Last week, Saratoga Black Lives Matter leader Lexis Figuereo stood on the steps of City Hall vowing to continue to fight.
“We’ll be on the outside making change, putting pressure on the inside until they get it right. If we’ve got to continue to come to City Council meetings and shut them down like we did in 2021 – 60, 75 people showing up, hallways full – we will,” Figuereo said, referencing the summer when advocates continually crowded Saratoga Springs City Council meetings run by the prior administration. “If we’ve got to do a civil disobedience, we will.”
BLM leaders certainly made good on their promise to apply pressure at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. The problem is their tactics were counterproductive to the very reforms they seek.
Before I continue, let me say I understand BLM activists’ anger. I understand that the reforms the movement has called for in the city have been slow to arrive. I understand how advocates may feel unheard by city leaders. And I understand how, nationally, tensions have only been pulled tighter following the senseless death of Tyre Nichols. The 29-year-old died in January after being brutally beaten by Memphis police officers, who were part of the kind of special units that often unduly target communities of color.
But at Tuesday night’s council meeting, there was literally an agenda item that could have led to progress in Saratoga Springs. The second item on the mayor’s agenda was to discuss and likely fill seats of the Civilian Review Board, which would provide citizen oversight of the city’s police department. The review board is one of the key recommendations of the city’s Police Reform Task Force, and seats remain unfilled despite the council passing an ordinance establishing the body last May.
BLM activists feel as though the overall 50-point plan developed by the Saratoga Springs Police Reform Task Force, which was created in response to a 2020 executive order issued by then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo calling for communities to review and determine ways to improve their police departments, has been ignored.
Activists are right that the city has been too slow to get the important police oversight committee up and running, just as around the country police departments have been too slow to implement reform – and clearly still rely on troubling tactics such as what was on full display in the video footage of the incident that led to Nichols’ death in Memphis.
But by disrupting Tuesday’s meeting, which Figuereo said wasn’t planned, in a way that ultimately caused Mayor Ron Kim to cancel the meeting, Saratoga BLM activists effectively prevented the council from taking action.
During the meeting’s public comment period, Chandler Hickenbottom, who is Figuereo’s sister and a strong voice in the BLM movement, repeatedly refused to step away from the microphone after her allotted time was up.
Hickenbottom said she didn’t come to the meeting expecting to speak but was called to do so after hearing other public comments that upset her in addition to feeling like the city’s Democratic leadership was continuing to disregard activists’ views.
While Hickenbottom was poised for much of the time she spoke, she also began her address to the council vowing to “rip you a new one.”
After she remained at the microphone for several minutes, Kim adjourned the meeting.
I get that historically people of color haven’t been granted the same amount of time and space to talk, that people of color have been shunned from boardroom tables and closed out of meeting halls. So I get that part of what Hickenbottom and her fellow advocates are fighting for is something as simple as recognition.
Still, advocates were literally in the room last night, and the council was set to take up action that could advance one of the initiatives BLM activists champion. Sure, activists may not like or support all of the individuals that council members ultimately appoint to the police review board, and they were well within their right to voice their concerns. But by refusing to give up the microphone, and by failing to abide by rules that are in place to keep an orderly, timely and democratic meeting at which all sides are allowed to speak their mind, BLM advocates halted the meeting.
The ensuing shouting match, in which advocates flung curse words and questioned the commitment of Public Works Commissioner Jason Golub, who is Black, resulted in Mayor Kim adjourning the meeting – twice. To be sure, members of the public on the other side were also culpable in instigating Tuesday night’s arguments.
At one point, several police officers even entered the Music Hall. Thankfully, the meeting didn’t become physically violent, and no one was arrested.
Still, the meeting resulted in little more than fighting and wasted time. The biggest accomplishment was members of the council agreeing to a future meeting with BLM activists.
Yes, real reform has been too slow to come, but at some point BLM activists have to allow the process to play out. If they don’t, no change will ever come.
Consider that Saratoga Springs could have gone to sleep Tuesday a step closer to an operational Civilian Review Board. Instead, the night devolved into chaos.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
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