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Young Saratogians Criticize Police Response To Protest

A screen capture of Tuesday's virtual Saratoga Springs City Council meeting
A screen capture of Tuesday's virtual Saratoga Springs City Council meeting

Last week, a counter-protest to a pro-police “Back The Blue” rally in Saratoga Springs drew a multi-agency police response. It included officers firing pepper bullets at demonstrators. Young people involved in the counter-protest shared comments with the city council Tuesday night. Meantime, the city has appointed a task force to host discussions on police-community relations in accordance with a state directive. 

Skidmore College student Amal Omer shared a sentiment echoed by several of her peers Tuesday night during a Saratoga Springs city council meeting held on Zoom.

“I’m honestly ashamed to go to school in a town where this is existing and exists in every town; the SSPD is notoriously racist,” said Omer.

The students and others on the call wanted answers as to why the city chose to use force against Black Lives Matter protesters following a larger “Back the Blue” pro-police rally earlier in the evening on Thursday, July 30th.

Emily Kane was among the younger crowd of counter-protesters that blocked the intersection of Broadway and Congress Street following the pro-police rally.

“I was at the protest on the 30th. And I was scared for myself and I was scared for my peers and my friends who were also there,” said Kane.

Prior to Tuesday night’s meeting, Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton shared a press release from the city police department, detailing its account of the night’s events that led to three arrests, including two juveniles. The city released several graphic videos of the event in its defense of its actions.

But many were not satisfied, including Michael Sultzman, who also witnessed the police response, which involved an armored vehicle, riot gear, and mounted officers.

“I find it very disappointing that the city of Saratoga Springs has not taken responsibility for their part in the escalation of events on Thursday.”

Sultzman said police did not communicate their warnings to all protesters occupying the intersection moments before force was used.

The city has cited an instance of “hate speech” used by a Black Lives Matter protester against a Black pastor in its justification for its response. Lex Figuereo, a Black Saratoga Springs resident involved in that exchange, has since issued an apology on social media.

The city’s release does not mention threatening language and insults used against Black Lives Matter protesters from Back the Blue supporters in Congress Park, witnessed and reported by WAMC.

Police also drew attention to a handful of Black Lives Matter demonstrators wearing bullet-proof vests and possessing pepper spray canisters. Recent Capital Region protests organized by All of Us have included demonstrators acting as security detail with vests – including in Schenectady – events that did not see such escalation or arrests by police.

City police also said it the department informed prior to the night’s events that one of the Black Lives Matter protesters may have been armed with a handgun. WAMC did not witness any armed Black Lives Matter supporters.

Commissioner Dalton, a Republican, has held dialogue with diverse voices since a charged community conversation in July, where Black residents shared their personal stories of police bias.

After reading through the statement issued earlier in the day, Dalton responded to some of the comments.

“We have hosted many, many, many peaceful protests in this city over the last two months, and in the history of this city. This was one instance in which things did not end in a way any of us would have wanted them to end. However, we did our absolute best to protect all lives and make sure no one was injured, and I stand by everything that happened that evening,” said Dalton.

City officials mentioned repeatedly that Back The Blue supporters – who marched through downtown in the street – had organized their rally with permitted approval from city government.

Dalton urged future organizers to alert the city ahead of time, so that traffic may be blocked and other safety measures taken.

“In the future, if anyone sits in an intersection, wanders through traffic, we will give you a verbal warning that you’re putting your own safety at risk. If you do not leave and go to the sidewalk, we will arrest you. We are only arresting you for your own safety and for the safety of those around you," said Dalton.

Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, a Democrat, supported that request for demonstrators to seek a permit, but also called for more community dialogue.

“We may never agree with each other but we need to come together as a community. We need to temper our use of force and aggression and we need to temper our responses to things that we might find are a bit aggressive,” said Madigan.

Mayor Meg Kelly, also a Democrat, said she has reached out to the group MLK Saratoga and new Skidmore College President Marc Conner for additional dialogue.

I would love to see us all come together and sit at the table and see if we can work through this. I do believe that we are all Saratogians. We’ve lived in harmony for a long time and if we need to make changes, let’s make them now,” said Kelly.

Kelly also announced the make-up of a new 13-member task force aimed at gathering community input on policing. The task force, which will hold its first public meeting August 19th at the Saratoga Springs City Center, is in line with an Executive Order from Governor Andrew Cuomo. Local governments must hold dialogue and submit findings to the state on “reimagining” police by April 2021.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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