One America News, a far-right cable channel that rounds up internet conspiracy theories for its viewers, has spent the past week trying to smear Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old Catholic peace activist who was assaulted by Buffalo police officers at a protest against police brutality, and remains hospitalized with a brain injury.
The channel’s obsessive focus on Gugino is part of a wider effort to tarnish protests against racism and police violence that OAN has pursued for years. In 2016, one of its hosts denounced the Black Lives Matter movement as “a farce.” On Monday, a black college football star, Chuba Hubbard, described his coach’s decision to wear an OAN T-shirt as “unacceptable” and “completely insensitive to everything going on in society.”
Although OAN’s reporting on Gugino has been filled with glaring factual errors, misleading characterizations and innuendo scraped from the lower depths of the internet, its smears have been amplified on Twitter by President Donald Trump.
Echoing an OAN report that treated the musings of a conspiracy theorist in Florida as evidence, Trump told his millions of followers that the elderly protester who was shoved to the ground by the police on camera might have been a high-tech, “ANTIFA provocateur,” who had thrown himself to the pavement to make the officers look bad, after trying to jam their radios.
Although there is no evidence for any of that, the channel was so thrilled by the president’s attention that it rushed to produce three follow-up reports further smearing Gugino and boasted to viewers that “even President Trump is relying on our reports.”
While that might be true, it is also deeply troubling, given how little of OAN’s reporting on Gugino is accurate. In one follow-up report, OAN claimed to have uncovered “new details” about Gugino which supposedly prove that he is a “member of radical groups like Antifa,” but in fact show no such thing. Two days later, the channel tried to cast doubt on the severity of his injury, claiming unidentified medical experts who viewed video of the assault said the blood seen pouring from Gugino’s ear after the fall could only have been caused by a fractured skull, which they somehow concluded was unlikely, despite the very audible thud when his head hit the pavement. Gugino’s lawyer, Kelly Zarcone, told CNN on Monday that “his skull was fractured.” In its third report, OAN suggested, falsely, that it had evidence Gugino “was an active member on anarchist messaging boards.”
All of those segments were produced by Pearson Sharp, an OAN correspondent whose previous reporting from Syria — in which he suggested that a chemical attack on rebel-held Douma had not been carried out by government forces — was praised by Russia’s foreign ministry and replayed on a loop on Russian state television.
Last Friday, Sharp dismissed criticism of the channel’s reporting on Gugino and demanded proof that it was wrong. “We challenge the media to answer this question,” Sharp said, “Is anything we reported untrue?”
That question turns out to be depressingly easy to answer, given the influence the channel appears to have on the nation’s president.
Sharp’s first report on Gugino veered off the rails at the very beginning, with his opening claim that “official records show he was arrested at least four times in the past.” The document Sharp presented on screen, however, was not an official record, it was what Gugino had written about himself on the profile page of his Blogger account. To introduce himself to readers of his blog, Gugino listed acts of civil disobedience he had engaged in during the Obama administration — including protests at the U.S. Capitol and the White House, where he dressed in an orange jumpsuit to demand that Obama keep his promise to close the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The result of that activism, Gugino noted proudly, was: “Four arrests, no convictions.”
Startling new details reveal Martin Gugino may be an anarchist with ties to radical left-wing terrorist group Antifa. Video from before the event also suggests he was actually trying to provoke police. One America's @PearsonSharp reports.@realDonaldTrump https://t.co/gqnqXJje99
— One America News (@OANN) June 9, 2020
More egregiously, Sharp went on to claim, falsely, that Gugino “had a reputation in the town as being someone who caused trouble, and even the mayor of Buffalo, Byron Brown, a Democrat, called him ‘an agitator’ and ‘a key and major instigator’ for those involved in the looting of the city.” That is entirely false. Gugino had no such reputation and Buffalo’s mayor said nothing negative about him at all.
If Sharp had bothered to check the quote, he might have discovered that the mayor had, in fact, used those words while talking about a different protester, Myles Carter, who was also knocked to the ground by police in Buffalo — in his case, while being interviewed on live television, with his hands in the air and his back to officers.
The mayor’s comments about Carter were initially misheard by a reporter for a local radio station who thought they were about Gugino. That mistake was then repeated by other outlets, including Fox News, The Hill and The Independent in London, which published articles on Gugino that had to be corrected or retracted once the massive error was discovered.
Sharp’s report, which shows The Independent’s incorrect version of the story on screen, aired two days after the mistake had been acknowledged and corrected by other news organizations. Although The Independent deleted the article from its website on Tuesday night, after being made aware of the error by The Intercept, OAN has still not corrected Sharp’s report. Instead, Sharp repeated the same error in two subsequent reports, both of which included the same close-up of the article The Independent had retracted days before.
Sharp’s attempt to frame Gugino as an anarchist agitator relies heavily on a brief video clip recorded during the demonstration against police violence he took part in on June 4. That video is a 30-second excerpt from a Facebook live stream recorded by a young protester named Austin Marrano, about half an hour before the veteran activist was knocked down by the police. What it shows is that one of the other protesters, a young black man in a black Buffalo Bills cap, suspected that the old man might have intended to start a fight, because he arrived at the protest carrying a helmet. The man was also miffed because, he said, Gugino supposedly called protesting “fun.”
What the OAN report fails to show is how Gugino responded to questions from other protesters who wanted to know why he had a helmet and what he planned to do. Fortunately, the end of that conversation was caught on camera by Antonio Wells, another young protester who was also streaming live video of the demonstration to Facebook.
In that video, which was streamed just before 7:45 p.m. that night from outside Buffalo’s City Hall, where about three dozen protesters had gathered after an earlier protest, another demonstrator can be seen talking to Gugino. At the end of the conversation, she and another protester turn away and the woman can be heard explaining to the group that the soft-spoken Gugino told her that his plan was simply to challenge the city’s 8 p.m. curfew, by staying until the police moved in, so that he could ask officers why it was being enforced only against protesters. “He said what he wants,” the young woman explained to other protesters, “is he wants the police to explain to him why the curfew is being enforced for protesters, and not for anybody else.”
At that point, Wells nodded to his own camera in agreement, and pointed out that the police were still allowing people to go shopping after curfew. “He wants to know why they’re enforcing it only on us,” the woman added.
In a part of Marrano’s video OAN did not air, another young protester could be heard accepting Gugino’s explanation for why he wanted to challenge the curfew by saying loudly, “That’s okay.” Marrano also captured one of the leaders of the protest group explaining that Gugino said he brought the helmet, which had a clear plastic face shield, to protect himself against Covid-19, not because he intended to start a riot. None of that information was included in Sharp’s report for OAN.
The channel similarly failed to mention that Marrano had also streamed video, a few hours earlier from the same spot, which showed two leaders of the protest loudly accusing each other of being “agitators,” as they disagreed over tactics.
The day before the protest, Gugino had explained on Twitter that he planned to bring a helmet because he was concerned about the risk of police violence and of getting infected with the coronavirus. “Yes COVID is a factor,” Gugino wrote. “I can take extra measures to counteract the background rate. There is a background rate of getting pummeled. A helmet with a clear face shield serves both.”
After the video of the police injuring him went viral, Gugino made his Twitter account private, which seems like a reasonable response to suddenly becoming a target for internet conspiracy theorists. Sharp, the OAN correspondent, tried to use this against Gugino too. “His Twitter account is, suspiciously, no longer available,” Sharp told viewers.
Aerial footage of the small protest, which was recorded with a drone by a local filmmaker, James Grimaldi, and posted on YouTube, shows that the veteran activist carried the helmet, but never put it on. The footage also seems to show that Gugino made an effort to maintain proper social distance from the other protesters, standing away from the steps where others had gathered, leaning against a bollard for most of the time.
In another segment of his OAN report, Sharp also made the false claim that Gugino “appears to have ties to Antifa” — an antifascist movement opposed to white supremacy which the correspondent wrongly described as, a “violent terrorist group responsible for attacking innocent civilians.” The supposed evidence for Sharp’s claim that Gugino has “ties to Antifa” that OAN flashed up on screen at that point turns out to be just a list of edits Gugino made, between 2009 and 2013, to RocWiki, a guide to local events in Rochester, New York which was maintained by volunteer editors.
One of the RocWiki pages Gugino edited was for a Rochester community center, The Flying Squirrel. According to Sharp, Gugino’s work on this page proves that he was “active in the Flying Squirrel Community Space, a group for anarchists.”
But The Flying Squirrel is not “a group for anarchists,” it is a community center. While it did provide space for meetings of an anarchist book club in 2010, the center has also hosted, according to its website: “gallery space exhibiting regional art; community workshops and classrooms; ‘open-mic’ and poetry readings; practice spaces for musicians; live local music and dance shows, film screenings; community craft production and craft exhibits; small academic conference space and public lecture space; and a community kitchen.”
Looking at the actual edits Gugino made to The Flying Squirrel page on RocWiki, he appears to have made just a handful of changes between December 2009 and January 2010, most of them about a midnight screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” accompanied by live performers.
Gugino also set up a discussion thread on RocWiki in 2010 for participants in the anarchist reading group that met at the community center that year, but there is no evidence that he contributed to that conversation.
This minimal evidence of an association between Gugino, anarchist books and the community center a decade ago was enough for Sharp to claim that the veteran activist was somehow linked to a recent post on The Flying Squirrel’s Facebook page, which promoted the annual “Anarchist Summer School” conference in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Sharp then informed OAN’s viewers that a poster for that anarchist conference, “featured the logo for Antifa.” Given that this poster — shared on Facebook in February by a community center Gugino mentioned online 10 years earlier — is the only evidence Sharp presents for his claim that Gugino “appears to have ties to Antifa,” he really should have looked more carefully at the detail from it he showed OAN viewers.
There are two logos on the poster promoting the anarchist conference — which, to be clear, there is no evidence Gugino was even aware of — but neither of them is the iconic two-flag symbol, devised in 1932 for Antifaschistische Aktion, the anti-Nazi paramilitary wing of the German Communist Party, which is used by modern antifa groups in Europe and the United States.
The poster for the anarchist conference instead features two symbols: the letter A inside a circle, a common anarchist sign, and three arrows pointing down and to the left, which was the logo of the Iron Front, a paramilitary group formed by German social democrats in 1931, who defined their three enemies as Nazis, conservatives and communists.
The German Social Democratic Party used the image in its 1932 election campaign. The party’s poster showed the three arrows plunging into a monarchist crown, a Nazi swastika and a Communist hammer and sickle, under the slogan: “Against Papen, Hitler, Thälmann,” naming the leaders of the three rival parties. So the three arrows symbol was originally used by a rival of the first Antifa, which was dominated by members of Ernst Thälmann’s German Communist Party.
At another point in the video streamed to Facebook by Antonio Wells from the steps of Buffalo’s City Hall on the night on June 4, Martin Gugino could be heard telling a fellow protester that the image of some police officers taking a knee in solidarity with the demonstrators the night before, at the same location, had given him the idea to ask them to say the Catholic prayers known as the rosary with him.
Remarkably, the Buffalo police officer who led that action the previous night, Detective John Losi, ended up playing a central role in the assault on Gugino. Losi, who agreed to take a knee with protesters on June 3, in exchange for them agreeing to honor the curfew, can be seen in video streamed by Wells the next night approaching the small group of protesters that included Gugino at 7:50 p.m. That video appears to show that Losi got most of the remaining protesters to agree that they would leave a few minutes after 8 p.m.
Gugino, Wells and one other protester, a man holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign, were the only three demonstrators who decided to stay on the steps of City Hall to challenge the curfew. Video Wells began streaming at 8:11 p.m. showed that shortly after the other protesters left, dozens of police in riot gear moved in to clear the area. Seconds later, Gugino got up from the City Hall steps walked up to the officers.
Video of the encounter, shot by Mike Desmond, a reporter for the local NPR affiliate WBFO, shows that the first officer Gugino approached initially hesitated to use force. Losi, who was directing the operation, came up behind that officer and shoved him, just as he was attempting to push Gugino back. The video suggests that Losi’s push increased the force with which Gugino was shoved, causing him to lose his footing and fall backwards to the pavement.
That video also shows that it was Losi who then stopped the same officer from stopping to help Gugino after he fell. Losi pulled him back and ordered him to help arrest the man with the sign and Wells, who was still livestreaming.
Losi’s sudden switch from peacemaker to aggressor was noted by some supporters of the protest movement on Twitter, who suggested that he had just taken a knee as a way to trick protesters into obeying the curfew.
In his own unsettling video of the assault on Gugino, and what happened next, Wells can be heard screaming at officers who moved to arrest him that he was leaving, before he turned and ran down the block. He then had a very odd confrontation with a man who was dressed like a protester, and had been among the demonstrators outside City Hall as curfew approached.
That man’s behavior and abusive language baffled Wells and convinced him that he must have been an undercover officer, disguised as a protester, who had infiltrated the protest.
While the Buffalo Police Department has refused to say if the burly white man — who wore a camouflage shirt and a black Buffalo Bills cap, with his face masked — was a member of the force, his behavior in the immediate aftermath of the assault on Gugino, when he was caught on video ordering Wells, who is black, to go home, and cursed and insulted him for not complying, seems more consistent with that of an undercover law enforcement officer than a Black Lives Matter protester.
As Wells retreated from the officers, he briefly switched his camera off as he ran down the block. He turned it on moments later, as the man in the camouflage shirt, who had been among the protesters minutes earlier, began harassing him. As Wells filmed, the man loudly ordered him to go home, and then cursed and insulted him for not complying.
“Why don’t you get the fuck out of here, you fucking little pussy bitch,” the man said to Wells, who was still stunned by the violence with which Gugino’s head had hit the pavement minutes earlier. “Get the fuck out of here. Go home!” the man shouted at Wells, as a police car rolled up.
“Did you all hire him?” Wells asked a uniformed officer in the police car. “Go home!” the man bellowed from in front of the statue of Grover Cleveland, a former mayor of Buffalo, outside City Hall.
“Do you guys understand how angry we are,” an emotional Wells asked the officers. “Do you?”
“Go home!” the man in the camouflage shirt shouted again, as none of the uniformed officers replied.
“I don’t think you do,” Wells said, his voice cracking.
“Stop acting like a victim. Get the fuck out of here, you pussy,” the man shouted.
“All of history,” Wells said, before he was interrupted again by abuse from the man in the camouflage T-shirt.
“What are you crying about? Get the fuck out of here!” the man screamed again.
As the uniformed officers waved him away, a stunned Wells left the square and turned off his live stream.
Wells told The Intercept in an interview that he remains convinced that the man was an undercover officer who was just pretending to support that demonstration against police brutality that night.
If the Buffalo Police Department did have an undercover officer among the protesters that night, he should be able to confirm to investigators looking into the incident what is clear from the extensive video evidence found in the live streams of the protest: that there was no reason to suspect Gugino or the other two remaining protesters posed any threat of violence. He should also be able to confirm that the explanation offered to the public that night by Buffalo’s mayor — who said that the police moved in on the protest “after a physical altercation between two separate groups of protesters participating in an illegal demonstration beyond the curfew” — was completely wrong. None of the video of the protest shows any such physical altercation, although one witness, Mike Desmond, said that one of the protesters who left before the police moved in was dragged away by other demonstrators.
That in turn raises serious questions about the force’s decision to clear the square with a full contingent of police officers in riot gear, moving aggressively forward in lockstep military formation to confront a 75 year-old Catholic peace activist and two young protesters sitting on the steps of City Hall.
Updated: Friday, June 19, 2:30 p.m.
This article was updated to report that Buffalo’s Mayor Byron Brown said on the night on June 4 that when the police injured a 75-year-old protester, they were responding to “a physical altercation between two separate groups of protesters.” Video of the protest shows that there was no such altercation.