'Ridiculous': Friends Defend 75-Year-Old Targeted by Trump After Police Injured Him at Protest

"The gap between who Martin is and what the president alleged or hinted at is so wide, it's really indescribable," says someone who's known him for more than 10 years

Martin Gugino
Martin Gugino (right). Photo: Bill Jacobson

As a passionate member of the Western New York Peace Center, retiree Martin Gugino had plenty of time to spend on social justice causes dear to his heart — which include stopping racism and ending police brutality.

So last Thursday night, it was a given that the 75-year-old and many other members of the group attended a George Floyd protest outside city hall in Buffalo, New York, says the Peace Center's executive director, Victoria Ross.

Video of what happened next between Gugino and the Buffalo police has been seen millions of times around the world: Gugino approached a line of officers in Niagara Square as they were clearing demonstrators shortly after a curfew started. After Gugino spoke briefly to the officers and gestured with his phone to one of them, the police shoved him and he fell back and hit his head on the ground so hard that blood began pooling.

Police then walked by the unmoving Gugino, who ended up in intensive care in a local hospital.

He's now making a recovery and on Wednesday was moving to a rehabilitation floor, his attorney, Kelly Zarcone, tells PEOPLE. "His condition continues to improve and we hope he will be released within the next two weeks," she says.

Though the footage was roundly denounced and the involved officers were quickly suspended and charged with assault (they have both pleaded not guilty), on Tuesday morning President Donald Trump weighed in.

He tweeted a baseless theory that Gugino was in fact some kind of "ANTIFA provocateur," referring to a loose association of militant left-wing demonstrators, and his fall might be a "set up." It appears Trump was reacting to a report he had just seen on a fringe TV network.

Gugino's friends and attorney say that depiction is absurd.

"The gap between who Martin is and what the president alleged or hinted at is so wide, it's really indescribable," says Matt Daloisio, a New York City public defender who has known Gugino for more than a decade.

Instead, he's described as a gentle man devoted to nonviolence, a Catholic who can be found advocating for causes as varied as affordable housing with PUSH Buffalo, nuclear disarmament with The Kings Bay Plowshares or racial justice with Black Lives Matter, among other causes.

Martin Gugino
A screenshot from Martin Gugino's recorded encounter with Buffalo, New York, police last week. GoFundMe

"Martin spends all of his time trying to figure out how to use his gifts and his resources to benefit others," says Daloisio. The pair met through their work with Witness Against Torture, a group devoted to shutting down the prison in Guantanamo.

Despite the president's tweet — as well as conspiratorial suggestions in some online circles that other video from Thursday shows Gugino was agitating protesters before the police pushed him — those who know him say the truth is far different. (The viral video of his encounter with police begins with him walking up to them and is about 30 seconds long.)

"Martin's one of the sweetest people I've ever met, he is a kind and gentle man," Daloisio tells PEOPLE. "I think every picture you've probably ever seen of him, he's smiling and that's not contrived. That's just how he is. He is very unassuming and someone who doesn't want to draw attention to himself."

Daloisio hasn't been able to speak to Gugino since the injury, but he has left messages and sent texts, which have been returned with heart emojis.

Ross, with the Peace Center, says that Gugino "has been in a lot of pain, and it's been very difficult."

Friends say Gugino had a career in computers before retiring and then caring for his elderly mother, Rita, at her house before she died.

"When I met them all in 2012, we just really talked about how she felt that Martin was so important to her and so helpful," says Zarcone, noting the bachelor is also a doting uncle to his late sister's children and grandchildren.

While Gugino is now out of the ICU, "he's exhausted, he really, really needs to rest," Zarcone says. "And then we need to assess whether he'll make a full recovery or not."

She says she is working with the law firm of Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria on Gugino's constitutional claim and a possible personal injury lawsuit.

The White House on Wednesday doubled down on Trump's theory. The press secretary told reporters, "The president was asking questions about an interaction in a video clip he saw, and the president has the right to ask those questions."

At a meeting of the Peace Center last week, Gugino, treasurer of the group's Latin solidarity committee, was talking with Ross about the particulars of distributing money to different Latina anti-domestic violence groups.

"Martin's gentleness, Martin's devotion to nonviolence and to his ideals, and anyone to make statements that he is a fomenter of violence or any kind of terror is ridiculous," says Ross. "I really have to say his signature characteristic is he is is a devotee of nonviolence."

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