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Two members of the Buffalo Police Department's Emergency Response Team were suspended on Thursday and are being investigated after a local radio station released video of the incident involving the protester, Martin Gugino.
The video, which has been viewed more than 70 million times, shows the white-haired Gugino approaching a line of officers in riot gear. One officer pushes him with a baton and a second one with his hand. He falls, a crack is heard and blood trickles from his head, as officers walk by his still body.
Local media quoted Buffalo Police Benevolent Association President John Evans as saying the officers were doing their job, and that their colleagues on the response team had resigned from the special unit to protest their treatment. The 57 remain police officers, Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood said in a statement. Evans could not be reached for comment.
Earlier on Friday a spokeswoman for the local county's district attorney, Kait Munro, said the two officers are under investigation for potential criminal liability in connection with Thursday evening's incident outside city hall.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown told a press conference on Friday that contingency plans were in place to address any policing issues due to the resignations and he said state troopers were embedded with Buffalo police to shore up their operations.
"I can say that Buffalo will be safe this weekend," he said.
Brown said Gugino had been "asked to leave numerous times" from the area because of the city's curfew.
Prior to the incident "there were conflicts between protesters," Brown said. "There was a danger of fights breaking out between protesters, and the police felt it was very important to clear that scene for the safety of protesters."
Even so, the video footage has raised further questions about police behavior, after the death of African-American man George Floyd in Minneapolis set off nationwide street protests.
The video shows the majority of the officers march past Gugino, though the officer who pushed him with a baton starts to lean over him before he is motioned away by another officer. Someone is heard calling for a medic.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Friday he had spoken with Gugino and was thankful he survived. Cuomo said the police chief should fire the officers involved.
"You see that video and it disturbs your basic sense of decency and humanity," Cuomo told a daily briefing. "Why, why, why was that necessary? Where was the threat?"
Gugino, who is white, could not be reached. According to a community organizer who has known him for a decade, he is a longtime activist who has advocated for affordable housing, climate justice and police accountability and regularly protested outside the Erie County Holding Center, a Buffalo jail that has come under scrutiny for a string of inmate deaths.
"I've been doing this work for around 10 years, and I can't remember a protest Martin wasn't at," said John Washington, an organizer at People's Action in Buffalo. "Whatever the issues of justice were he stepped up and was always there."
Washington said Gugino had gone to the demonstration to protest brutality by police but "clearly" posed no danger to the officers. He said he had only been able to confirm Gugino was in stable condition.