*By Ali A. Jenabzadeh

Just to fan the flame!

June 12, 2020 - 11:29

U.S. President Donal Trump gave rise to a new controversy on Tuesday by condemning a 75-year-old protester as being an "Antifa provocateur." Martin Gugino, a Buffalo activist who is still in the hospital recovering from a head wound he sustained when the police shoved him to the ground, is Trump's new target to keep the fire of protests on.

Without any evidence to prove his claim, Trump tweeted that the incident in Buffalo, the second-largest city in the state of New York, maybe a "set up" and once again sided with the police over people. Trump tweeted: "Buffalo protester shoved by police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75-year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to blackout the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a setup?"

Trump's tweet was criticized by both Republicans and Democrats, The Times of Israel reported. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said, "It's a serious accusation, which should only be made with facts and evidence. And I haven't seen any yet".

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who last week said she's "struggling with" whether to support Trump in November, reacted to the tweet in the Capitol after a reporter handed her a printout. "Oh lord. Ugh," she said. "Again, why would you fan the flames? That's all I'm going to say." 
New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo also called on Trump to apologize for a "wholly unacceptable" tweet. "How reckless, how irresponsible, how mean, how crude. I mean if there was ever a reprehensible, dumb comment, and from the president of the United States," Cuomo said at his daily press conference. "At this moment of anguish and anger, what does he do? Pour gasoline on the fire," he added.

As an effort to malign protesters as "radical-left, bad people" engaging in domestic terrorism, Trump has frequently invoked the label "Antifa," an umbrella term for leftist militants bound more by belief than organizational structure.

No sign of Antifa

U.S. Attorney General William Barr has repeatedly blamed anti-fascist activists for the violence that has erupted during demonstrations over George Floyd's death, but as a report by NPR claims, federal court records show no sign of so-called Antifa links so far in cases brought by the Justice Department.

Experts reviewed court documents of individuals facing federal charges connected with the unrest. As of Tuesday morning, none is alleged to have links to the Antifa movement.

The single instance in which an extremist group is mentioned in court documents is against three Nevada men. Federal prosecutors allege the trio belong to the right-wing Boogaloo movement that wants to bring about a civil war. The men have been charged with plotting violence during Las Vegas protests.

Experts believe that Antifa isn't even a group; it's more of a diffuse movement of leftists who share a similar ideology in opposition to fascism. In an interview with Fox News, William Pelham Barr, a government official and the 77th and 85th United States Attorney General, described Antifa as a "very loosely organized group" with a "sort of unique or unusual system of communication and organization." On the question of hierarchy, he said that "there are people who could be characterized as leaders in any given situation."

In sworn testimony before congressional lawmakers, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau considers Antifa "more of an ideology than an organization."

Who gave Trump the information?

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Trump's conspiracy theory is based on a segment broadcasted by a conservative cable network called One America News. This cable has a minuscule audience, attracts few readers on the web, and has struggled to break into the television mainstream. But thanks to one powerful viewer in the White House, the network's influence — and its conspiracy theories — are echoing in the highest reaches of American politics. 

The segment would probably have faded into obscurity had Trump not chosen to amplify it to his nearly 82 million Twitter followers. Later on Tuesday, One America News aired a follow-up segment that portrayed Mr. Gugino as a liberal extremist, "far from the kindly old man that many in the media are describing," in the words of a correspondent, Pearson Sharp.
One America News, based in San Diego, was founded in 2013 by Robert Herring, a California businessman who made a fortune in the technology industry. The network rallied behind Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Its coverage increasingly shifted to cheerleading on behalf of the president and his administration.

Trump, a keen tracker of his media coverage, took notice. On Twitter and sometimes at public events, he often promotes One America News as a preferable alternative to Fox News, which is another network known for conservative opinion whose coverage occasionally rankles Trump. Inside the West Wing, One America News often airs on television screens alongside mainstream cable news networks, the New York Times' report says. Its White House correspondent, Chanel Rion, is now a staple of nationally televised news briefings, often called on by Trump's press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany.

The Herring family, in turn, has positioned One America News as a destination for pro-Trump viewers who feel alienated from more mainstream conservative outlets. The network's chief executive, Robert Herring, claimed in a Twitter post that his network would present "follow-up reporting" to back up its claims about Mr. Gugino. "Mr. President, you haven't let us down on doing what you say, and we won't let you down as your source for credible news!" Mr. Herring wrote.

In the segment about Mr. Gugino, the One America News reporter, Mr. Rouz, claims that "newly released video appeared to show Gugino using a police tracker on his phone trying to scan police communications during the protest." The footage, as seen in the segment, offers no explicit evidence to back up that assertion.

Who is Gugino? Activist or extremist?

"He was an activist a seasoned peacenik who in a lifetime of protest has taken part in demonstrations against military drones, climate change, nuclear weapons, and police brutality," said Gugino's friends to the New York Times on Tuesday.

But Mr. Gugino is also a football fan, they said, a mild-mannered bachelor and a Buffalo native who returned to his hometown some years ago to care for his ailing mother.

The one thing he is not, however, those who knew him said, is what Trump suggested he was on Twitter Tuesday morning: a wily Antifa provocateur.

"Antifa? Oh, heavens no," said Judy Metzger, 85, a longtime friend who lives near Mr. Gugino in Amherst, a suburb of the city. "Martin is a very gentle, a very pleasant person."

Born in Buffalo, Mr. Gugino spent most of his working life in Cleveland, where he specialized in creating computer databases, his friends and colleagues said.

He went back to his hometown to care for his mother, and after she died, he lived alone in her home, finding fellowship at the Western New York Peace Center and other parts of the city's close-knit left-wing activist community.

John Washington, 35, first met Mr. Gugino at an Occupy Buffalo event in 2011 when both men took to the streets of Niagara Square, the same place where Mr. Gugino was shoved by the police last week. "He has this kind of thirst for justice," Mr. Washington said. "He gets very latched onto powerful ideas and tries to really experience them, not just learn them."

Trump and his allies have often tried placing anti-fascists and other "outside agitators" at the center of the protests. This is a way to delegitimize them and to deflect from the fact that the vast majority of the demonstrations have been peaceful.

But even by his own standards, Trump appeared to test the boundaries of credulity by trying to brand a retired septuagenarian computer programmer as a follower of Antifa, whose adherents are, for one thing, generally much younger. In fact, as Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, believes, Trump seems to want only to fan the flames. But why?

* Author: Ali A. Jenabzadeh, Tehran Times editor in chief 

His page on Twitter : @Jenabzadeh 

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