Thursday, 09 March 2023 14:36

Saratoga BLM Activist Pleads Not Guilty to Violation Initiated by City Public Safety Commissioner; Judge Denies Additional Request for Order of Protection

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Chandler Hickenbottom pleaded not guilty to a disorderly conduct charge during her arraignment at Saratoga Springs City Court on March 7.   

The violation charge, specified as disturbing a lawful assembly, was requested by City Council member and Public Safety Commissioner Jim Montagnino in connection with the disruption of a Feb. 7 City Council meeting. That council meeting was subsequently adjourned early and eventually resumed two days later.

“I filed the charge that I filed because the City Council meeting was ended. It wasn’t delayed, it wasn’t’ interrupted, it was ended,” Montagnino said, during the City Council meeting Tuesday night, March 8. 

The 26-year-old Saratoga Black Lives Matter activist was accompanied by her attorney Mark Mishler who told the court that the allegations infringe and violate Hickenbottom’s protected First Amendment rights. 

Inside the courtroom, supporters of Hickenbottom wore newly minted red sweatshirts stenciled with the hashtag #thepeoplesmeeting and name-checking the city’s public safety commissioner with the stenciled phrase addition “Your Racism Is Showing.”    

Both Saratoga Springs City Judges - Jeffrey Wait and Francine Vero –  apparently withdrew from hearing the case, the reason for their respective recusals not immediately known. Mechanicville City Court Judge Constantine DiStefano instead took the position at the judge’s bench flanked by the U.S. flag and N.Y. State flag as a handful of regionally based television news crew members sat in the jury box and fixed their cameras on the defendant’s table. 

In court, Judge Constantine DiStefano denied an additional filing by the commissioner, who sits on the City Council, for an order of protection. If approved, it presumably would have barred Hickenbottom from attending council meetings, which are attended by Montagnino. 

All parties are scheduled to return to city court on March 28.

“This whole situation is absolutely ridiculous,” Hickenbottom said, meeting with members of the media on the steps of City Hall following her appearance in court. “What we see is a public official now taking out an Order of Protection against an activist. This is taking away from my (ability) to go to City Council meetings, to speak about things I feel I should be able to speak about.  I am a lifelong community member, born and raised in Saratoga Springs, and it is my right to come to these City Council meetings.” 

Hickenbottom said recent developments are “fracturing” the relationship between Saratoga BLM and city government. Recently, the council agreed to hold a special forum with activists to discuss issues. That forum is anticipated to take place March 21. 

A number of Saratoga BLM activists are intending to bring a lawsuit against the city, according to Hickenbottom’s attorney, Mark Mishler said. “Going back well before (city protests in) July 2020, but at least for these purposes, starting in July 2020, there has been a policy and practices directed and motivated to violate the civil rights, the constitutional rights, of Saratoga BLM and other supporters of Saratoga BLM,” Mishler said. “We didn’t need this new charge to have a very strong lawsuit against the city of Saratoga Springs, (but) it is our intent that this event will also be part of the lawsuit.” 

There is no specific timeline to file a potential lawsuit, but Mishler reminded that the state Attorney General’s office remains engaged in an investigation of the city related to civil rights violations. “We are interested in seeing what the Attorney General’s office says when they complete their investigation, so, most likely a lawsuit will not be filed until that process is complete.” 

“I want to see actual change,” Hickenbottom said. “Nothing is going to change if they don’t listen to the things that the community wants. What I’m looking for is the City Council to actually listen to the community. The only way we’re going to move forward and be a better Saratoga is to listen to the people who are working in Saratoga and living in Saratoga. And that doesn’t mean the people who are rich in Saratoga. That means the minorities of Saratoga: the poor, the black, the homeless.”

The other four members of the City Council have come out publicly expressing disapproval of the action brought by their fellow Democrat public safety commissioner. 

“I wish we hadn’t taken this step,” city Mayor Ron Kim said, shortly after Hickenbottom’s court appearance. “I don’t think we need to have a court hearing on someone who is exercising their free speech, even though that speech we may not like, or we may not like the way they are delivering it; it’s still essentially a First Amendment right and we shouldn’t have the courts dealing with this. It’s regrettable we have this situation.” 

“Where we are now is partly because of Darryl Mount, but it’s not only because of that,” said Saratoga BLM activist Alexis Figuereo. 

Darryl Mount was a 21-year-old biracial man who was mortally injured while fleeing city police in the early morning hours of Aug. 31, 2013. Mount was subsequently in a coma for several months following the incident and died in May 2014. 

The city’s Public Safety Department maintained there was no police misconduct evident related to the circumstances of the injuries suffered by Mount, although the level of speculation about what may have occurred has remained high among some area residents, particularly after a 2018 report published by the Times Union revealed court documents showing the city’s then police chief admitted no internal investigation into misconduct was ever conducted and that he had intentionally deceived a local reporter whose published stories referenced an ongoing internal investigation that the chief knew didn’t exist.

“I believe with all the things that have been going on across America, and even in our own communities – things that are swept under the rug and people don’t talk about – that’s the reason we came together in 2020 to speak our mind,” Figuereo said. In the summer of 2020, protests for social and racial justice ramped up regionally much as they had nationwide in the wake of the May 25 murder of George Floyd in in Minneapolis.    

“Even if there was no Darryl Mount we would be out here. Daryl Mount is a big part of it, but there are still a bunch of other people who have been abused in this community and in this county - being called racist words, the KKK flyers on our cars. It needs to be spoken against, and that’s what we’re going to do.”    

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