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Long Story Short: Still reeling

6/8/20



Last week's weather brought devastation to gardens across WNY.

 

Buffalo's BLM protests draw international attention

Birmingham. Selma. Buffalo.

 

Cities across the country are engaged in an ongoing uprising against systemic police abuse of people of color. But in what is shaping up to be a historic milestone in the multigenerational battle for social justice, Buffalo was catapulted into the international spotlight Thursday night.

 

That’s when global news and social media became saturated with the blood-stained footage of longtime Amherst peace activist Martin Gugino, as he fell to the ground after being shoved by police, incurring a serious head injury. Suddenly, the thirty-nine second video was everywhere, from newscasts to Stephen Colbert. Within twenty-four hours, the video was viewed on YouTube more than 69 million times.  

 

This was a defining moment in the protests that have rocked the country for nearly two weeks since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. It is perhaps the most graphic documentation of an act of police brutality since the death of Floyd himself, showing seventy-five-year-old Gugino unconscious on the ground, blood streaming from his ear and pooling under his head. It’s hard to view this video—along with other recordings of law enforcement abuse across the country—and not come away with the belief that police culture in America is fundamentally flawed.

 

The Gugino recording

The stunningly abrupt incident involving Gugino begins when the seventy-five-year-old man walks up to a line of riot police, possibly to return an officer’s helmet that he was holding. Acquaintances say Gugino is a “gentle person,” not one to physically resist police orders. He verbally engages one officer for a moment. Then that officer—identified as Aaron Torgalski —and another—identified as Robert McCabe—abruptly and simultaneously shove the elderly man backward, as a third prods them from behind. Gugino sails backward, falling out of view of the camera. He’s next seen unconscious and bleeding on the concrete ground.  

 

What happens then is in some ways even more troubling. McCabe begins to respond as any normal human would, reaching down to attend to Guidino. It’s an instinctive expression of compassion that ends abruptly when an officer behind him literally yanks McCabe up, redirecting him forward. You see McCabe snap back to reality, tersely resuming his role as an actor in a precisely orchestrated performance.  

 

Gugino lays on the ground, as police pace and close ranks while determining how to respond. An officer yells “get back” at concerned protesters, who respond with, “He’s bleeding out of his ear,” and, “Get a medic.” In a matter of seconds, police call for an ambulance then dispassionately resume their march, arresting another man standing alone with his arms raised in a nonviolent gesture.

 

In that short video, much of what is wrong with American law enforcement comes into stark focus: police militarization, overzealous enforcement, institutionalized indifference, failure to self-regulate, and the repression of empathy. Until the video, shot by public radio station WBFO's Mike Desmond,  surfaced, authorities claimed Gugino had tripped. This, even though dozens of witnesses were present. Imagine, then, how inaccurate police reports could be when no one is around to record events.

 

Perhaps due to the recent prevalence of such recordings, white America is increasingly waking up to a reality black Americans know all too well. A New York Times article states, “In a Monmouth University poll released this week, 76 percent of Americans—including 71 percent of white people—called racism and discrimination ‘a big problem’ in the United States. That’s a 26-percentage-point spike since 2015. In the poll, 57 percent of Americans said demonstrators’ anger was fully justified, and another 21 percent called it somewhat justified.”

 

Torgalski and McCabe were suspended without pay. The entire Buffalo Police Department Emergency Response Team subsequently resigned from the unit. Many assume this was done in support of the two suspended officers, but there is also the fact that the police union, the Police Benevolent Association, has indicated it would not provide funds for the legal defense of officers charged after actions during protests. On Saturday, Torgalski and McCabe were charged with second-degree assault.  

 

For those who question whether large raucous protests are effective at instigating change, consider Buffalo’s history of questionable police actions swept under the rug. Is there any doubt that the two officers would not have been suspended, much less charged, under normal circumstances? But these aren’t normal circumstances. Americans demand a new normal, where police are held accountable.

 

Not an easy job

Being a police officer is dangerous and taxing work, even under ordinary conditions. The usual duress police experience on the job has been dramatically intensified during the current protests. In Buffalo, three officers were seriously injured when an SUV broke through a barricade and plowed into a group of officers. Elsewhere, the police chief of Moline Acres, Missouri was killed while checking on a pawn shop during riots. A Las Vegas police officer was in critical condition last Monday after being shot while attempting to disperse protesters. In New York City, an officer was attacked with a heavy object by a group of men. Four cops were shot in St. Louis. Police everywhere are on heightened alert. Buffalo police have been working extended hours for many days straight. The emotional strain is enormous.

 

The good, the bad, and the rotten

There are many decent people in the law enforcement profession. I’ve personally known five officers in my lifetime, all ethical and caring people who entered the field for the right reasons. One was my student at Buffalo State. She asked that I not mention her profession to the class, aware that she would be harshly stereotyped by some other students. Many black and brown officers were themselves treated brutally by police growing up and entered law enforcement to be agents of change.

 

Of course, there are the proverbial bad apples, the ones drawn to power and the authority it carries, for whom domination is the allure. A high school bully I went to school with went on to become a state trooper. It came as no surprise to me. Among the bad apples, there are some who are truly rotten: corrupt, relentlessly cruel, nauseatingly obnoxious. But what percentage? Ten? Fifty? No one knows, partly due to the confidentiality of police disciplinary histories.  

 

It’s the training

Police are taught to respond to events with a set of prescribed tactics. Officers at protests are following policies and procedures established by their supervisors. In a recent Buffalo News article, Maria Haberfield is described as a police science professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who served in the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel National Police. She’s written many articles about police training, integrity, and leadership.

 

Haberfeld has this to say about the Gugino incident: “I’m sorry, it’s unfortunate. But from the standpoint of tactics, I am very disappointed that the officers were suspended—very, very disappointed." Haberfeld says the police were in a line to move the crowd back, an established tactic that most police forces are trained to use. “Then the lanky man now known to be Gugino appeared and tried to talk to a few of them, slowing their progress,” she says. “It's very unfortunate that this individual did not comply, did not move back.”

 

Reacting correctly

As a public-school teacher, I sometimes had to address student disruptions, fights, and other reckless misbehavior. In the heat of the moment, adrenalin kicks in. I didn’t always handle things exactly as I wish I had. Police are trained to control emotions, stay calm. But I can’t imagine the pounding one’s psyche takes, facing angry and belligerent protestors hurling continuous insults and base provocations.

 

Not all alike

Unfortunately, our impressions of police are often colored by the bad apples: video of officers in New Jersey beating protestors with truncheons, an L.A. officer swinging a baton like a baseball bat at full force, and frenzied melees involving police in Indianapolis, Chicago, and Philadelphia.   

 

But there are times when police have found ways to support protestors. In Camden, New Jersey, officers locked arms with activists and marched alongside them. In Flint, Michigan, the Genesee County sheriff removed his riot gear, laid down his weapons and embraced protesters. In many cities, including Buffalo, police took a knee along with protestors. It’s not as simple as one side being entirely corrupted, the other side wholly righteous.

 

The takeaway:

The United States has seemingly arrived at the point where systemic police abuse will no longer be tolerated. A sea change is taking place, prompted by a civic rebellion. Americans are demanding better training to radically transform the culture of law enforcement. It’s no longer enough to simply eliminate the bad apples; the diseased tree from which the apples sprout must be uprooted.  

 

 

Weather whiplash

Let’s review.

 

On Saturday, May 9, the low temperature in Buffalo was 29 degrees, which tied a record from 1947. It was the first of three record-matching low temperatures in May. We also got three-tenths of an inch of snow that day, the first measurable May snowfall in thirty-one years. On May 12, the low temperature of 31 degrees matched a 113-year-old record, and the 30-degree low the next day equaled a 125-year old record. Readers may recall the Facebook pictures of snow-covered lawns, accompanied by awe-filled comments, though it seems long ago now.

 

This cold snap came on the heels of the ninth warmest winter on record in Buffalo. So, when it arrived, some gardeners, who had been lulled into a false sense of security by a temperate winter, scrambled to protect newly planted seedlings and other delicate flora.

 

It wasn’t just Buffalo that experienced unseasonable cold weather. Record lows were set in Binghamton, N.Y. (24 degrees); Fort Wayne, Indiana (23 degrees), and Indianapolis (27 degrees). New York, Chicago, Indianapolis, and cities across the eastern US were hit with record or near record cold. Given the frigid temperatures, Western New Yorkers were disheartened by what seemed like an endless winter.

 

But then:

Thirteen days after breaking the 125-year old low temperature, Buffalo smashed a record from 1944 as the mercury reached 93 degrees. That’s hot for any day in Buffalo, and a full five degrees sultrier than the old high for the date. In less than two weeks, the temperature spanned sixty-four-degrees.

 

People, who had not yet acclimated to high temperatures sweltered in the heat. Furnaces were turned off and air conditioners almost immediately went on. During the cold snap two weeks earlier, people were impatiently awaiting the arrival of summer. But they didn’t expect it all in one day.

 

After this meteorological mood swing, Buffalo fell back to more seasonal May weather, mild and rainy, good for starting gardens.

 

If you don't like the weather in Buffalo…

Eight days after the record heat, around 11 p.m. last Tuesday, the sky north of Buffalo put on a light show like something from a Phish concert. Nonstop thunder and lightning slowly rolled into the city, bringing with it hail as big as golf balls driven by sixty-mile-per-hour winds. That was followed by a thirty-minute deluge, as sheets of rain overwhelmed storm sewers. Cars in low-lying roads were submerged, and basements flooded.

 

The hail hit in isolated areas, and at different times of day, with some neighborhoods getting the full brunt of the storm, while others were completely spared. Gardeners in the strike zones—many of whom had just planted (or replanted) after the cold snap—experienced devastating damage. Broad leaf plants like hostas were particularly susceptible to the icy pummeling.

 

There’s a quote by Mark Twain that Buffalonians sometimes appropriate: “If you don't like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” This year, that could be modified to read: If you don’t like the weather in Buffalo, just wait; it’ll get worse.

 

 

Why ?

During these trying times, it’s somehow reassuring to know that kids are still kids. WIVB recently ran a fluff story on Niagara Falls High School seniors picking up their caps and gowns, even though there will be no graduation ceremony due to COVID-19. The students lined up in cars for drive-thru pickup, as mask-wearing staff handed out the ceremonial garments.

 

After donning the outfits for a photo that will never be viewed again—except maybe on social media in thirty years for a laugh—these otherwise useless items will go into a closet and be forgotten. Along with school rings and prom dresses, caps and gowns are among the most wasteful expenditures of the high school experience. The class of 2020 had the perfect opportunity to avoid this expense, but students love these rite of passage customs for some reason.

 

One young woman says that just being able to have her own cap and gown is reward for all the hard work of high school. Really? We thought the reward for education is knowledge and opportunity, not single-use polyester garments. But who are we to say? If we still have Halloween in October, maybe students can go as pandemic graduates. 

 

 

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

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