SARATOGA SPRINGS — A Special City Council meeting was held at City Hall on the afternoon of Oct. 1 to address public safety concerns in light of recent protests and marches held in Saratoga Springs.
“The safety of the community and all involved is the number one priority of the Department of Public Safety,” Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton said, to begin the meeting. Dalton specifically cited a protest held the previous Friday night led by the group All of Us. The regional grassroots organization describes their goals as fighting for liberty through unity and active resistance and ending all forms of oppression and exploitation.
“Over the last six days we have received hundreds of complaints from residents, businesses and people who are visiting our city, over the protest that happened in our city Friday night. The Saratoga Springs Police Department recognizes the right to peacefully protest, however, one person’s constitutional right does not supersede another’s,” Dalton said during the meeting, attended by all council members, excepting DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, who was absent.
Accompanied by video clips of the protest, Dalton provided a timeline of the march, which commenced in Congress Park and proceeded through the downtown business corridor. For safety reasons, police blocked off streets around the Broadway and Lake Avenue intersection, she said, and a video clip depicted marchers moving along Phila Street.
“Frequently the group stopped in front of area businesses to intimidate and harass diners and pedestrians,” Dalton said, showing a five-minute clip that depicted one of the group leaders in close proximity to outdoor restaurant tables and loudly addressing diners with words at times peppered with profanity. “You all can have dinner, while black people are dying,” the clip showed. “You all feel comfortable, having dinner, while we’re being murdered? Come outside walk with us.”
“Suffice to say none of the customers came back to dine at those restaurants that evening,” Dalton said. “That also happened at several other businesses, where they stopped and harassed and intimidated people who were eating.”
Protests for social and racial justice have ramped up regionally much as they have nationwide since the May 25 murder of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis after being pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee. In early June, more than 1,000 attended a rally in Congress Park. In late July, Black Lives Matter/All of Us marchers protesting racial injustice crossed paths with another group supporting law enforcement in a Back The Blue rally.
Citing “intelligence collected by outside agencies” that police say reported one of the protestors was possibly armed with a handgun, the city added the assistance of the State Police, state Park Police, and the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department. Later that same evening, as members of the group rallied on Broadway and impeded traffic in front of Congress Park, the sheriff’s department utilizing their MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle, dispersed the crowd using pepper projectiles. The city Chief of Police authorized the action “once the situation started turning violent,” according to a statement issued by SSPD.
The most recent protest led by “All of Us” was staged two days after a Kentucky grand jury decided against charging police officers with homicide in the death of Breonna Taylor. The 26-year-old emergency room technician was shot multiple times in her apartment by officers executing a search warrant earlier this year in what the N.Y. Times described as a “botched raid.”
At this week’s special council meeting, Assistant City Police Chief John Catone read a prepared statement which said SSPD respects the right to peacefully protest at public property – “such as parks, government buildings, as long as they are not blocking access to the buildings or interfering with the other purposes the property was designated for.”
Citing the video clips played during the council meeting, Catone explained that marchers had obstructed vehicle and pedestrian traffic to the point that the safety of all had been compromised.
“Moving forward, should demonstrations and protests which have not been coordinated with our department occur obstruct vehicular pedestrian traffic and compromise the peace and safety of all community members, the police department will ask demonstrators, protesters to remove themselves from the roadway and stop obstructing vehicular and pedestrian traffic,” Catone said. “The demonstrators/protesters will be given the opportunity to move and if they fail to do so, the appropriate police action will take place, and they may be subject to arrest.”
He added the police department continues to make itself available to meet with rally organizers for safe protest planning purposes, but said members of All Of Us had thus far not agreed to meet with the department.
“It is time to make some changes here because we cannot have this happening time and time again in the city of Saratoga Springs – period,” Mayor Meg Kelly said. “We are not going to block streets; there’s going to be a time where somebody’s going to get run over by a car. There’s going to be a fight in the street and it’s going to be a bad scene,” she said. “I think this is a very important turning point.”
Lexis Figuereo, identified as a leader of the group “All of Us,” spoke to the council during the meeting’s public comment period.
“This is the first meeting I’m hearing anything about protests. Until people started complaining about restaurants last Friday - now you guys want to talk. Now we’re having a special council meeting. There was no Special Council Meeting when you guys shot at us,” said Figuereo, referring to the late July rally that resulted in law enforcement using pepper balls. “Why has it taken this long for this to happen, because we’ve been doing this since May. It seems to me what’s more important is property and money than people and people’s lives.”
All Of Us is advocating for what it calls its “13 Demands Against Police Brutality, State-Sanctioned Violence, and Abuse of Power.” These include structural changes be made to policing and incarceration, including the abolition of all no-knock warrants, anti-racism training for all persons working for law enforcement, and the abolition of chokeholds, among others.
In June, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an Executive Order requiring local governments with a police force to perform a comprehensive review and develop a plan to improve current police force deployments, strategies, policies, procedures, and practices. The purpose of the order is to address the particular needs of each community, to promote community engagement and foster trust, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.
Earlier this summer, city Mayor Meg Kelly Mayor convened a Task Force to address the governor’s Executive Order. The next meeting is Oct. 14. When completed, the Task Force will present their recommendations to the City Council and the public. The council is required to adopt a plan by local law or resolution on or before April 1, 2021 and to implement the recommendations.