On Sunday, May 16, 2021, the local Black Lives Matter group lead by Chandler Hickenbottem and Lexis Figuereo again took to the streets of Saratoga Springs and briefly blocked a Broadway intersection to demonstrate against, among other things, racism in schools. The Saratoga Police response was a model of best practices that will hopefully be emulated by other communities.
The BLM group has diminished in size from previous demonstrations. There were maybe sixty participants.
The group rallied in Congress Park. There was no uniformed police presence during the rally. After speakers exhorted the group to “take to the streets”, the demonstrators marched down Broadway to City Hall. A Saratoga County Sheriff’s patrol car followed them from the rear to protect them. Other patrol cars blocked traffic from entering Broadway at Division Street and then at Lake and Church .
After speeches on the steps of City Hall Figuereo called on the crowd to “take the streets”, and the demonstrators spilled out onto Broadway. Chandler Hickenbottem lead provocative chants about how there are no good police. Some in the crowd chanted “f..k the police.” Two police officers appeared and told the crowd that they must leave the intersection. A few minutes later the crowd set off down Lake Avenue with two mounted police officers urging stragglers on and one uniformed police officer on foot. The crowd turned right on Maple Avenue and returned to Congress Park.
It is my understanding that the police were prepared to make arrests in the event that the demonstrators had established a blockade on Broadway. Fortunately, in spite of their bravado, the leadership of BLM chose to follow the police directive and vacated the intersection.
Our Police Refused To Succumb To Provocation
Antifa Demonstrator Bullet Proof Vest And Club
As noted earlier, the leadership of the demonstration led chants directed at the police. Some demonstrators wore bullet proof vests and carried clubs.
Racism in our country is real and the excesses committed against black Americans is real. For all the advances made by Black Americans, systemic racism still exists, and there are still too many Americans who view people of color with suspicion and often hostility.
Supporting the need to address the history of racism and being empathetic to the frustration and anger of our fellow Black Americans is not the same as accepting reckless behavior, however.
Our local BLM leadership appears to have rejected the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience. The taunting of the police and the carrying of weapons creates an atmosphere of hostility and aggression. Ironically it is not inconsistent with the degradation of civility in the greater society. The fact is that people of all colors, and I include in that group our previous President, feel entitled to insult and degrade others.
This is what de-escalation looks like
I know that many of my fellow Saratogians are outraged by the flagrant violation of our city’s laws by BLM. They cannot understand what they see as the police’s tolerance of the repeated protests that have shut down Broadway. Many of these people believe that the protesters are in control.
All of this is an illusion. Our police, supported by the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department and the State Police, are in control. They have the resources to maintain order. The question of when and how to exercise that force, though, has been the subject of debate and controversy in communities locally and across the country. A brief march and the brief occupation of an intersection while vexing does not pose an immediate threat to the public requiring mass arrests.
The fact is that we have very strong professional leadership in our local police department. They will not be provoked to act foolishly to simply demonstrate power. There is no room for self indulgent machismo. If there is a real threat to public safety the streets will be cleared , but a small group of people marching briefly in our streets is simply not a serious threat that requires the massive use of force.
Managing the arrest of a group of people is no simple problem. A poorly executed action brings with it enormous risk. It is quite possible that not only might demonstrators be seriously injured but the police and bystanders are also at risk. New York City has had to settle millions of dollars worth of lawsuits due to the chaos and excess that the use of some of their ham fisted tactics have precipitated.
The people of Saratoga Springs are fortunate that we have leadership in our police department that eschews the lure of precipitous action. Our police force has protocols as to what kind of resources are required to successfully deal with crowd control, and no amount of taunting so far has undermined that professional commitment.
Courage and Service
When Chief Shane Crooks ordered that the intersection on Broadway be cleared Sunday he did not send a phalanx of armed shield carrying officers.
Instead he sent just two officers. While I think the risk to these officers was low, there is no denying that the risk was very real. The protesters had a white panel van in front of City Hall whose contents were hidden. Some protesters were clearly armed with clubs, and there was no way of knowing what else protesters might be carrying.
These two officers sought out the leadership of BLM and quietly told them that they must leave the intersection. Chandler Hickenbottem ranted at them at great length and with much profanity. Officers simply continued to gesture that people needed to move along. This is what the highest standards of law enforcement look like. This is what de-escalation is about. This is what the use of minimum force is about. This is what service to city is about.
Finding A Balance
Racism is real. The need for our country to address racism is critical to the health of our nation. People have a right to protest.
Trying to find a balance in the current environment of division and anger is not easy.