A Different Kind of Catholic

Martin Gugino’s Witness to Nonviolence
Martin Gugino, 75, of Amherst, N.Y., lies on the ground after he was shoved by two Buffalo police officers June 4, 2020 during a protest against police violence against minorities. A longtime peace activist and a member of the Catholic Worker Movement, Gugino remained hospitalized June 8 in serious but stable condition. (CNS photo/Jamie Quinn/handout via Reuters)

When the Jericho Road Community Health Center asked Martin Gugino to explain why he was a donor, he responded with a passage from the New Testament. “Jesus said to clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty,” he wrote in the Buffalo nonprofit’s newsletter last fall, praising its Vive Shelter for aiding asylum seekers, including a large group of Congolese immigrants.

Now Gugino is under the glare of a much bigger spotlight, known internationally as the seventy-five-year-old protester whom Buffalo police officers pushed to the ground, causing him to bang the back of his head so hard on the pavement that blood flowed immediately from his right ear. He is the subject of one of President Donald Trump’s most asinine tweets—speculation that Gugino faked his injury as an Antifa tactic—and the victim of Trump-inspired conspiracy theorists who wildly distort who he is.

People who actually know Gugino say his Catholic faith is the root of his political activism, and that he’s a gentle man who advocates nonviolence. “He’s a devout Catholic, and really I think part of the reason that the two of us have developed a friendship is because that’s where my own social activism comes from and I recognize it in him,” said Mark Colville, who founded the Amistad Catholic Worker House in New Haven with his wife, Luz. Colville is awaiting sentencing as one of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, the seven peace activists convicted of federal charges for breaking into a nuclear arsenal at the Kings Bay submarine base in Georgia as part of a protest on April 4, 2018.

Colville, who spent more than a year and a half in jail after his arrest, said Gugino contacted him constantly during his confinement. Postcards were the only permissible mail, and Gugino sent him twenty-five a week, “sometimes more,” he said. “He was with me all through the whole pre-trial and trial process.”

Colville said he asked Gugino to serve as a character witness for his sentencing. To prepare, Gugino began making videos, posting them to YouTube so Colville could review them. (They have since been removed from YouTube.) Many of his friends said Gugino has read deeply in both theology and constitutional law, and he used that knowledge to argue that Catholic social teaching justified the Plowshares defendants’ civil disobedience. Gugino also cited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s quotation that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Colville said Gugino added his own twist: the arc “doesn’t bend by itself,” but “we have to bend it.”

Colville said Gugino went with him on long drives to Washington D.C., where they took part in one to two weeks of fasting and protest with Witness Against Torture, which advocates for the shutdown of the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. The group’s origins are in the Catholic Worker movement and, as the Catholic Worker newspaper said in 2006, WAT holds that the jail “degrades the humanity not only of the victims but also of its perpetrators,” adding an appeal “to the soldiers at Guantánamo, our brothers and sisters, to end the torture.”

Jeremy Varon, a history professor at The New School in New York and a “sort of token, secular Jew in this group,” said most members “are coming from a deep place of religious faith. They feel called upon by God to do the work of social justice…. They point out that Jesus himself was the victim of torture. That kind of perspective makes for extraordinary commitment.” Gugino is “right in the heart of that community,” Varon added. It’s not a commitment for the sunshine protester.

The group’s major annual gathering takes place at the most frigid time of year, around January 11, since that is the date in 2002 when detainees first began to arrive at the naval base. The members fast on a liquid-only diet to be in solidarity with Guantánamo detainees, many of whom have gone on hunger strikes as a protest.

Tom Casey, a friend of Gugino from Buffalo who is active in Pax Christi, said Gugino was always among those who rose an hour early (after sleeping on the floor) to take part in a prayer circle “for those of us who wanted to get up.” These ecumenical prayer circles include Bible readings.

For protests, Gugino and other Witness Against Torture members don orange jumpsuits like those Guantánamo detainees wear, and sometimes black hoods. They generally protest outside the White House, chaining themselves to the fence. As Gugino notes on his blog, he has “Four arrests, no convictions.” The news website PolitiFact determined that Gugino’s arrest record was wildly exaggerated in false reports circulated on social media—an attempt to portray him as a violent anarchist who organizes riots “for a living.”

It is true that the Catholic Worker’s founders, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, were not fans of government power. But their understanding of anarchism is not the common one of bomb-throwing radicals. In his biography of Day, former Commonweal managing editor Patrick Jordan cites a 1957 letter in which she explained: “those dreadful words, pacifism and anarchism—when you get right down to it—mean that we try always to love rather than coerce, ‘to be what we want the other fellow to be,’ to be the least, to have no authority over others, to begin…with ourselves.” These “isms” didn’t exist during the lifetime of Saint Francis of Assisi, but this is an apt description of his message as well.

Gugino represents a face of Catholicism that Trump would not know from the Catholics around him, such as Attorney General William Barr or White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. Archbishop Carlo Viganò is Trump’s kind of Catholic: the former papal nuncio to the United States wrote to tell Trump that anti-racism street demonstrations are a tool of the supposed “deep state” effort to defeat him in the presidential election and “to build a world without freedom.”

Vickie Ross, director of the Western New York Peace Center and “very interfaith,” said she came to understand the Catholic Worker movement’s connection to the crucifixion of Jesus, and sees it in Gugino’s outlook. “His commitment to doing the right thing, and his willingness to sacrifice to do that, his service, all of those things are very much in the Catholic tradition,” she said.

What’s more important than living your values?

Gugino has been active on the group’s Latin American Solidarity Committee. “He has strong ideas…often complicated ideas that he was working on, but he didn’t insist on them to other people,” said Terrence Bisson, a member of the committee and a mathematics professor at Canisius College. “He wanted to serve in whatever projects were being worked on.” Bisson said that if money were raised, Gugino wanted to give it away immediately. “If Saint Francis was in a group with you, that’s what he would be saying,” he added. “In my opinion he was the kind of person that was drawing on religion all the time.”

Massachusetts peace activist Christopher Spicer Hankle said Gugino relishes being part of a community that helped him to form his conscience. “I think that was life-giving enough to him, he said. “He was getting out of it a satisfaction…. He’s getting a soul satisfaction.”

Gugino, whose lawyer said he suffered a fractured skull and brain damage from the impact of his fall, is not in a position to give interviews. “He would not want the focus on him,” said Matt Daloisio of Witness Against Torture. “He would rather the focus be on the issues he so dearly cares about.” That’s a common reaction from true political activists, and it appears to be Gugino’s as well. His attorney, Kelly Zarcone, relayed a quote from him: “I think it’s very unnecessary to focus on me. There are plenty of other things to think about besides me.”

Even as he faces serious health concerns, Gugino will also be confronted by continued and hostile scrutiny as the criminal case of the two officers accused of assaulting him moves forward. As a much-viewed WBFO video shows, Gugino walked alone up to a line of officers advancing to clear a plaza of any protesters who remained from a City Hall rally after an 8 p.m. curfew on June 4. Gugino was carrying a helmet, similar to the ones police wore, in his left hand. He had a cellphone in his right hand and gestured with it, within a few inches of an officer’s equipment belt and his holstered service revolver.

From the perspective of police: in that moment, the officers could not have known that Gugino walked a spiritual path as an activist, or that he was a cancer patient. They could, however, have considered his age—and they were charged under a special provision in New York State law for felony assaults on those over sixty-five years old by people at least ten years younger. For such assaults, prosecutors need to prove an intent to cause physical injury, rather than an intent to cause serious physical injury. The law will grind it out finely, starting with a decision by a grand jury on whether to indict the officers, thirty-nine-year-old Aaron Torgalski and thirty-two-year-old Robert McCabe.

One of many chilling aspects of the encounter is not that the officers applied overwhelming force to Gugino, but how quickly they resorted to shoving him as they sought to move ahead without interruption to clear a square that was pretty much empty. When a CBS News reporter asked Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown if the officers were acting on their training, he responded: “One of the things they’re trained to do is to use common sense.” If they believed Gugino was breaking the law—and Gugino is well-schooled on constitutional law involving the right to protest—they could have arrested him without resorting to force. They would not have spilled blood.

As Varon said, Gugino is one of “these kinds of silver-haired warriors” found on the protest scene who are happy to be arrested for their beliefs. “Yes, because they’ve lived these long lives and they realize, yes, I have time. And what’s more important than living your values?”  

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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