Outside City Hall in Buffalo, USA, on 4th June at a Black Lives Matter demonstration a police officer deliberately shoved an approaching solitary, tall, 75 year-old man. Martin Gugino fell backwards to the ground, where he lay bleeding from his right ear. The cohort of police surged on leaving him prostrate. He had a fractured skull and was later put in intensive care before spending time in rehabilitation in the Erie County Medical Center. A video of the incident went worldwide.
Deploying a typically crazed Right-Wing conspiracy, the One America News network (OANN) put out a fake-news story that Martin Gugino was from Antifa, an umbrella body of anti-fascist organisations which deems violence in self-defence permissible. President Trump, a ground-feeder off such media, repeated it, tweeting that the man “could be [a standard Trump ploy ] an Antifa provocateur” scanning police communications in order to block them.
In the real world, Martin Gugino was active in a number of different campaigns for human rights, social justice, non-violence and peace. Most likely he was approaching the police to talk to them. Martin Gugino was a member of the Catholic Worker movement, a radical international organisation many younger Catholics may not have heard of. President Trump certainly hadn’t.
Dorothy Day, the woman who invented ‘taking the knee’ - but as a protester’s substitute for standing during the Star-Spangled Banner, founded the Catholic Worker newspaper in New York in 1933. Her inspiration was the larger than life French ‘classic autodidact’, Peter Maurin, a man obsessed with the need for a ‘green revolution’, with the poor’s suffering during the Great Depression, who opposed capitalism and who challenged the complacency of middle-class Catholics. Dorothy Day had escaped via university from a conventional family lacking any religious interests into the bohemian world of Greenwich Village, lower Manhattan, where journalists, writers, artists and radical thinkers, some of them communists, drank and talked the nights away. Today we might say she had a ‘chaotic lifestyle’ including feckless male admirers, heavy drinking, an abortion, an atheist husband who left her, and a long-suffering daughter Tamar born in 1927. She later denied having an affair with Eugene O’Neill but they were close.
Dorothy Day was an avid reader. Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, full of moral and political purpose, were her sacred texts. But so was Thomas á Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. Throughout these free-wheeling years there was something about Catholic liturgy that spoke to her. John Loughery and Blythe Randolph in their excellent biography, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, believe Dorothy Day wanted above all to protect Tamar from repeating her own painful quest for identity and purpose. A kindly nun instructed her in what was required of a parent so her daughter could be baptised. Then she followed Tamar into the Church in December 1927.
During 1934, Dorothy’s part mentor, part friend, Peter Maurin, began taking in rough sleepers. That winter the idea of a ‘house of hospitality’ took shape, a dilapidated four story building in Greenwich Village, close by the Hudson river. Caring for the weakest and poorest members of society became for Day and Maurin a ‘sacrament of duty’. It did not matter how drink or drug addicted and impossibly aggressive the guests might be, however racist, lice-ridden and unwashed. There was nothing romantic about their involuntary poverty. Nor about the voluntary poverty that drew idealistic young Catholics to share the lives of the guests, accepting the bedbugs, the chaos and the noise. For Dorothy Day a needy person was the image of Christ and could never be the ‘undeserving poor’. It was a theological position. She shared it in indefatigable travels and talks.
At the house of hospitality in the evenings there were lectures and debate rather threateningly known as ‘clarification of thought’. The discussions connected with the radical content of the Catholic Worker newspaper and attracted a wide range of people, not only radical journalists who over the years wrote for the paper. From the beginning racial justice, workers’ rights, opposition to war and nuclear weapons, and the Gospel values, were strong, repeated themes alongside the realities of poverty in the USA. Whilst committed to the worker struggle, Dorothy Day was wary of the leaders of the US unions. Demonstrations and civil disobedience, which qualified Catholic Workers for arrest and prison sentences, rarely prolonged, were rites of passage for Catholic Worker volunteers. The paper’s readership peaked at about 120,000 before the USA entered the Second World War but subscriptions halved when the paper continued to support conscientious objection.
During the 1950s McCarthyism increased the vulnerability of the movement. No support from the US bishops could be expected, least of all from the sixth Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were another story. The growing peace movement with its draft card burnings brought in the two Berrigan brothers, Jesuit and Josephite priests, who both served long prison sentences. I remember in the 1960s listening to Daniel Berrigan SJ, charismatic and compelling in his clerical black drainpipe jeans. When Dorothy Day was asked if Berrigan was a Catholic Worker, she replied:” No, Dan isn’t a Catholic Worker. He came to us and stole our young men away into the peace movement”. But the young men and women kept coming. And the houses of hospitality proliferated around America and the world, 175 communities in the USA and 29 more internationally, including one in north London. The Catholic Worker, described in 1971 in the New York Review of Books, as ‘the Methuselah of little mags’, still survives.
So, in a way, President Trump was right. There was a conspiracy. He recently held the source of that conspiracy aloft for a photo-op outside St. John’s church right opposite the White House. As Pope Francis said in front of a joint session of Congress in September 2015, referring to Dorothy Day whom he selected with Thomas Merton, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King as illustrating the best of US values and culture: “Her social activism, her passion for justice and the cause of the oppressed were inspired by the Gospel, her faith and the example of the saints”.
See TheArticle 17/06/2020 "Trump was right - there was a conspiracy. But not the one he thought"