The comment period at the August 4, 2020, City Council meeting was full of sustained, emotional condemnations of the city’s police, the Commissioner of Public Safety, and the Mayor for the events of July 30, when conflicting demonstrations ended with arrests and the release of pepper balls on All of Us protesters.
It is time for a more thoughtful and measured assessment of the events of that evening.
A Consideration Of The Protesters’ Perspective
While the leadership of the All of Us demonstrations in Saratoga Springs are people of color, the vast majority of the participants seem to be quite young and overwhelming white as indicated by the ages and race of the three arrested at the July 30 demonstration (16, 17, and 19 years old).
For many this was no doubt their first involvement in social movement activities. Outraged by the police excesses they see on television they are passionately motivated to create a better America.
Their organizers have led them repeatedly to occupy the city’s intersections. The youthful participants see these actions as somehow ending racism and police excesses. How exactly doing this repeatedly will end racism and police violence appears not to have been carefully thought out. A simple passion for justice seems to have carried the day.
With few possible exceptions these are young people who abhor the idea of violence. Imbued by a passion for social justice, they view violating the law by occupying the streets as an entirely justifiable action. It seems that they are innocently unaware that there might be any real problem with these actions. Any effort by the city police to restrict them is seen as a hostile action by a threatening force. This belief is reinforced by the All of Us leadership that promotes a narrative that the police in Saratoga Springs are part of a monolithic organization that, in an undeclared policy, routinely harasses and unnecessarily arrests people of color.
In such an atmosphere any forceful gesture by a law enforcement officer regarding their free flowing demonstrations is seen as a reaffirmation that the police are simply an occupying force in our city.
The Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department’s release of pepper balls to clear the intersection of Congress Street and Broadway on July 30 was the final proof to many that the city is managed by an authoritarian force out to suppress their movement.
Any verbal abuse that is then hurled at the police by the demonstrators is seen as perhaps regrettable but justified in their eyes given that anyone who would become a member of this authoritarian organization embodies the racism and violence that they are trying to end.
A Consideration of the Back The Blue Participants
This is a difficult time to be a police officer.
It is beyond question that for a long time there has been a problem in our country with police using excessive force against people of color. Regrettably municipalities where there have been egregious incidents are also places where unions representing the police have defended these excesses in some very disturbing ways.
Police officers find themselves in a profession that is under attack.
The coverage of the death of George Floyd and the subsequent defense by the police union of the four officers charged in Floyd’s death has been prominent in national news. This has added to the narrative that racism and violence among the police is a systemic problem and not a matter of a few “bad apples.”
In addition to the critical news coverage, the fiscal crisis brought on by the COVID19 pandemic and calls to defund the police have put additional pressure on police departments. The Saratoga Springs Public Safety Department has the largest personnel budget in the city, and the potential for layoffs of officers is a grave threat. Local police are facing the real possibility that they may lose their jobs.
It is not surprising then that groups like Back the Blue have formed nationally to demonstrate support for the police. On July 30, the families and friends of local officers organized a Back the Blue march in Saratoga Springs.
Although coverage of the Back the Blue march graphically displayed the very angry behavior of some individuals in exchanges with members of All of Us in Congress Park, their Facebook call to action displayed a very different tone. Like most groups they are not monolithic.
We want to humanize these officers and remind people they are spouses, children, parents, brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors, etc.
Things to Bring: Signs of support, Blue Line flags, your friends and family that are pro police. Kids are welcome as this is a family friendly event.
Things to leave at home: Any political signs, flags, etc. We want to keep this a positive, all inclusive event and do not want this to turn political or negative in any way. This is a peaceful, purely pro-police event. We hope to see you there!Please practice social distancing and wear masks when not possible. Thank you!From the Back The Blue Facebook Page
Nevertheless the reality is that some of the participants in Back the Blue felt real anger at the Black Lives Matters movement and the All of Us demonstrators for what they viewed as grossly unfair allegations against the local police and for threatening the livelihoods of people they care about.
The Perspective Of The Police
The Chief of Police is responsible for the safety of the citizens of city of Saratoga Springs.
For the city to ignore the real danger of harm when people occupy a street would be a dereliction of duty and pose a liability for the city. In fact, the police have rigorously protected protesters in the streets for several weeks, declining to make arrests. They have regularly intervened to redirect traffic to minimize the risk of anyone being hurt during these last weeks of demonstrations.
It would take just one disturbed driver to ram into a crowd (as has happened in other cities) to create a tragedy.
The restraint of the Saratoga police is in mark contrast to other cities in the country where the police have taken a very aggressive approach to enforcing traffic compliance. There is graphic footage all over the web of the resulting violence between the police and protesters leading to serious injury.
The announcement by Back the Blue to demonstrate in Saratoga Springs in support of the police made managing the actions of All of Us far more challenging. Back the Blue promoted their event encouraging people from the greater Capital District to attend. The decision by a New York State Senator and Assembly woman to participate added to the potential size of the demonstration.
All of Us then went on social media calling for people to join them in a counter demonstration against Back the Blue. One of the comments in support of this asserted that All of Us had to show Back the Blue that “we mean business.”
People need to put themselves in the shoes of Police Chief Shane Crooks. Any reasonable person would know that the Back The Blue group could include some very angry and belligerent types. A video of All of Us leader Lexis Figuereo included in an earlier blog post documents that explosive anger was also present in the BLM ranks.
These two groups were about to converge on the city and the question facing Chief Crooks was how to insure that these events did not devolve into violence.
Chief Crooks and his staff had to speculate as to how large the two groups might be and what kind of resources would be needed to manage this potentially dangerous situation.
I can only conjecture that the chief decided to marshal as much support as he could get. This would explain the presence of the city police, the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department, the New York State Police, and the New York State Park Police.
The optics of this would be problematic. For many of the young people who made up the All of Us contingent, the mass of law enforcement cars, the legions of police officers, and the presence of mounted police might well have conjured up the image of a police state. In contrast and for obvious reasons the Back the Blue demonstrators would not have felt threatened. For one thing, Back the Blue had gone through all the required procedures for registering their event and for receiving assistance from the police.
I was not there on the evening of July 30. This blog is based on the review of extensive web videos and news articles documenting the event and conversations with some of those involved. What I found was documentation that appeared to show the successful separation of Back the Blue and All of Us by the police. According to news reports there was only one event where allegedly someone from Back the Blue struck a demonstrator from All of Us.
At around 8:00 PM, at the urging of the Saratoga Springs Police, the Back the Blue contingent ended their rally, vacated Congress Park, and went home.
Urged by their leaders, the remaining All of Us participants exited the park and occupied the intersection at the gate to the city park where Congress Street and Broadway intersect. According to published reports many of the participants laid down in the street.
The protesters continued to chant. One chant led by one of the apparent leaders of All of Us was “How do you spell murderer? SSPD”
Mostly the protesters held up their hands and chanted “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” and “Whose Streets? Our Streets?”
As darkness descended Chief Crooks decided that for safety reasons the intersection needed to be cleared.
According to the Times Union, at around 8:30 the police approached Keni Zoeli [JK: TU had name wrong, Ken Zeoli] who is from Troy and one of the leaders of All of Us [JK: there is some question if he is a member of All of Us]. They asked that the protesters move to the sidewalk or risk arrest.
This is what I told the sargeant, “You are a law enforcement official. I will make them aware. But I don’t have the equipment to broadcast that statement across the street. You do. He nodded and walked away.”Keni Zoeli, Times Union, August 4, 2020
Zoeli told the Times Union that right after that at 8:48 the police initiated the arrests (3) and fired pepper balls.
All the video clips of what followed are very confusing, and it is hard to make out precisely what happened. None of the videos pick up any amplified command from the police alerting the protesters that they had to vacate the street. All of a sudden there is a scuffle, people are seen running in all directions and puffs from pepper balls appear hitting the street surface. In one clip a voice can be heard telling officers to shoot down at the street, referring to the pepper balls.
There is video of a group of approximately five Saratoga Springs Police officers piled on an individual and shortly afterward the person is seen in handcuffs being led away. Another person is seen pinned against a police car being handcuffed.
[JK: This is a video of the arrest, the release of pepper balls, and the withdrawal of the All of Us demonstrators out of the intersection. I would ask the readers to pay special attention to the police officer managing this operation. My understanding is that his name is Lieutenant Jason Mitchell. In a highly charged situation he shows extraordinary composure as he tries to keep things from spiraling out of control. He engages the leaders of All of Us in what I see as a calm and nonthreatening manner as he tries to convince them to move their people out of the intersection. I think much of the success in keeping anyone from being hurt is attributable to his leadership.
Also note Alex Figuereo a leader of All of Us moving a provocative young demonstrator out of the street and harm’s way]
Things calm down and a group of protesters can be seen still in the street. A police officer is seen talking to people who appear to be leaders of the protesters. Following that a phalanx of Saratoga County Sheriff deputies and Saratoga Springs Police officers moves across the intersection with the protesters withdrawing to the sidewalk.
Following this, an apparent leader of All of Us with a bull horn urges the protesters to go home. He tells them they have made their point and that he does not want to see anyone arrested or hurt so please go home. His imploring does no good. People continue to mill about.
Finally about twenty minutes later with the intersection free of any protesters but with an estimated 150 people still in the entrance of the park, the police withdraw. The many vehicles from all the branches of law enforcement, including the armored personnel carrier, drive off.
No protesters return to the street and slowly they disperse.
My Take Away
There is a Facebook page called “The Fulton County News” that covered the event on a live stream that was recorded. There are several hours of video which comprehensively recorded the event [Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four]. Much of my assessment relies on what was posted on this site.
I know that the All of Us people saw the police as a hateful group intent on crushing their effort to protest racism and police violence.
As someone who has been in demonstrations that exploded into confrontations with the police, however, I have a different view. I saw a lot of people in the park and in the street and a highly disciplined police presence trying to manage the situation. There is no question that some of the protesters were extremely provocative yelling at the police. I dismiss much of this as immature behavior rather than an effort to start a riot. These young people simply have no idea what a potential disaster they were courting.
I know that most believe that they are entitled to berate the police because they feel the police are unnecessarily trying to intimidate them.
What they don’t understand is how riots often happen. My experience has been that if an altercation occurs between a demonstrator and a police officer suddenly there is a rush from the crowd to 1) see what is going on, 2) come to the moral aid of the person being grabbed or arrested, 3) or in a few cases actually trying to physically free the individual. The rush of protesters precipitates a rush of police as they go to the defense of their colleague who they view as under attack. BOOM!!!
As far as can be seen from the available video, the Saratoga police respond with stoicism with most of them simply standing unresponsive to taunts from the crowd. I see the officers on horseback asking people to step back and interposing their horses between the crowd and places that they do not want people to go. I am amazed at the placidity of the horses that are clearly well trained.
When the police finally do make arrests, there is a scrum and an almost simultaneous firing of pepper balls at the street in front of the incident. I will discuss pepper balls but let me also observe that the crowd pretty much retreats. I think that this is a testament to the basically peaceful nature of the protesters. Let me assure the readers of this blog that hardened and veteran street people would not have simply retreated. The air would have been full of projectiles of some sort directed at the police and the onslaught would not have been nullified by pepper balls.
Police have adopted pepper balls because they have a very limited impact area. Basically when they hit the street they disperse a limited puff of irritant. This is in contrast to tear gas that creates an uncontrolled cloud of noxious fumes that can be potentially lethal for people with compromised lungs. They also create an opaque cloud that only adds to the chaos.
This is not to say that utilizing pepper balls is without risk. Just that they are among the least hazardous devices for “crowd control.”
There is also the optics of five officers piled on top of someone they are attempting to arrest. For many people this appears to be excessive and disturbing. What people need to consider is the difficulty in subduing a person. This is simply a problem with no easy solution.
Jane, my wife, taught at the Burnt Hill-Ballston Lake High School for thirty-four years. There were not many fights, but in one case a female teacher who attempted to intercede was struck violently on the jaw and experienced ongoing medical complications from the blow. She never returned to her job.
As I understand it, the basic strategy with police is to overwhelm the person in order to minimize their ability to strike and to minimize the potential harm to both the police and the target. I think if, dear reader, you think about it, you would not want to try to subdue someone by yourself.
Let me offer another way of thinking about the police response that night. Think of the range of personalities of people you may have worked with. Think of them being subjected to sustained insults and taunts over several hours. Consider what they might do if they were backed up by a group whose raw power greatly exceeded those subjecting them to verbal abuse. What are the possibilities that one of your colleagues might react badly?
Virtually no one was hurt on the evening of July 30, 2020. The restraint demonstrated by law enforcement was not because they were all choir boys devoid of machismo or of racism. The restraint was rooted in both their training and their leadership. Their leadership obviously communicated to them that they were not to react unless in actual danger and to otherwise limit their actions to the orders given them.
On the other side, in spite of their provocative behavior, the protesters were really at heart not interested in hurting the police or having a riot. Most of them were truly committed to being peaceful.
My concern for the future is really with what appears to be the recklessness of the people who are currently in the leadership of All of Us. They need to think through carefully how to organize their protests in a way that minimizes the risks to those who participate.
Civil disobedience requires training, discipline, and thoughtful leaders. The struggle for integration in the South was not a matter of people just going out in the streets. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Martin Luther King had extensive training for its people in non-violent protest. There was thoughtful and careful leadership. They knew the risks. They made sure that every person who chose to participate knew those risks.
Occupying an intersection in Saratoga Springs is both against the law and also a risk to everyone associated with such actions. The leadership of All of Us needs to communicate with the police not out of fear or obsequiousness but to insure that if there are to be arrests that they be done in a manner that does not risk the lives and well being of those involved.
In spite of the discipline of the police on July 30 and the good intentions of the protesters, we were very lucky that no one was hurt. We cannot depend on luck to protect us in the future.