I don’t wish to spend much time deconstructing what was going on in the president’s mind.
Better to examine the downstream effects of his pantomime as it was echoed and reenacted in the pushing aside of other
peaceful protesters in other places in the days that followed.
For all the genuinely moving moments of police kneeling and thoughtful engagement in the complexity of dissent,
there seemed to be a clear national uptick after June 1 in police throwing demonstrators to the ground,
beating marchers, attacking journalists and photographers, spraying tear gas in onlookers’ faces,
and threatening protesters with moving vehicles.
Consider one particularly visible and vexed case: On June 4, 75-year-old Martin Gugino, a Catholic peace activist, was
shoved by members of the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team.
Gugino stumbled backward and fell, hard, onto the pavement, fracturing his skull.
He lay there with blood flowing profusely in a pool around his head.
Later, after help finally came, he was hospitalized (and remained so two weeks later, in serious condition).
But remarkably, help was not immediately forthcoming.
A spectator with a smartphone captured the episode; the video showed an entire squadron of police, including the officers
who shoved him, walking past Gugino’s supine form.
Not one of them came to his aid. Instead they moved on like a school of fish or a pack of wild horses gliding around a big
stump in the ground. It is a shocking video.
The push itself was both brutal and careless, the response even more so.
Yet there was a notable moment in the video when one officer hesitated, seemed to waver.
But just then, another officer put his hand on his shoulder and signaled him to keep moving.
That brief turn toward the injured man was the tiniest shimmer of movement, lost as quickly as it came, as the herd moved on.
I remark on that small hesitation because it occurred at the instant in this narrative when Themis might reasonably have
This was the moment of crisis when the internalized voices of our leaders, mentors, teachers, and friends should insert
themselves for a nudge toward goodness.
It is precisely the instant when one might wish for better angels rather than avenging scolds to intervene.
This is the situation in which lessons in the basic skills of deescalation might assert their value as those inner advisory
voices, that second nature.
Take your knee off his neck.
Don’t step over an unconscious body in your role as a guardian of public safety.
Indeed, in the video, the officers seemed transfixed by the groupthink of staying together, an orderliness that overrode
kindness or common sense.
It looked as though they were pursuing a mission unrelated to the fate of members of the public and had forgotten what they
were there to do.
Too busy to look down or look back, they couldn’t stop to heal or to recognize actual vulnerable civilian circumstance as part
of their charge.
This brusque triage of concern is the downstream application of a state of mind that treats public ground as a “battle space,”
as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper urged the governors during the group phone call of June 1.
That logic of war was made even more apparent in short order:
After the two officers who shoved Gugino were suspended and charged with second-degree assault,
the entire Emergency Response Team—some 57 officers—resigned “in disgust” to protest the “mistreatment”
of their brethren.
As John Evans, the president of the local Police Benevolent Association, told The Buffalo News, “Our position is these
officers were simply following orders from Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia to clear the square…. 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.”
It is easy to pick up on the casual cruelty of those individuals who are just “following orders.”
What is subtler and more complex is the corollary, expressed by Roger Berkowitz in a New York Times reflection on Hannah
Arendt’s portrayal of Adolf Eichmann.
Berkowitz wrote that the harder cases are those when people act “not as a robotic bureaucrat, but as part of a movement.”
They “commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement…. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits
idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the
name of saving the world.”
As though to complete the circle and reinforce this ethic of good-soldierly dominance, Trump lost no time endorsing the
Buffalo officers’ mass resignation, tweeting a completely unsubstantiated theory that Gugino “could be an ANTIFA
(This is not an accusation to be taken lightly; in declaring those associated with antifa as terrorists,
Trump potentially subjects them not only to oversight by police but also to much-harder-to-trace surveillance
and interference by the FBI, CIA, and other spy agencies.)
The president’s tweet concluded, “I watched, he fell harder than was pushed.
Was aiming scanner.
Could be a set up?” Although the FBI and the Department of Justice have, to date, announced no arrests of protesters linked
to antifa ideology or groups, Attorney General William Barr suggested on Fox News that the lack of cases
“does not mean they haven’t been involved in the violence.”
The eloquently compressed response from Gugino’s attorney noted that the injured man “has been a longtime peaceful
protester, human rights advocate and overall fan of the US Constitution.”
Even Republican Senator Susan Collins stated,
“I think it would be best if the president did not comment on issues that are before the courts.”
It is true that the two members of the Emergency Response Team charged with Gugino’s assault will come before
Meanwhile, we must wonder what will happen to our collective consciousness by then.
Second-degree murder charges have been filed against Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd—but what filters might
settle over our perceptions to make that presently inexcusable death seem reasonable through the same lens that
exonerated the officer who strangled Eric Garner?
We must treat this sleight of hand with the seriousness it deserves.
It may be that this moment sufficiently reveals to all Americans the disparities that African Americans and other people of
color have been experiencing for generations.
But we have been here before, if not to the same degree, yet over and over, what seems to be seen becomes unseen,
our attention redirected.
Even when the Trumpian circus earns scorn and furious backlash, his basest theatrical stylings nevertheless become viral
moral templates to be reenacted elsewhere, familiarized as normative baselines are reset.
Trump explicitly endorses an ethic that urges officers not to be “too nice” when making an arrest.
He encourages an environment in which just stopping to acknowledge that you’ve mowed someone down is seen as
weakness and restraint in governance is acting like a fool.
The president praises extraordinary shows of force, seemingly driven by no higher morality than the pure vanity of wanting
to appear invincible, the question of proportion a superfluity.
If we are ever to return merely to the flawed life we once had, let alone drag ourselves into the better world we hope to inhabit
in the future, we must profoundly reappraise political appeals to magical thinking.
There are no miracles.
There are no gods among us.
Once we had a Constitution.
We all saw it.
Now you don’t?
Then it’s time we stop wringing our hands and intercept that Oz-like strange joker as he sidles for the door.
We cannot let him abscond with something so precious hidden up his sleeve.
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