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Aging Action Initiative Time for change

By Linda Jackson, AAI Program Director

Martin Gugino was a devout Catholic, a football fan, and a retired computer programmer. He moved back from Cleveland to the Buffalo area when his mother needed help, and he continued to live in the family home after she died.

Martin found community in the Western New York Peace Center. His friends said he had “vitality and [a] youthful demeanor” and a command of issues that ranged from climate change, immigration rights and racial justice. 

On June 4, the 75-year old went to a protest march at Buffalo City Hall. As the Aging Action Initiative Time for change  police moved down the street and sidewalk to enforce a curfew, Martin approached a couple of officers, possibly to return the helmet he held in his hand. After a few seconds, the officers gave him a sharp shove backwards. He lost his balance and fell, hitting his head on the sidewalk. With blood flowing from his skull fracture, Martin’s arms collapse to the ground. 

Unlike what we have seen when black men are killed by the police, the two officers responsible were quickly charged with second-degree assault and suspension without pay.

White seniors saw in the video that instance when Martin’s humanity and life was dismissed by those in power. We are all connected by the -isms of this world. Ageism meet racism meet sexism meet ableism meet homophobia. The shaky videos capturing the choking, knees, grabs and shoves provide irrefutable truth about the violence, threats, and murder that vulnerable people face.

For weeks, older white people across America have been showing up with masks on to protest the murder of George Floyd, safe in being white. While Martin’s experience shows us that older people are not immune from police force, we also see how the public safety response is different when a white person is involved. That’s why we speak up to say officers must have must have anti-racial profiling training and training and protocols in de-escalation and practice. In addition, law enforcement must have training about how to respond to  people of all ages who may have physical and mental disabilities, including balance issues and slower physical responses.

The social and economic vulnerability in the face of racism is deeper and more enduring than anything white Americans can imagine. But now we’ve seen it. And that experience is there in the lives of the older Black people that we work with. Grandmothers and grandfathers lament the lost possibilities of fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and grandsons, and their sisters as well, who did not get the health, housing, education, mentoring, and hiring opportunities that whites expect and receive. America is a country where life’s deck of cards is stacked against African-American children and those disadvantages compound over the years and decades.

How can we make a difference to curtail racism and the injustice of other ‘isms’? Here are some suggestions:

    1. Break bread with people different from yourself. As Marin opens up, have coffee or go for a walk with someone from a different background and get to know them better.
    2. Form a book or movie club with your co-workers and colleagues and hold conversations on racism, ageism, and other -isms in our work.
    3. Learn about Juneteenth, the day that the news of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation reached enslaved people in Texas. It’s emblematic of how separate America’s races are that white Americans remain largely ignorant of this profound day in our country’s annual calendar. 
    4. Join up with a racial justice group. Locally, there is Stand Up for Racial Justice and San Francisco NAACP. Nationally, there is Black Lives Matter and Southern Poverty Law Center. Your professional association may have a racial justice group starting up: join it!
    5. Recruit a diverse volunteer base
    6. Speak up as an ally for change in your workplace and community. At this moment, police and sheriff departments’ must change their hiring, training, mentoring, disciplinary, and retention practices to ensure that not one more death or injury happens at the hands of public safety. The budget hearings are happening now, and will happen again next spring. Call, email, and show up to say Black Lives Matter.

Martin Gugino is now in the Erie County Medical Center’s rehabilitation floor. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, at a news conference, said “Police and other law enforcement have a duty to serve and protect the public. We need them to be the guardians of the public, not warriors engaged in battle with the public.” 

We, not just the police, are all guardians, keeping all people safe, understanding the mental health issues, dementia and addictions people might have, and knowing how to de-escalate frightening situations. I wish you confidence to learn, witness, march, and speak up for better ways to be guardians. And, when you don’t have the confidence for all that, I wish you the courage to do so anyways ~