Featured photo by Julian Kearney.
A group of men sucking on fat cigars sit at the corner of Broadway and Phila Streets blowing their smoke toward a group of hundreds of protesters. In between puffs some of the men blurt out, “Get a job!” “Go back to where you came from!” “Blue Lives!” Some protesters break away from the larger group and make their way toward the gaggle of white men, who continue to laugh and jeer.
Lexis Figuereo, the 33-year-old father of two and All of Us organizer behind the event, hears the phrase he’s had spit in his face since his family moved to Saratoga from the Bronx when he was 8 years-old.
He was called a racial slur on the bus on his way to his first day at school. He’s never been allowed to forget he wasn’t born here, despite having been raised here. “I’m from here. I’m from here. You’re a bunch of tourists. I hope I see you on the street later,” he shouts.
One of the men leaps up. “I live in an apartment down the street,” he points. The rest of the men continue to grin.
Middle-aged men in khakis and polo shirts scamper by the scene, shouting, “You’re racist!” or “Get a job!” and raise their hands to protect their faces from being captured on video. Cameras, and cell phones are everywhere documenting the protest and the reaction.
A young couple dressed for yachting get caught between one of these exchanges. “Shut up!” the woman says to one of the men who is now far down the sidewalk. “I have a job. Oh, my god. I have a job! Baby, tell him,” she squeals to her male companion.
Members of the protesters designated as security make their way over to Figuereo, who wears a bulletproof vest. Threats on his life have become commonplace over the last few months, since he began his activism.
Then another figure emerges, Chandler Hickenbottom 24 a lifelong resident of Saratoga and Figuereo’s sister, also clad in a bulletproof vest and holding a microphone, waves at the protesters who are drawn to the scene of Figuereo and the cigar-smoking men’s debate.
“We need everyone over here. We need everyone focused. He’ll deal with his stuff.” she says, motioning toward All of Us founder Jamaica Miles, who is starting up a chant.
Eventually Figuereo breaks away from the confrontation and tells himself out loud that he has bigger things to worry about.
Saratoga Springs is Decadent and Depraved
Here in Saratoga Springs in late September it’s hard to imagine how Figuereo can let it go and how Hickenbottom, who was born and raised in this town, summons the will to fight when she no longer has to wonder if those sideways glances she got growing up were based on the color of her skin.
The siblings have had their separate experiences growing up in Saratoga. Hickenbottom says she felt she was accepted for who she was as a teenager. But had a rude awakening in 2014, when she started speaking out about racial injustice following the death of Darryl Mount during a chase with Saratoga Police.
The contempt, disgust and racism hang heavy in the air, just like the cigar smoke, just like the pepper spray did when Saratoga police deployed it against protesters here in July.
It’s not that activists don’t encounter this sort of thing elsewhere in the Capital Region; it ‘s just that in Saratoga it’s very much more out in the open. Local Facebook pages like Moving Saratoga Forward and blogs like Saratoga Springs Politics regularly vilify Figuereo and All of Us while twisting facts to their own ends.
“Saratoga feels different because it is super-majority white,” says Jamaica Miles, cofounder of All of Us, an activist group formed this year to battle institutional racism. “While we have amazing allies and accomplices in Saratoga, it’s white folks screaming to protect the capitalistic status quo that treats Black and Brown lives as less than.”
At rallies, police officers Figuereo and Hickenbottom have never met taunt them by their social media handles. Blue Lives Matter supporters remind them how many guns they own. People in Facebook groups with thousands of members say things like, “We better do what he wants or he’ll call us a racist” and call them “ignorant,” and of course, “racist,” because they advocate for the end to police violence.
Figuereo meets all of this criticism by dropping the kinds of phrases that drive conservatives crazy– he identifies as Antifa and Marxist. He openly pushes for the full abolishment of the police. And he regularly calls for the resignation for Saratoga’s Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton.
Figuereo in many ways has become public enemy number one to right-leaning Saratogians and its elected officials, including Mayor Meg Kelly and Dalton.
Somehow, two black siblings carrying microphones, exercising their right to free speech and taking part in local government has shaken Saratoga to its core and rallied racist groups, police and politicians together against them.
Working as a bartender in prominent Saratoga restaurants for years Figuereo says many of the friends he made along the way now pretend not to know him.
“They used to say hello or stop to have an occasional conversation. But now they haven’t liked–not one of my posts anymore, or they’ve unfriended me. They don’t say hello to me in the middle of the street; they walk right past me. Like they don’t know me.” Figuereo says he was comfortable in Saratoga Springs before he began his work in activism this summer but, he says, “I was comfortable to a fault.”
“Going downtown is very uncomfortable,” says Hickenbottom. “If I’m walking around just normal, people know who I am. They know who I am because of the fact that I’m out there screaming ‘Black Lives matter.’ And these people don’t like us or they know us from these Facebook pages like Moving Saratoga Forward and the way they portray us. And it’s never in a good light.”
Those bulletproof vests that are so often cited by their critics as a sign they are violent, are not for show. Being vilified and hated so openly has made the vests a rational choice–especially given the violence perpetrated against protesters across the country.
“There is always confusion when Black people show up to rallies while keeping themselves safe,” says Miles. “It’s seen as aggressive to wear a bulletproof vest; somehow it’s an issue of our aggression when cops show up and brutalize us. Nothing we do is seen as the right way. There’s no right way to protest, there’s no right way to keep ourselves safe. But it isn’t our activists who are saying they are going to shoot someone if they step on their property; we’ve had people tell us they are going to run us over, and yet we are seen as ‘aggressive!’”
In Our Backyard
The Back the Blue Rally in Saratoga on July 30 was a wakeup call. “I was supposed to be going to dinner with my friends and I was just going to drop my brother off,” says Hickenbottom. Who was struck by the sight of so many Back the Blue Protesters with weapons on their hips screaming insults.
“I just wasn’t prepared for it. It was like walking into Alabama in the 1960’s. And when we walked up you could hear them almost whistle and say, ‘There goes the neighborhood like we did something wrong by showing up to speak our peace in the city where we grew up.”
The tension increased as police gave the Back the Blue members verbal support. When the Back the Blue event dispersed Black Lives protesters remained and took to the streets. Without any real warning police deployed pepper bullets and made arrests.
When criticized for their aggressive tactics the SPD began issuing press releases condemning protesters and providing snippets of video showing behavior they deemed troublesome.
“You hear police talk about what they are enduring because of the protests,” says Hickenbottom. Well look at what they are doing to us. Look at what we are enduring.”
Kicked out of City Hall
On October 1, Robin Dalton holds a meeting of the Public Safety Commission in which she and Assistant Police Chief Jonathan Catone announce that protesters will be arrested if they are found to be blocking the street.
Dalton plays video of Jamaica Miles interacting with a woman during the September protest, and notes that the city received thousands of complaints from citizens and tourists about the protests and All of Us.
Mayor Kelly laments that no one from All of Us is willing to have a private conversation with her. She says it’s impossible to have a conversation in public. (All of Us has very openly stated that they aren’t interested in working with the police, that they don’t need police to shut down streets and direct traffic, because they do that themselves.)
Figuereo gives public comments and then sits down, sometimes making comments to himself as others make their statements about All of Us and the protests. He’s warned by Kelly that if he makes another comment he’ll be ejected.
Then Hickenbottom takes her turn. She says she was tripped by former police chief Ed Moore when she entered the hearing and makes other comments. At that point Figuereo interjects a factual correction. Kelly orders him to leave or face arrest and trespassing charges. He leaves and the doors to City Hall are locked behind him.
Then Moore’s time for comment comes. He derides protesters but denies he tripped Hickenbottom.. Hickenbottom says something and Kelly declares, “I want her out!. Hickenbottom says the two police officers standing next to her will have to physically eject her. Kelly indicates that’s an acceptable action. But after a brief exchange Hickenbottom is allowed to stay.
“Anything I do is looked at, anything I say is dissected, while politicians get away with more than what I get away with right now and they have power,” says Figuereo. “I have the power of my voice and that power of the people, but they have the money and the guns. I’m always thinking about the consequences. I have a five-year-old and a one year-old, and I know I have responsibilities. At the same time I’m still going to continue to protest. If they want to arrest me for protesting then let me get arrested. That’s fine. But whatever I do will be looked at as, “There goes the angry black man.” I’m going to be looked at as the angry black man, no matter what.”
It’s a mild night on September 23 as All of Us activists gather in front of the Governor’s mansion in Albany in the wake of the grand jury decision in the Breonna Taylor case. The atmosphere is mostly morose as candles are lit and banners written. Miles and All of Us co-founder Shawn Young watch from a stoop as younger activists chant, pass the mic and demand justice for Taylor. There are tears and screams of pain. The locked gate of the Governor’s mansion and the windows of a nearby state building lit up to read NY TOUGH serve as the backdrop.
The week has been marked by a series of events and protests, and the coming days will see even more. Figuereo hasn’t slept. The deep bags under his eyes are covered occasionally by the black hoodie he seems to be disappearing into.
There’s talk of “spirit exhaustion” here tonight and Figuereo appears to be the physical manifestation of it. Then he grabs a speaker and cues up Kendrick Lamar, “We’re gonna be alright,” Lamar’s voice assures. The tempo increases with more bombastic tracks. NWA’s “Fuck the Police” is greeted with jubilation.
Then Vic Mensa’s “16 Shots” hits. The song details the mood of the city of Chicago after the police killing of Laquan McDonald, and one of its lines has been repurposed into a protest rallying cry: “I,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 Fuck 12!” The activists, almost all clad in black, move together, leaping into one undulating mass framed by shadows as the chorus unfurls, raising their hands together and singing.
Then silence falls as a pall over the crowd. The time of Taylor’s death is approaching and the group has a plan to remember her.
They raise their banners and their candles and march toward the flashing police lights at the intersection of Eagle Street and Madison Avenue. A group leader marks the time as activists lie on the asphalt.
“They’re breaking down your door. Now they’re spraying ten rounds at the bed where you’re sleeping!” Police officers move their cars to accommodate the protesters, but Figuereo is awake now and the lights have caught his eye. “Say her name!” he shouts at an officer who sits in his patrol car. Figuereo marches ahead toward the cruiser, “Say her fucking name. Why can’t you say her name?”
A few of Figuereo’s friends seem concerned. They rise from their places on the ground and are soon by his side. They pull him back, but he breaks free and surges forward. The officer puts his car in reverse, de-escalating the situation. “Where you going?” Figuereo shouts before eventually walking away with his friends.
How did Figuereo and Hickenbottom take the spotlight in Saratoga within a matter of months? Both of them credit their mother’s background in African-American studies, and growing up learning about the Black Panthers and other activist movements.
While Hickenbottom has been involved in local protests since 2014, Figuereo says he was drawn to action following the the murder of George Floyd in May. But it wasn’t until seeing Miles speak at the June rally in Troy that was attended by over 11,000 people that he decided he wanted to be a part of the large movement.
“Seeing her speech made a very big impact on me,” says Figuereo. Soon after, the brother and sister reached out to All of Us and began working together.
“I remember Lexis reached out to say that they were up in Saratoga doing stuff and any help would be appreciated. So we showed up to support what they were doing. We watched him and Chandler jump into a ring of fire,” says Miles.
“These aren’t two people trying to just stand up and yell for attention. They recognize there’s opportunity in working with other people. Lexis has really good instincts as an organizer–he sees the moment when people are agitated and want action. We’re all black, suffering and traumatized, but they are working all the time, they are constantly showing up, and it’s been amazing to watch them grow as activists.”
As powerful as it has been for Hickenbottom and Figuereo to connect to All of Us, their advocacy has also allowed the siblings to reconnect after spending their formative years apart.
Figuereo’s truancy and behavior issues at school led to his placement in a detention center. He spent 5 years in facilities, finally coming back to society when he was 18. He eventually secured a GED and went to college for culinary arts and acting. While Figuereo’s story has a relatively happy ending he missed years with his sister who only saw him during occasional visits.
“Our fight for answers and for our rights has brought us so much closer together,” say Hickenbottom.
A Word With the Mayor?
What about Mayor Kelly’s claim that Figuereo won’t talk to her in private? Is it true? Does it matter?
It probably doesn’t.
While Kelly and Saratoga officials may want to meet with Figuereo to discuss what actions they can take to end marches, or to impress on him why he should stop, neither of those things are in his or All of Us’s interest.
The group made their goals clear in June with the release of their 13 Demands and their insistence that their must be an investigation into the death of Mount.
They’ve also made it clear that they won’t stop protesting until all those demands are met. Miles says All of Us emailed Kelly’s office the list months ago and got no response.
“We’re not here to negotiate. If you have questions we have an annotated version. There are things they could do right now, not even legislatively, including enacting a policy to ban choke holds. It wouldn’t require a vote. So why not make that change today?” says Miles.
Figuereo is giving voice to a movement. He and his megaphone exist to push politicians forward, not to bless their placations and half measures.
Localities across the Capital Region, including Albany have all gone through a similar process in reaction to Black Lives Matter.
Following the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests they’ve acknowledged there are things in the criminal justice system that need changing. Some have then taken symbolic actions such as painting “Black Lives Matter” on the street. But since then cities like Albany, Troy and Saratoga have failed to enact any real policy changes.
Meanwhile, police departments and some politicians have ratcheted up their rhetoric against protesters. “We’ve gone through these stages,” says Young. “First there was universal agreement that things need to change. Then city officials started losing their patience and saying, ‘We’re doing too much.’ Now they are going to arrest people for protesting. The next step is they assassinate our character, they make it about us. They aren’t going to say that Black Lives don’t matter, but they will make it about issues they have with our work.”
There may be a discussion between All of Us and Kelly in the future, but what it will lead to is unclear.
There will certainly be another protest in Saratoga and protesters are likely to test the police chief’s order not to block the streets.
And it’s possible that Hickenbottom’s and Figuereo’s most outspoken critics will get what they want and the pair will leave Saratoga, but it isn’t going to happen before they’ve made lasting change.
“I want to move from Saratoga but with the movement and all we’re doing, I can’t leave,” says Figuereo. “I won’t leave until my demands, the people’s demands, are met.”