Early in the morning on June 9, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump tuned in to the conspiracy-theory-promoting One America News Network (OANN). The message the president evidently took from this early morning TV session was that the 75-year-old man violently pushed to the ground by Buffalo Emergency Response Team officers during a protest in Niagara Square was actually an “ANTIFA provocateur” whom the police were justified in pushing because he was “appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment.”
Rumors of “antifa” inciting violence during these protests, an assertion originating with a fake tweet by the white nationalist group Identity Evropa, have continued to stew in right-wing circles, despite a marked lack of evidence for the narrative.
In their segment on Martin Gugino, OANN used as their source an article from the website Conservative Treehouse (CTH), which was authored by someone who goes by the name “sundance.” That article makes two primary assertions that OANN later broadcast to the president:
“Martin Gugino is a 75-year-old professional agitator and Antifa provocateur… On Friday Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown admitted Gugino was a professional ‘agitator’ who tried to work up the crowd and had been asked to leave the area ‘numerous’ times.”
“During his effort Gugino was attempting to capture the radio communications signature of Buffalo police officers.”
The claim that Gugino was labeled an “agitator” by the mayor of Buffalo — though repeated ad nauseam in news reports and fact checks — is demonstrably false. The vague assertion that this man’s waving cell phone “capture[d] the radio communications signature of Buffalo police officers” is inconsistent with the evidence CTH themselves cited to support that notion.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown Did Not ‘Admit’ Gugino was an ‘Agitator’
The single shred of purportedly factual evidence that this conspiracy rests on is that Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown “admitted” Gugino was an “agitator” and “instigator.” Major media outlets including The Daily Beast, New York Daily News, New York Post, TMZ, and The Hill, as well as the fact-checking website TruthorFiction, each reported as fact that Brown made this comment regarding Gugino.
All of these reports are based on an incorrect local news account of a press conference held on June 5. As is clear from the transcript of the press conference, this reporting erroneously conflated the mayor’s comments regarding two separate instances of police force. The words “agitator” and “instigator” were used in reference to Myles Carter, who was protesting earlier in the week at a different location on Bailey Avenue and was tackled from behind by New York State police. The mayor’s use of the these words clearly refers to the Carter incident, not Gugino (emphasis ours):
Reporter: This [the Martin Gugino incident] wasn’t the only incident that happened this week. Monday night, Myles Carter was on Bailey Avenue protesting. He was 15, 20 yards away from a police line with his back and hands up to the police, out of nowhere seemingly they rushed him, arrested him and charged him with two misdemeanors. … Why not the response Monday night, looking at the officers, temporarily suspending them and having an internal investigation there? I mean, the tape was pretty clear. He wasn’t doing anything.
Mayor: Those were state police officers. Those were not Buffalo police officers. So obviously the city of Buffalo does not have the ability to take action against state police officers. But what we were informed of is that that individual was an agitator. He was trying to spark up the crowd of people, again, that was a curfew violation. […] And according to what has been reported to me, that individual was a key and major instigator of people engaging in those kinds of activities.
Some outlets, such as The Daily Beast and The Hill, have issued corrections. “This article previously claimed Mayor Brown referred to 75-year-old activist Martin Gugino as a ‘major instigator,’ but upon review of audio from the press conference, it is clear he was referring to a separate incident,” wrote The Daily Beast. Unfortunately, these corrections have done little to stem the flow of false information surrounding the incident.
Gugino does have a history of activism — he was described by the Buffalo News as “a longtime peace activist.” None of the organizations he has worked with can credibly be considered a part of the purported “antifa” movement, which is not a single organization but is instead a decentralized movement opposed to fascism that has endorsed violence as a political tactic. Gugino has been an activist for decades through his work with “People United for Sustainable Housing Buffalo” and “The Western New York Peace Center.” There is no evidence these organizations are secretly part of “antifa,” whatever that would mean in practice.
According to the Buffalo News, “Gugino has been involved in a broad array of issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to climate change and Guantanamo.” Gugino’s attorney, Kelly Zarcone, told The Associated Press that Gugino “has always been a peaceful protester because he cares about today’s society.”
“No one from law enforcement has even suggested anything otherwise, so we are at a loss to understand why the president of the United States would make such dark, dangerous, and untrue accusations about him. We can confirm that those accusations are utterly baseless and ridiculous,” Zarcone said.
The only evidence that Gugino’s attendance at the Niagara Square rally on June 5 was anything other than peaceful comes from falsely attributing Brown’s comments about Myles Carter to Gugino. Stripped of that falsehood, the sole remaining truth is that a 75-year-old, lifelong peace activist approached officers vaguely waving his phone before being knocked headfirst to the pavement where he lay unconscious with blood pooling out of his ear.
‘Scanning Police Communications To Black Out Equipment’ Makes No Sense
The assertion breathlessly promoted by OANN, and later Trump himself — that Gugino’s intent in approaching the officers pushed him was to manipulate, steal, or disarm police communications in some way — comes from the fringe right-wing website “Conservative Treehouse” (CTH). OANN cited this website in the report Trump apparently watched. That article stated, with no evidence or exposition, that “during his effort Gugino was attempting to capture the radio communications signature of Buffalo police officers.” The website presented “a new video” which they said confirmed their suspicions. This was not a new video, but instead merely a slower version of the original video that sparked international outrage.
CTH’s analysis of this “new” slowed-down video is — to put it mildly — extremely vague. So vague, in fact, that it fails to present a single coherent hypothesis or claim. Among the possibilities proffered was the claim Trump went with in his tweet — that Gugino was trying to “black out” the network. But other claims proffered by CTH also included attempting to track officers with their cell phones, unlocking encrypted networks, and messing with officers’ potentially Bluetooth enabled devices — each a wholly different hypothesis. The video cannot distinguish between these various hypotheses in part because the video can’t actually tell us anything about what he was doing with his phone.
One thing the video can tell us, though, is what he was not doing. What he was not doing was attempting to capture radio signals from the police’s communication system. In fact, the evidence that CTH themselves used to suggest he was performing some sort of action like that entirely undercuts their argument. Two “sources” were cited in support of the notion that radio frequency harvesting was what was going on: a thread apparently authored by the same person who wrote the CTH article, and an article from the website Electronics4u which describes how to receive radio signals on a mobile phone:
The capture of communications signals [explained in detail here] is a method of police tracking used by Antifa to monitor the location of police. In some cases the more high tech capture software can even decipher communication encryption allowing the professional agitators to block (black-out), jam, or interfere with police communication. In addition, many police body-cams are bluetooth enabled which allows syncing.
The link that allegedly explains “the more high tech” way to decipher signals and how to “block, jam, or interfere” with police communications hyperlinks to the Electronis4u story, titled “Software-Defined Radio with Android Smartphones.” Not only does this article make no mention of any blocking, jamming, or interference, it makes explicit the necessity of additional receiver hardware if one wanted to use a phone to do anything involving tuning into radio frequencies. (This appears to be the case for iPhones as well). Here is the setup that article highlighted, which shows the need for both an antenna and a dongle adapter to scan for frequencies:
In other words, based solely on the evidence provided by Conservative Treehouse, performing any task requiring knowledge of specific radio frequencies (including cloning or interference), would require hardware connected to the phone. The video, thanks to CTH’s cutting edge slow motion analysis, makes clear that he had no such dongle or antenna connected to the phone:
We reached out to the Buffalo Police Department for clarification on their communication system and whether they were aware of any possible vulnerabilities that could arise from a cell phone waved in proximity to the officers. At the time of this reporting, we have not received a response.
Speaking to The Associated Press, Matt Blaze, a professor of computer science and law at Georgetown University, said the president’s tweet regarding “blacking out” communication is “so technically incomprehensible, I’m not even sure where to start.” As the Post reported, “It is possible to disrupt police radio — an illegal action often called “jamming” — but hackers can only do that by attacking receiving stations, not with handheld devices that target an individual police officer’s radio, Blaze said.”
Ultimately, the allegation that a 75-year-old activist is actually a highly trained member of antifa capable of infiltrating an encrypted police communication network by waving his cell phone around is belied by the fact that his phone did not appear to have the equipment necessary to perform some of the actions he is accused of. It is also belied by a lack of any other corroborating evidence, as well as the inability for its adherents to articulate a concrete allegation. The only bit of additional evidence these claims rely on is the false assertion that the mayor of Buffalo stated Guginio was an “agitator” or an “instigator.”
Unfortunately for CTH’s embarrassingly under-theorized claim, the mayor of Buffalo never described Gugino this way.