Saratoga Springs native Alexus Brown and her boyfriend Marcus Filien, both 21, were heading back to Brown’s mom’s house after a Black Lives Matter protest Wednesday when they passed a Saratoga Springs police car with its lights turned off.
As they passed, the police car turned on its lights, turned around and started to follow them for multiple blocks. As the couple neared Brown’s mom’s home, and the Saratoga Springs border, the police pulled them over.
“All I could think of – we saw the police car – was come to a complete stop, don’t commit any traffic violations, don’t give them a reason to stop us,” said Filien, who grew up in East Greenbush and is now a student-athlete at Cornell University. “As soon as we passed them, we saw them start the car, the brake lights came on, they pulled out, and I can’t even remember what I was thinking, it was just terrifying.”
The couple, both of whom are Black, was close enough to pull directly into Brown’s mom’s driveway, where police questioned them and searched the vehicle. But Brown and Filien said the police officers didn’t offer a reason for their stop, alluding only to an investigation into the potential presence of weapons at the protest and asking whether they had anything suspicious in their bags.
“When I asked them what we did specifically to get pulled over, [the officer] said it’s an ongoing criminal investigation into suspicious behavior and the potential presence of illegal weapons,” said Brown, who graduated from Saratoga Springs High School in 2018 and plans to attend the University at Albany in the fall.
The couple said they complied with police demands and allowed the officers to search the vehicle and a paper bag they had brought to the protest: The bag contained unopened gas masks, a bottle of water, a rain jacket and a pair of goggles. Filien said he also told them he had two basketballs in the car, cleaning supplies for his job and a pair of jeans.
“They searched our car, because we complied with everything they said. They found nothing,” Brown said. “I find it absolutely disgusting that they see a Black man carrying a bag and just assume that there’s a weapon in it. It’s disgusting.”
Lt. Bob Jillson, Saratoga Springs police spokesman, on Monday said the officers observed someone making multiple trips back and forth to the car, which they deemed potentially suspicious behavior.
“Concerns about different trips back and forth [to a car], that draws cops’ attention,” Jillson said. “It’s out of normal character.”
Brown said they originally parked on Spring Street but that Filien moved the car to Woodlawn Avenue during the protest; Filien was planning on leaving on his own but decided to stop and return to leave with Brown when he saw how many police vehicles were parked around the city, so he moved the car to the new parking spot.
Jillson said that there was “not currently” an investigation into whether protesters had weapons at last week’s protest but said “there is always a concern about weapons in general” and noted that weapons had been discovered in the past at a protest in Troy. (The weapons charges in Troy were tied to a pair of militia-linked counter protestors who wore body armor and carried police batons as they walked through a peaceful racial justice protest last summer, according to the Albany Times Union.)
Brown and other activists said they think the police are attempting to stir up fear that protesters were violent by suggesting they were investigating the threat of weapons at protests.
Brown said police clearly knew they had participated in the protest and she interpreted the police stop as an act of intimidation. She also connected the police stop to comments Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton and Assistant Police Chief John Catone made at a late-June press conference that many people interpreted as tying protests and social justice activists to recent violent incidents in the city; Brown said comments like those threatened the safety of activists.
“Saying that we are causing upticks in violence, saying that we have weapons, that puts us in danger,” Brown said. “Because then the police see us with a bag and they think we have a weapon. There has never, ever, ever been a weapon at a protest with Saratoga Black Lives Matter, ever. There is no evidence of that.”
Brown and Filien also questioned the logic of the police stop offered by the police. “If they thought that my boyfriend had a weapon, why did they not stop him when he was surrounded by dozens of people on Broadway?” Brown asked. “Why did they wait until we were by ourselves, alone in the dark? I want to know why.”
Activists said another pair of protesters also were pulled over by Saratoga police in the hours following last week’s protest. Protest organizers said that one of the protesters who was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct was picked up by a fellow protester after being released from police custody. As the two left the area, they were pulled over by police. Police told them they had crossed a yellow line on the road, they said.
Brown and Filien detailed their police stop during a press conference activists held outside Saratoga Springs City Hall on Monday, where they reiterated demands that Dalton and Catone apologize for the June press conference, that the city establish a civilian police review board, that officials open an independent investigation into the 2013 death of Darryl Mount, and that Saratoga police “demilitarize” their force.
Activists highlighted what they argued was a disproportionate response to the roughly 75 protesters who gathered to march throughout downtown Saratoga last week. They pointed to long police batons, horses equipped with riot masks, surveillance drones overhead and the presence of a Saratoga County mine-resistant vehicle as examples of police overreaction to a peaceful protest.
“The only side that I see that had weapons that can kill are the police,” said Lexis Figuereo, one of the protest organizers. “We didn’t have any guns, we didn’t bring any batons to our protest, we didn’t have any of that. Violence equates to showing up to a peaceful protest in riot gear. What do you think a group of 40 (police officers) with billy clubs in their hands look like they want to do? Do they look like they want to stop things?”