Faith Matters

Catholics cannot be indifferent on social justice

Diarmuid Pepper

In this image from video provided by WBFO, a Buffalo police officer appears to shove Martin Gugino. Footage shows the man appearing to hit his head on the pavement, with blood leaking out as officers walk past. Picture by Mike Desmond/WBFO via AP

EVERY day it seems as though there is a new example of police brutality in the United States that becomes viral on social media.

One such video, filmed in Buffalo, New York on June 4, shows a 75-year-old man approaching a group of advancing policemen from the city's emergency response team. He has a police helmet in his hand and it appears that he is trying to give it back to them.

Two of the policemen push the elderly man, whereupon he falls backwards and hits his head off the pavement.

Blood oozes from the man's ears and a policeman attempts to bend down to check on his condition.

Another policeman physically restrains him from doing so and the group continue their forwards march, stepping over the elderly man who is now lying unconscious on the ground.

The two police officers accused of pushing the man have since been suspended.

However, the entire 57-member emergency response team has since resigned in solidarity with the suspended policemen.

John Evans, president of the local police union, said the "officers were simply following orders" and claimed that the man slipped and fell backwards.

In the aftermath, quite a bit of information has come to light about the victim. His name is Martin Gugino and he was taken to hospital where, as of writing, he was in a stable but serious condition.

In a recent tweet, President Donald Trump labelled Gugino an "ANTIFA provocateur" and claimed that he "fell harder than was pushed". Trump has recently vowed to make Antifa, an anti-fascist organisation, a domestic terrorist organisation. Trump then went on to tweet that it "could be a set up".

But the reality is that Gugino is a social justice activist and a practising Catholic, who is described by the Buffalo advocacy group People United for Sustainable Housing as a "tireless fighter against injustice of all types".

Gugino is also a volunteer at the Catholic Worker, a community which seeks to "live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ".

A movement dedicated to peace and justice, it was founded by Servant of God, Dorothy Day. Much like Gugino, Dorothy Day also took to streets to demand justice in the form of peaceful protest.

One such image of Ms Day protesting shows her holding a placard under the gaze of a policeman.

Her placard bears a quote from Pope John XXIII: "Why should the resources of human genius and the riches of the people turn more often to preparing arms... than to increasing the welfare of all classes of citizens and particularly of the poor?"

A friend of Gugino's said he comes "from a peace tradition that means it's important to be a witness to justice".

He took part in the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests in Buffalo as a result of this 'peace tradition'.

The day before the incident in question, Gugino tweeted about his unease with police curfews and wrote that the "government should receive the complaint with thanks, not arrest the people or beat them".

Martin Gugino, and Dorothy Day before him, reminds us that Catholics must be as vocal as anyone else in speaking out against police brutality and the disproportionate killing of African Americans at the hands of the police.

Pope Francis addressed a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington in September 2015, making history as the first pontiff to do so. Picture by AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

Pope Francis, in a speech to the United States Congress in 2015, said that he could not "fail to mention Dorothy Day in these times when social concerns are so important".

"Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints," said Pope Francis.

Trump's tweet tarnishing Gugino's name is a reminder that it is not always easy to follow Dorothy Day's lead.

Indeed, Day herself was also a target of the US government; J. Edgar Hoover labelled her "erratic and irresponsible" and Catholic Worker activists were often investigated as "domestic terrorists".

But it is incumbent on people of faith to share in Day's "passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed".

Martin Gugino took to the streets to demand change and justice for George Floyd and other Catholics ought to follow his lead.

In the same speech to Congress, Pope Francis said: "The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development."

However, in the next line he said that this conviction has led him to fight for the abolition of the death penalty and to fight for criminal justice reform.

And when directly addressing George Floyd's death, Pope Francis said on June 3: "We cannot turn a blind eye to racism in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life."

Too often, those on the pro-life side of the spectrum are vociferous in their support of the unborn, but deafly silent on the rights of refugees or on social justice issues like the Black Lives Matter movement.

For the term "pro-life" to mean anything, it must extend to people whose lives are at risk in the here and now.

And to those who decry the Black Lives Matter movement and their modes of protest, remember that Jesus did "not come to bring peace, but a sword". Jesus drives out the money lenders in the Temple with a whip, and he violently overturns their tables in protest at their turning a place of worship into a place of money.

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, some people blithely respond with 'All Lives Matter'. Had these same people been present during the Sermon on the Mount, they would likely have replied "all people are blessed" in response to Jesus saying "blessed are the poor".

It is easy to be indifferent on issues of social justice, but Catholicism demands that we stand up against injustice wherever we find it and meet it face on, just like Martin Gugino and Dorothy Day before him did.

In this photo provided by WKBW, supporters of two suspended Buffalo police officers assemble outside the courthouse in Buffalo, New York on Saturday June 6. According to prosecutors, both officers were charged with assault after a video showed them shoving 75-year-old protester Martin Gugino at a demonstration over the death of George Floyd. Picture by Madison Carter/WKBW via AP

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