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‘Buffalo just showed the whole world it’s not bad apples’: Protesters react to national spotlight

Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Protesters hold signs in front of Buffalo CIty Hall Saturday. Buffalo has been thrust into the national spotlight after video showed officers pushing an elderly protester to the ground Thursday.

A video of Buffalo Police Department officers pushing an elderly white protester has been viewed more than 80 million times on Twitter. Mayor Byron Brown appeared on MSNBC. A CNN crew was at Niagara Square. 

The city of Buffalo has been thrust into the national spotlight of the police brutality protests, after WBFO captured video Thursday of two officers shoving 75-year-old Martin Gugino to the ground outside City Hall, where he bled from his head.

“The whole world's watching Buffalo, the whole world's watching the mayor and we are watching them watch us and we're happy and we're out here,” said Shaimaa Aakil, who helped lead demonstrations in Niagara Square Saturday. “And we know we're being heard now. So I think because the world is watching, we out here and we're going to be continuously out here every day until we get what we need to get done.” 

To Aakil, the past few days in Buffalo prove police brutality spans beyond the four Minneapolis officers charged in George Floyd’s death, which inspired the protests seen across the U.S. the last two weeks.

“So don't you tell me that it's bad apples,” she said. “Buffalo just showed the whole world that it's not bad apples, that we need systematic change.”

Credit Tom Dinki/WBFO News
Shaimaa Aakil leads a demonstration Saturday in Niagara Sqaure.

This newfound scrutiny and attention has local organizers feeling that now is the time to actualize the reforms they’ve been pushing for since long before the country knew Gugino and Floyd’s names.

“It's a time for us to push our demands even more to the max, to be even more clear about our stance and who the decision makers are in the city and how they’ve refused for years to listen to us,” said Marielle Smith, community organizer for Black Love Resists in the Rust, a Buffalo-based advocacy organization for young people of color in the city.

She said local organizations like BLRR have concrete demands for local leaders like Brown and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. Those demands include independent investigations into all police violence incidents, and using the police pension fund to pay settlements. They also want Erie County to go through with plans to close its downtown holding center, where some 30 inmates have died since county Sheriff Timothy Howard was elected in 2005.

“Now they're on a national stage and the world is watching and the nation is watching to see now if these decision makers, these elected officials will listen to their people.” Smith said.

Brown addressed the media Sunday, saying he met with advocates this weekend to discuss recommendations and will be meeting with police to make reforms. 

Credit Tom Dinki/WBFO News
Marielle Smith, community organizer for Black Love Resists in the Rust, leads a protest outside the Erie County Holding Center Saturday.

“My job is to listen to people and bring this community together,” he said. “People are hurting, but people are also looking for hope and healing. And as mayor, I'm going to do everything that I can to bring hope and healing to this community.”

The viral video, which shows officers Aaron Torgalski and Robert McCabe pushing Gugino as they clear out Niagara Square for the 8 p.m. curfew, has seemingly already had an impact. Officers decided to decrease their presence at Friday and Saturday’s protests, which remained peaceful anyway. It was a far cry from the heavy police presence seen during the first Buffalo protest May 30 that became violent.

The decision may have been forced onto police, as they’re without their Emergency Response Team. Fifty-seven officers resigned from the special unit, which the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association says was in protest of Torgalski and McCabe’s suspensions and subsequent arrests. The two officers have pleaded not guilty to second-degree assault.

Officers’ decision to resign from the Emergency Response Team has also made international headlines.

It also upset Leo Kayembe, one of the protesters at Saturday’s rally.

“To see our own men, who have sworn to protect and serve us, when they see one of theirs reprimanded for the injustice they did, they decided to resign. That is a sign of a broken system.” he said.

However, he was inspired by the protest.

“A lot of people are energized and they believe in the cause, and they believe there is unfair treatment of black lives,” he said. “And everybody is on one page. Look at the signs. Look at the faces around. Everybody seems to be on the same page. Something has to change.” 

Credit Tom Dinki/WBFO News
Leo Kayembe speaks with WBFO at Saturday's protest in Niagara Square.

Jeff Palmer was encouraged too. He attended the protest with his 9-year-old daughter, Claudia. However, he stressed that people need to vote for officials sympathetic with the cause in order to actually make change. 

He wasn’t talking about just the city of Buffalo, which is more than a third black. He meant all of Western New York, where President Donald Trump won all counties except Erie County in 2016. 

“We have guys running for Congress who say blatantly and with pride that Trump backs them,” Palmer said, referring to state Sen. Chris Jacobs, who is running for the 27th Congressional District. “You're not going to hear anyone say that with pride on the east side of Buffalo. … It is white people we need help from in order to make things change. And whether people want to admit it or not, racism affects us all. It hurts us all. … Medically, I mean, we've had Medicare denied since the 1940s because a few racists don't want to give it to black and brown people. These are things that white people need to know that is also hurting them. Racism also negatively affects them.” 

Despite whatever change this attention could help lead to, Smith said it’s a shame Buffalo joins the list of cities where videos of police violence have gone viral.   

Credit Tom Dinki/WBFO News
Jeff Palmer attends Saturday's protest with his daughter, Claudia.

“It's disgusting for us to be in the limelight like this,” she said. “The reason why CNN is here is because there's been a cracked, white old man’s skull in front of our city hall. That's ridiculous. That's disgusting. But it's also very telling of the police state that we live in and deal with in this very city.” 

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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