Opinion - Saratoga Springs Politics

The below blog posts are written by John Kaufmann.
These opinions do not reflect the views of Saratoga TODAY newspaper.

Monday, 25 September 2023 09:46

Activists Try to Shout Down Tim Coll At Saratoga Peace Week Event

By John Kaufmann | Saratoga Springs Politics
Activists Try to Shout Down Tim Coll At Saratoga Peace Week Event

[JK: Full disclosure: my wife, Jane Weihe, is Tim Coll’s campaign manager]

The Fiasco

In a grim reminder of the general degradation of politics and of civility, a group from Albany, Project Salam, held an event on September 20 at Caffe Lena as part of Peace Week in which they ignored the principles of basic fairness to try to trash Tim Coll’s campaign for Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner.  Their focus was on his involvement in the prosecution of two men in Albany some twenty years ago in relation to a terrorism case. At a press conference the previous week announcing the endorsement by Ron Kim and three current City Council members for her campaign for Public Safety Commissioner, Kristen Dart promoted this same narrative.

Peace Week

Saratoga Springs Peace Week is a laudable project meant to encourage a world free of violence and mayhem.  The group has been steadfastly organizing its events for a number of years now.  They sponsor different events in a variety of venues around the city.

This year, a group of activists cynically hijacked the project.

Their event was advertised as a showing of an hour and a half long film titled “Witness,” along with a panel.

“Witness” is a documentary that alleges that two innocent men were entrapped by the FBI and sentenced to fifteen years each related to a plot to buy a stinger missile to be used in an attack in New York City.  The panel was comprised of five people, all of whom supported the narrative of the film.

The law enforcement team that carried out the investigation was led by Tim Coll.  Mr. Coll is now retired from the FBI and is currently running for Commissioner of Public Safety.  The film presents Mr. Coll and his fellow agents, the US Attorney’s office, and federal District and Appellate judges as villains who cruelly targeted two ordinary citizens simply living their lives in Albany twenty years ago. According to the film, the FBI manipulated Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, using an informant, into committing criminal acts.

In the September 19, 2023, edition of the Times Union, one of the attorneys who participated in the men’s legal defense, told the paper,

“For people in Saratoga, we thought it would be good for them to know more about (Coll),” Aref attorney Kathy Manley said. “He was the main player for the FBI in this case. He was the handler of Shahed Hussain. He testified three times at trial. He was the main witness for the prosecution. … Tim Coll was very instrumental in this case.”

In spite of Mr. Coll being the focus of this program, he was never notified about the proposed event.

Coll Asks For Fairness

Mr. Coll called Ms. Manley and asked that he be allowed to present his side of the story.  Ms. Manley at first refused and then subsequently told Coll that he would be allowed “three to five minutes.”  

The terms of Mr. Coll’s appearance changed repeatedly.  The right to “three to five minutes” became no longer a right as he was told that he would have to line up in the public comment period after the film and the five people on the panel had spoken. He could speak only if there were time. 

A Regrettable Display of Abuse

The program took place at Caffé Lena.  

Sarah Craig has been the manager of Caffé Lena for many years.  Sarah has done a wonderful job carrying on Lena’s legacy, and the city is much indebted to Ms. Craig for her dedicated service to this important venue.

In a clear attempt to address the problems of fairness in the event, Craig made some introductory remarks.  She told the audience that anyone who would like to respond to the film would be provided with time to do so.

I assume that Ms. Craig established this principle with the Salam Project sometime prior to the event.  Such promises were clearly disregarded by the panel.

It did not portend well when, during his introductory remarks about the film, Masood Haque, the filmmaker, told the audience that the purpose of the evening’s event was not “for someone to come here and repair his reputation,” a not too subtle reference to Tim Coll.  

It was all the more disheartening when someone from the panel then announced that there would be no comments allowed from the audience, only questions.  

It Got Uglier

Following the film and a half hour of comments from the panel, the floor was opened up to the audience. Coll was the first member of the audience to be at the public microphone.  He was almost immediately interrupted by Mr. Haque, the filmmaker, who instructed him to dispense with his remarks and “ask the question.”  Coll tried to continue, but Mr. Haque in particular, and others on both the panel and in the audience aggressively interrupted him.  Someone on the panel scolded him, telling Coll that other people wanted to speak.  At some point a voice (I think it may have been Ms. Manley) told him he would be allowed two more minutes.  Through the noise and chaos, Coll noted that the judge had instructed the jury that the FBI had a valid reason to target Yassin Aref.  He asked Ms. Manley, “Didn’t the defense agree to the judge’s statement?” She responded that “we had no choice.”  Coll attempted to answer back but was shouted down.  He told me that he was going to point out to her that the defense did not have to agree to this, but if they did not, then the court would have brought in witnesses from Iraq with documents showing the interaction between Aref and terrorists in Iraq.  Coll noted to me that the defense agreed to the stipulation because it would have been worse if the jurors had heard the soldiers testify about the damaging documents. 

Coll was never able to say all this because, at that point, members of the panel and audience began shouting at him.  They yelled that he was hijacking the event, etc.  Coll was unable to continue and sat down. In a shameless demonstration regarding the bias and animus of the panel, subsequent speakers (all of whom were supportive of the perspective of the film and the panelists)were allowed to address the panel and make comments or ask questions without interruption or time limits.

According to Kathy Manley, Coll spoke for a total of three minutes and 8 seconds while being frequently interrupted.

Here’ s a recording of his attempt to speak.


Craig Offers an Apology

To her credit, following the meeting, Sarah Craig, the manager of Caffé Lena, sought out Tim and apologized for what happened.

In Defense of the Sponsors

Both Caffé Lena and the leadership of Saratoga Peace Week are really victims of this disgraceful business.  Their good hearts and naiveté assumed that people interested in pursuing peace would behave with civility and fairness.  Unfortunately, they were wrong.

For Better or Worse

Readers may not know that I see myself as a person of the left.  The left, like the right and like other social movements, is not homogenous.  I am not the arbiter of who can claim to be of the left.  I can only express my own personal views.

I believe that our methods shape our outcomes.  A better future requires us to act with fairness, compassion, and integrity.  If our arguments are strong, we should have no fear in debating those who disagree with us.  In fact, none of us are infallible, and healthy engagement keeps us from adopting self-serving blinders.

I fully support the goals of Peace Week, but I hope this debacle will result in a reassessment to avoid another incident like this in the future.  There should be standards of fairness established and required by all.   People interested in organizing events should be required to submit applications describing what the event will address and affirming a commitment to fairness and civility.

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