WASHINGTON, D.C. — Catholic activist Martin Gugino long has been anti-war, anti-hunger, anti-violence, when it comes to opposing social ills, but the one “anti” that doesn’t fit the bill is the “antifa” moniker President Donald Trump tried to pin on him in a June 9 tweet, friends say.
Trump’s tweet said Gugino “could be ANTIFA provocateur.” He insinuated that the 75-year-old fell hard on purpose, referring to the widely circulated video showing him falling to the ground after being pushed by police with the president saying he “fell harder than was pushed.”
Antifa is a term some have used for those who have used violent tactics during mass protests, usually a small and younger set known for wearing face coverings such as ski masks to prevent being identified as they take part in destruction of property, attacks against police and vandalism.
But Gugino has been associated with the opposite kind of movement and the majority of peaceful protesters who have turned out recently against racial injustice. In particular, he uses nonviolent methods employed by the set he hangs out with: The Catholic Worker Movement.
“That’s rather … a visual of some of us,” said Mark Coleville, a founding member of the Amistad Catholic Worker community in New Haven, Connecticut, about being painted as people carrying out violent tactics. “Not many of us are adept at jumping fences.”
Coleville, who has joined Gugino in protests for about 15 years, posted on Twitter a photo showing his friend in Washington demonstrating outside the U.S. Department of Justice with a sign saying “Resist Racism,” in proximity to women holding flowers, demanding murder charges be brought against Cleveland police officers who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, a black child, in 2014.
Those are the protest methods of those involved with peaceful activism, Coleville told Catholic News Service in a June 10 telephone interview, while also explaining the history of the Catholic Worker Movement that he and Gugino are involved with, and one co-founded by New Yorker Dorothy Day in the 1930s following the Great Depression.
“It was a faith-based response to the poverty and unemployment, the injustice going on in some neighborhoods,” Coleville explained.
Life structured for those involved with the Catholic Worker Movement “is very simple,” Coleville said, “it’s organized around a few basic daily practices of the works of mercy: giving sustenance to the poor but also fighting for justice for the poor.”
Some like Coleville live in communities called Catholic Worker houses, many in large city centers.
“We have an open door for meals twice a week, food distribution, community gardening,” he said. “And, of late, setting up tent city for people who are experiencing homelessness in New Haven.”
Though Gugino does not live in a Catholic Worker house, he’s very much part of the movement, Coleville said. The two also are involved with Witness Against Torture, which organized to demand the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, working on issues such as racial injustice and police brutality, which is how Gugino ended up at the Buffalo, New York protest where the incident took place.
It was part of national mass demonstrations focused on the May 25 killing of George Floyd, who died after being pinned to the ground by a white police officer seen in a video holding his knee to the unarmed black man’s neck for almost nine minutes.
And now Gugino has become part of those he’s tried to defend, experiencing police brutality himself, said Keith Giles, program director for Peace Catalyst International in El Paso Texas, another longtime friend, who served with Gugino, aiding battered women’s shelters in California about 13 years ago.
When he saw the video of his friend, who is battling cancer, knocked to the ground, “I was honestly sick to my stomach,” Giles told CNS June 10.
If people want to know what those in the Christian peace movement like Gugino are about, Giles said, they are the type of people who follow Jesus Christ with daily actions, feeding those who are hungry in soup kitchens, spending time with those suffering and speaking publicly in their defense, the way Gugino has done, against injustice and that sometimes involves participating in protests.
Though Gugino believes strongly in causes, he’s not one who’s looking for a fight, Giles said. Many of those involved in the Christian peace movements receive training on non-violent resistance, much of it based on religious beliefs. Many like Gugino, often are arrested without incident while involved in civil disobedience acts.
“It’s a peaceful movement, that’s the number one thing, believing, like Jesus, in nonviolence,” said Giles. “They’re speaking always in a peaceful way and you show up, putting your skin on the line. I know that Martin understood there was the possibility of getting shot with a rubber bullet.”
But that’s part of his commitment in choosing to follow in the footsteps of Christ and he probably doesn’t hold ill-will against the officers, Giles said. He asked of those concerned to “please pray for my friend Martin.”
Gugino remains hospitalized, though Coleville said when he briefly spoke with him by phone June 9, he said he told him he had been allowed to leave the intensive care unit.
“He was in some pain and he was tired,” Coleville said. “He was apparently told he will make a full recovery but it’s going to take some time. I would ask for people’s patience. I’m sure he’ll have something to say eventually but his health is the most important thing right now. I’m sure that once he’s up and around again, he’ll be able to speak for himself, which I’m looking forward to.”
Coleville said he was reluctant to comment on the president’s tweets or the narrative against certain groups, “constantly trying to present us with these monsters that we need to somehow battle against and really, certainly, Martin, being labeled like that, Martin being who he is, one of the gentlest people who is walking the earth, and this desperate attempt to label him ‘antifa’ is just a distraction from reality. It’s depressing that so many people can actually believe this kind of crap.”
Gugino’s life, instead, “speaks for itself,” he said, in how he has spent his time helping others and living the life of those in the Catholic Worker Movement.
“The real mentality of Catholic Worker life is doing the works of mercy, feeding people, giving them what they need to survive,” he said. “That’s the gift, that’s the fun part, the privilege to welcome people at your house. According to our faith, when we do that, we’re welcoming Christ himself. We have to earn that privilege by raising our voice, using the gifts that we have, like education and the ability to stand up and speak, and we need to use it on behalf of people who are suffering.”
That’s all Gugino, of Amherst, New York, was trying to do, he said.
On June 9, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said he had telephoned Gugino in the hospital, called on Trump to apologize, saying that what he had tweeted was reckless, irresponsible, mean and crude.
“If he ever feels a moment of decency, he should apologize for that tweet, because it is wholly unacceptable,” Cuomo said during his daily news conference. “Not a piece of proof, totally, personally disparaging, and in a moment when the man is still in the hospital. Show some decency, show some humanity, show some fairness. You’re the president of the United States.”