Jessica Akyiano of Hudson Falls on Tuesday morning became the latest racial justice protester to surrender to Saratoga Springs police on charges stemming from a July 14 protest.
Akyiano appeared at the police station wearing a Black Lives Matter sweatshirt that said, “White Silence Equals White Consent,” as she turned herself in on a warrant related to the protest. She was later arraigned in City Court.
Attorney Colin Donnaruma, a member of the National Lawyers Guild, a network of lawyers who volunteer legal services, said that he and other attorneys in the guild were coordinating defense lawyers for 13 people facing misdemeanor or violation charges in connection with the July 14 protest.
While Donnaruma appeared with Akyiano for her surrender and subsequent arraignment, he said he planned to match her with a criminal defense attorney to handle the case. He said she was the eighth defendant to be processed in connection with the protest-related charges.
Donnaruma said he and other attorneys were in communication with Saratoga Springs police to facilitate the peaceful surrender of other protesters facing warrants and charges, indicating more surrenders were likely on Sept. 21.
“We are putting together a legal team of attorneys to make sure all activists have representation,” Donnaruma said Tuesday.
Saratoga police Lt. Bob Jillson on Tuesday confirmed that police were in discussions with attorneys about how protesters with outstanding warrants could surrende. He estimated that three to five people still needed to be arraigned on protest-related charges but has also held out the possibility that more charges could be forthcoming for other protesters. Jillson said warrants for people still facing charges have been signed but not entered into the system that would activate them in the event someone was pulled over on an unrelated stop.
“We are coordinating people surrendering,” he said.
At least one other activist, T.J. Sangare, who is currently at college in Vermont, is expected to surrender to police Sept. 21, the same day that other activists facing charges are scheduled to make their next court appearances.
Chandler Hickenbottom, one of the protest organizers who faces charges and will appear in court again Sept. 21, said she hopes supporters will come out to Saratoga Springas City Hall that day.
“We would love as many people to come out and support as can,” she said Tuesday.
While police made some arrests on the day of the July 14 protest, which temporarily blocked traffic on Broadway and resulted in a forceful response by Saratoga police, they quietly sought a series of warrants for other protesters and started to execute those warrants last week. Saratoga County sheriff’s deputies in Malta last Tuesday pulled over and arrested organizer Lexis Figuereo, transferring him to Saratoga police. As other activists gathered outside the police station after hearing about Figuereo’s arrest, police and sheriff’s deputies detained three other activists on protest-related charges and a fourth person who attempted to intervene in those arrests. Jamaica Miles, a Schenectady activist and Schenectady school board member, on Thursday surrendered to police on her own protest-related charges – unlawful imprisonment and disorderly conduct.
Police have not said how many protesters in total face charges or are still wanted, but it appears the arrests will ultimately total a dozen or more. Donnaruma said that six protesters face charges for both unlawful imprisonment, a misdemeanor, and disorderly conduct, a violation, while five others just face the disorderly conduct charge.
“It’s highly unusual to require those to have warrants,” he said of the violation charges.
Activists and their defenders have argued that police are seeking to intimidate protesters and silence their free speech; they have also criticized the police for issuing arrest warrants rather than giving protesters appearance tickets or a chance to surrender, the approach police now appear to be taking.
“Highly unusual, extremely aggressive,” Donnaruma said of the police response to the protests. “Saratoga Springs Police Department seems to be trying to send a message to activists to chill speech and silence their protests.”
Donnaruma attended the July 14 protest as a legal observer and said the police response to the protest that day “seemed excessive and disproportionate.”
The League of Women Voters of Saratoga County and the New York Civil Liberties Union both criticized the police response to a peaceful protest this week. The League of Women Voters in a statement released Tuesday said the organization “unequivocally supports the constitutional rights of individuals, including the right to protest” and that recent arrests of protesters “appear designed to unfairly target Black protesters and intimidate them to deter them from speaking out.”
“We believe that racial and economic factors unfairly influence the treatment of citizens in the law enforcement system throughout this country and in the city of Saratoga Springs,” the organization wrote in the statement. “We encourage the City Council to build public trust and police accountability via independent citizen oversight of law enforcement, increasing transparency, and consistently supporting the right to protest.”
Police, though, have said that they pursued an investigation and ultimately brought charges against protesters because of the disruption the protest caused on Broadway, blocking some motorists in the street, including one who was concerned about a medical condition.
“It has nothing to do with suppressing their civil rights or their right to protest peacefully,” Jillson said last week in defense of the police’s handling of the protest-related charges. “It’s to hold them accountable for actions they took which violate the law.”