March 8, 1994 produced a highly extraordinary moment from an unusual man who made a point in more ways than one: Joel Gonzalez, a future city councilor, chopped off the index finger of his left hand on the steps of the state capitol in Hartford to express his version of justice to violent gun users during a historic violent-crime period in the city and state. A friend videotaped it.
Gonzalez, then a mechanic, amputated his finger utilizing a homemade guillotine.
On that day, the Connecticut General Assembly was debating a gun-control bill. For Gonzalez it seemed a sensible thing to do under the circumstances that set off quite a panic inside the capitol building when word spread.
These decades later, including banter on OIB, Gonzalez’s act is a source of amusement and bemusement. Police found Gonzalez on the capitol steps holding his bloody hand to his chest. Police confiscated the video and later returned it to Gonzalez who recently digitized the grainy VHS tape. I reviewed the video. Gonzalez is not ready to make it public given its graphic content. Gonzalez allowed screen shots of the video for this article, the first such images ever published.
The video captures Joel, wearing a white shirt and tie, showing only mild trepidation as he readies the act. Looking down at the guillotine, he places the base of his left index finger underneath the blade. He gallows into the camera: “I don’t have the guts.” Then he wastes little time. Raising a hammer in his right hand, he thrusts down violently atop the razor covering his finger. The swat provokes a painful gasp, a spurt of blood, his flying digit finds a landing spot on a step above him. Joel looks into the camera and asks his videographer friend Carlos Ramos nonchalantly “You got it? Get closer footage. Don’t get nervous. Come on,” he tells his friend who zeroes in on the severed finger.
Today Joel works as a custodian in Police Headquarters on Congress Street often defending the honor of police in the OIB comments section. What was Joel thinking? Humor comes from pain as he exhibits in this Q&A interview that follows.
Q. What possessed you to take such an alarming act to bring attention to this issue?
A. What possessed me? It was out if my deep concern about how bad the problem of guns in the wrong hands had gotten. The execution of Willie Terron in the Evergreens Housing project by the son of a Bridgeport Police Officer touched close to home as we all knew each other. Had I simply stated my position on this method of punishment, it would have fallen on deaf ears and taken as just another person talking the talk. I had to walk the walk or let the finger do the walking.
Q. Twenty five years later was it worth doing?
A. Was it worth it? It would have been more worthy if the video wasn’t confiscated and I had been able to sell the video–the highest offer was half a million. The action I took opened a line of communication and discussion with many of those involved in gangs and drug trafficking. I was able convince many gang members (mainly Latin Kings) to turn their way of living and thinking. To me it was worth it, but never to the point of doing it again.
Q. Were you charged by police for this act?
A. I was threatened with getting charged. I was immediately transported to Hartford hospital and a State Trooper was stationed by the door of the room I was in. Eight hours later, the Trooper didn’t arrest me when I was released. My assistant and friend Carlos Ramos was charged with causing a disturbance or breach of peace to which he later pleaded guilty. The State of CT refused to give back the video tape even after Carlos Ramos pleaded guilty and deciding not to charge me. Three months later the Judge ordered the state to return the video tape.
Q. How painful was it? You seemed so composed in the video.
A. The chopping didn’t produce the level of pain I was expecting. I was as mentally prepared as I could to deal with and react to what was to come after. While I was waiting for the doctor to stitch me up, I felt more pain on the finger I had accidentally cut the day before (testing the blade). For years, I’ve experienced the ‘phantom effect’–the feeling or sensation of the finger existence or return to its proper place.
Q. All these years later you share a sense of humor about the incident. Did it take you a long time to get there?
A. I’ve always maintained a good sense of humor. Some people make a big deal about my amputated digit while appearing to be less concern or conscious of the fact that everyone killed by a gun loses all their digits.
Q. When you ran for City Council (the following year and won) did the subject matter come up much?
A. When I ran for Council, the majority of the people recognized me. The conversations centered around crime in the district and how I intended to address and tackle the problem.
Q. Do you still have the same attitude about the kind of punishment that should be meted out to violent gun offenders?
A. I never expected the legislature to implement such strong laws or method of punishment. However, I have some ideas or a proposal for gun legislation. Two years ago, Representative Ezequiel Santiago proposed we get together before the next Legislative session to see what gun bill we could put together. No need to tell you what happened.
Q. What happened to your finger?
A. What happen to the finger? The cut was a clean straight one. I spent 8 hours in Hartford hospital. The finger was placed in ice and during all that time doctors tried their best to convince me to allow them to re-attach the finger. At the same time, I was being mentally evaluated by a team of shrinks. I was cleared and they explained to me what all the delay and teams of medics was all about. I had 72 hours to change my mind and re-attach the finger. I never looked back. Legend has it that two days after I left the hospital, the finger went missing as if it had walked away. Years later, the finger resurfaced in a TV commercial for Zip-lock bags.
Here’s how the Hartford Courant covered story.