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.
18 thoughts on “Trying To Cut Through The Culture Wars to Assess What Happened During The Protests of July 30”
This is the most thorough, balanced analysis I have read of the events on July 30th. I was taken aback by the images I saw from the protests that night, but as I looked for information and tried to understand what happened, my anger shifted to the absurd level of outrage from our very white community. Demanding change, screaming about the racist, murdering Saratoga Springs Police Department…who finally, after 2+ months and dozens of protests, had the audacity to arrest 3 people. Who knew exactly what they were doing and choose to repeatedly ignore pleas to get out of the street and forced this moment. Who managed hundreds of people, in the most heightened, emotional and aggressive state possible, for nearly 3 hours …without a single injury reported.
Have we become so spoiled as a city that we have forgotten what real violence looks like? Because the endless wailing about TEAR GAS, HORSES TRAMPLING PROTESTORS, TANKS ROLLING THROUGH OUR CITY suggests our privileged, white community has completely lost touch with reality and would rather convince themselves of their collective progressivism than actually take a look around, identify problems and offer actionable solutions. Not lists of demands, not generalized hate and uninformed judgment, but defined problems and realistic solutions.
But that would take work and also recognizing some uncomfortable truths about this community – why do that when you can just blame the SSPD and call it a day. I am disappointed with our community and my sympathies are with the police in this moment, I hope this is a wake up call to our local BLM leaders, their supporters and our city – are we going to take responsibility for our community bias and how it affects Black Lives? Or go back to business as usual and when the subject comes up, just blame the police for everything and move on with a clear conscious?
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Sarcasm needs a special font. Difficult to get a gist out of this John D.
Hey Henry37, I’m shocked you don’t agree with my sentiments.
So that is sarcasm, FYI.
Let me know if you still need it in a special font or if I need to come up with an easier example.
Outstanding job in being objective in covering the facts in a coherent timeline, John. Particularly in tackling and making sense of an event with so many differing subjective and biased partial narratives. Hats off to you for that, sir.
To bad you can’t take your blog and get it into a 30 second segment for the local news to broadcast… – I was upset with Channel Ten Spencer Tracy segment with two leaders of ALL OF US on a bench reviewing Tape of the moment when the pepper balls were used…. they ask why the body cam is only on the BLM/ALL OF US members – at this point the Back the BLUE has left an hour earlier – to say they are being unfairly targeted…(I couldn’t make sense of the TIME stamp in the upper right) but WTEN did not know (though it was in the Police statement) or choose not to challenge this AL OF US statements – it left a one sided angle that just added to misunderstanding of the nights events. So the media is adding to the problem not helping… thank you for your time to address all three sides.
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Local media has a history of sometimes not letting the facts get in the way of a juicy story.
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“Local media has a history of sometimes not letting the facts get in the way of a juicy story.”
Pretty broad brush, Sir – could it not also be said that other “public sector entities” in this city have a longer history of letting the ‘juice’ get in the way of the facts coming out? Or would that be just as unfair?
Great job on this post, JK – a shining example of proof that local media is hardly monolithic.
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Unfortunately, Chanel 13 did not better. I have known Benita Zahn for many years and count her a friend but was sorely disappointed in her coverage the next day She reported only the side of the All of Us group with their response to the event and to the Commissioner’s press release. If she had attempted to contact the Commissioner or the Chief she did not indicate this. I expect more of 13 that I watch faithfully.
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In response to Arthur, the operative term was sometimes. Not such a broad brush. However, I would tell you that I found a general sense of paranoia in City government regarding local media. Mark Mulholland was one of the few trusted reporters because he had a history of getting both sides of a story and of not exaggerating a point to ‘juice up’ the piece. Sadly, at times, I personally found that other reporters did not meet such standards. There was a basis for that paranoia. I am a staunch supporter for free press but I have been deeply disappointed in them at times.
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While I certainly agree with Arthur regarding a broad brush as there is way too much of that in way too many issues these days. That said, having working in City Hall for 2.5 years and working on campaigns, I also need to agree with Chris that the experience with at least a few local reporters has been less that positive or productive. I would also agree that Mark has mostly been an exception though I did have an issue with his reporting on the topic of closing roads for dining. He clearly reported from he perspective of Commissioner Franck without any input from Commissioner Dalton or other council members. I did share my concern with him and find this to be a rare occurrence for him as it is for Benita which is why I was rather disturbed by her initial reporting on this topic. I’m afraid that while this type of one sided reporting has become all too common (not just in Saratoga Springs but in general) it is so easy today with such divisive and controversial topics abounding.
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First, I 100% support lauding Mark Mulholland. For my part, I’d rather focus on the positive examples every day.
While ‘sometimes’ is a qualifier, the wholesale lumping of people into ‘local media’ is what I objected to – because it diminished those who are doing a fine job these days, like Mark and JK sez me…
And I hold my head high and say that in my time at City Hall covering both Chris and Gayle, among others, I always found you to deal from the top of the deck with me, as did I with you.
That’s mutual respect for the hard jobs we had to do…those who didn’t, well, you learned not to return calls, but I never had any trouble reaching either of you, did I?
So how would you feel if I said local politicians are ‘paranoid,’ sometimes? I write this because I just am tired of wholesale media bashing. Some do a great job, others are dumb as rocks.
News flash: Same with our city leaders, elected and otherwise. The individual in me objects.
the issue is that poor reporting can and has lead to false impressions of events – that along with volatile emotions can spark into something more. This matter requires a little more care if the media is going to cover the story… do it right.
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Keon Zoeli isn’t a person. You need to a lot more basic research before pretending to be a journalist.
As a student of history and an avid reader, I think it is important to reduce the importance of ethnic identity in politics in general. Hannah Arendt and Jared Diamond both have interesting insights into social groupings and warn in their own way about the use of racial identity in politics. Skin pigmentation is a minor genetic coding feature that is tough to build policy around. Social groupings formed around these features are simply a fact of life and are hard-coded into our genome. Good policy would seem to seek to discourage racial political activity, however, this is all first amendment protected. Hence, the chaos we have in front of us.
In a highly technical and specialized economy, I am concerned that this call for equity will undermine the few incentives the system has left to disburse to those who work very hard to keep things going.
I find the Skidmore student letter to be intolerant of a diversity.
One of the reasons this blog is so vital to our community is the total death of local journalism. The media that is rewarded is the content with the most viewership, not with the most accuracy. I feel for those who are still in news, given the horrific pay and lack of any resources ….but it still boggles my mind to see how many reporters, news stations and papers will put out a piece, without having contacted the person or organization they are writing about. Knowing they are misleading the public, and not giving it a second thought. Context and facts are pushed aside, to make things more ‘newsworthy’. The media is a HUGE part of our country’s current state of disarray- but so are we as the consumers. We thrive on the drama and look for validation of our own bias or emotional argument through the media. Fact-checking? Sourcing? Even a little skepticism for overtly biased reporting…? Ehhhh, way more fun to comment, share and post, retweet and go on our way.
So I suppose all roads lead back to JK…. thank you for doing what you do so well, this Saratogian commends you once again for your outstanding coverage of this runaway train of crazy that our city has become..
Its odd to see all this praise for balance and accuracy when you manage to
misspell the names of two of the people and get basic facts wrong, like which groups they belong to.
The aggressive amount of gaslighting and wyt progressivism that is used to carry this article, I think you need to call this as it is and if you’re choosing to state anything regardless, disclaimer: “Hello, yeah, I’m covertly racist and this is yet another piece of literature to demean black/ poc and their attempts to dismantle and disrupt my white fragility”