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Saratoga Springs official apologizes for rap comment

Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino (file photo)
Lucas Willard
Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino (file photo)

The new Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner publicly apologized on Tuesday for remarks published last month where he linked the Spa City’s rowdy nightlife to hip-hop.

In February, in a Daily Gazette article on violence at a downtown bar, Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino suggested the style of music being played at Gaffney’s contributes to late-night fights.

Spa City police have long had an increased presence on Caroline Street, where many bars and restaurants are located, on weekends and during the summer tourism season. Late-night, alcohol-fueled altercations are frequent.

In describing recent events, Montagnino, a Democrat elected in November, told the Gazette…

“But what I’m told is that there are some unsavory characters who enjoy the gangster rap, and late on a Saturday night tempers sometimes flare.”

After some public criticism, Montagnino addressed his words in a follow-up article in the Times Union two days later but did not apologize.

During Tuesday night’s regular city council meeting, some Saratoga Springs residents criticized Montagnino, including Norah Brennan:

“Using music that is commonly associated with Black people and associating it to ‘unsavory characters,’ maybe the Commissioner thinks it’s not a big deal, but it’s the kind of racism that leads to Black people being targeted as suspicious more often than white people,” said Brennan. “It is the kind of throwaway comment that I’d be willing to stretch and attribute as one of the subtle drivers of Black people being arrested at higher rates than white people in our community.”

Matthew Marshall pointed out the rowdy behavior observed downtown during annual SPAC performances of Dave Matthews Band, a group popular with white audiences.

“I hear no mention about the ‘unsavory characters’ and behaviors brought out by Dave Matthews Band, where there are dozens of arrests each night of that weekend, every single year,” said Marshall. “I wonder why Dave Matthews Band isn’t considered ‘unsavory’ culture?”

Montagnino responded with an apology.

“I apologize if I’ve insulted anyone or offended anyone. That was not my intent. Not by way of excuse but just by way of information,” said Montagnino. “I listen to Eminem, for example. I’ve taken my wife and our Fresh Air Fund host child to Lil Wayne in SPAC…”

Following audible groans from the audience, Montagnino continued.

“In my mind, at the time I said those things, I was not thinking in racial terms. I was thinking, for example, there’s a lyric in one of Eminem’s songs that goes ‘If you don’t have a weapon just pick up a rock.’ That’s a lyric in a song. And as someone commented, people who are drinking alcohol frequently have a lack of judgement and loss of inhibitions. And my belief, which may very well be mistaken, is that under certain circumstances, is that people may act when encouraged by violent language,” said Montagnino.

In his comments, the 66-year-old Commissioner also described hiring minorities in a previous career.

“In 1977, I was the first person to hire an African-American mechanic at New York City’s second-largest marina. I was met with resistance from customers as well as other workers,” said Montagnino.

Montagnino did receive some praise for his recent calls for changes related to testing and hiring within the city police and fire departments to increase diversity. There is currently only one Black officer on the city police force.

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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