he got nauseous after seeing the video.
“It was the same feeling I’ve had for 90 of the past nights when I would get the death totals from coronavirus,” he said. “I would physically get sick to my stomach, and when I saw the video I got sick to my stomach.”
Cuomo also said suspension wasn’t enough.
“I think the city should pursue firing, and I think the district attorney should look at the situation for possible criminal charges,” he said.
However, Evans, from the Police Benevolent Association, dug in further on Friday in support of the officers.
“Our position is these officers were simply following orders from Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia to clear the square,” he told The Buffalo News. “It doesn’t specify clear the square of men 50 and under, or 14 to 40. They were simply doing their job. I don’t know how much contact was made. He did slip in my estimation. He fell backwards.”
The incident in Buffalo happened against a backdrop of aggressive behavior by police around the nation—from the tear gassing of peaceful protesters to clear space for President Donald Trump in Washington to footage of NYPD officers, including supervisors, taking batons to demonstrators out past curfew.
Gugino was out after curfew in Buffalo “because he feels that our civil liberties are so in danger, which they most certainly are,” Vicki Ross of the New York Peace Center and Latin American Solidarity Committee told the Associated Press.
She said Gugino was involved with the center and “is a peaceable person.”
“There is no way that he was doing anything to accost or hurt,” she said.
On his Twitter feed in recent says, Gugino objected to the curfews for protesters and cops’ efforts to enforce them, writing at one point, “fuck the police.”
“The cops should not have clubs. And should not be in riot gear. The National Guard should arrest the police,” he tweeted earlier this week.