ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — First there was a candlelight vigil attended by thousands of community members Sunday night to stand in solidarity with those killed by police.
Then, protesters marched up and down Central chanting “I can’t breathe” and waving signs referencing the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Finally, nearing midnight, chaos broke out in Downtown Albuquerque.
Rioters shattered business windows and damaged other property across multiple Central Avenue blocks and, officials say, broke into the historic KiMo Theatre and climbed onto the roof. Thirty-three fires were set in the area and dozens of firearms were looted from at least one gun store, officials say. Police say shots were fired at them, although they did not provide any more information and no one was injured.
Around 11:45 p.m. the Albuquerque Police Department’s Emergency Response Team, wearing riot gear, arrived at the scene. Over the next several hours they tried to get the demonstrators to disperse. A helicopter circled overhead, and officers moved in formation through the streets, throwing tear gas canisters into the group. Some protesters shouted profanities and taunts at the police and threw the canisters back at them. Officers were called off shortly before 5 a.m.
Two men were arrested for unlawful assembly and obstructing or evading the police, misdemeanor charges.
Jim Harvey, executive director of the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, said he was saddened and disappointed to hear about how the situation unfolded Downtown, but he wasn’t necessarily surprised.
However, he said, he doesn’t believe those who attended the candlelight vigil were involved. He said at least 2,000 people attended the vigil at the center near the University of New Mexico and it ended around 7:30 p.m. as protesters began to march, for the most part peacefully.
“One of the things we’re continuing to hear a lot about is there are people who are unrelated to and uninterested in the issue, and simply want to create more problems,” Harvey said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily who did damage last night or not, but we will continue to do what we have to do, which is to make our voices heard and raise the issues we are concerned about in a peaceful way.”
Harvey referenced the APD’s history with excessive use of force, which prompted the Department of Justice to intervene. The city is still in the midst of the reform effort and officials acknowledge they have a long way to go in changing the police department’s culture.
“It’s all about accountability,” Harvey said. “I think the overarching concern and need even goes beyond local police. I think we need to be talking about a national move to change the culture of policing everywhere.”
‘It was not Albuquerque’
Standing in front of the boarded-up KiMo Theatre on Monday, Mayor Tim Keller called the morning’s events an “especially heinous” attack on a business community already struggling to survive the COVID-19-related economic shutdown and blamed it on a small, separate group from the hundreds who gathered Sunday evening for a candlelight vigil and march from the UNM area to Downtown and back again. City leaders had not calculated the cost of the damage, but said the city will help with board-ups at affected businesses.
“Last night was scary and dangerous for everyone involved … and, of course, it should not have been for anyone,” Keller said. “What we saw last night in Downtown was not a protest. It was not Albuquerque.”
Asked if police had been too lenient, Keller said they “intervened as soon as they could in a safe way that would not lead to serious injury. By that measure, because there was no serious injury, I am absolutely grateful.”
Keller and other officials said the police worked to keep protesters safe during the earlier event, with APD even helping keep traffic clear. But what happened afterward required police intervention, Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair said.
“We need to come together in a way that respects all of the pain and frustration, but it must be in a way that doesn’t endanger lives,” she said. “There’s been a national conversation about riots and whether cities are valuing property over human life. We have deliberately chosen not to take that approach, but events like last night did endanger more than just property.”
An APD spokesman said early Monday morning that officers reported someone firing at them in front of the KiMo Theatre. Albuquerque Police Department Deputy Chief Harold Medina later said they didn’t know who shot at them or from which direction they fired.
Nobody was seriously hurt during the chaos, but two people were arrested on misdemeanor charges, Medina said.
One of them, 39-year-old David Ellis, sat on the curb and refused to move as the police line advanced toward him after deploying smoke canisters and gas into the crowd of protesters, according to the complaint.
“When the police line reached Mr. Ellis, they had to stop their advance because of Mr. Ellis sitting on the curb,” an officer wrote in the complaint.
The complaint does not say what the other man, 29-year-old Salomon Cordova, did. Both men were arrested and held for several hours, but were later released because the power was out at the Metropolitan Detention Center, said Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman.
A consequence of systemic issues
On Monday morning, city workers and volunteers cleaned up the damage to Downtown businesses, removing graffiti and boarding up broken windows.
Several Downtown business owners said they don’t blame the vandalism on peaceful protestors.
Effex Nightclub had several windows broken, but owner Carri Phillis said it does not appear vandals made their way into the club. She said she was told this morning that each time it seemed someone was about to enter the building, bystanders intervened.
“These were not protesters that destroyed Downtown,” she said. “These were a bunch of punks and all they wanted to do was commit crimes in the city.”
Phillis said that she hopes the vandals don’t detract from the movement, which she said she supports.
“As far as what happened last night, that does not change the narrative for me and I truly hope that it does not change the narrative for others,” she said.
As of Monday afternoon, the nightclub was fully boarded up.
“The irony is next weekend we should be celebrating our 10-year anniversary and today we are boarding up our windows,” Phillis said.
The Box Theater at Gold and Second had rocks thrown through several windows and a door kicked in at about 2 a.m. Monday, according to co-owner Doug Montoya. Although the damage will cost a few thousand dollars to repair, Montoya said he views the damage as a consequence of systemic issues.
“I don’t even know that I am upset that they broke the windows. I’m just kind of at ease with it because it seems par for the course,” he said. “This seems appropriate that people are going to be angry … .”
Montoya said he’s planning on keeping the windows boarded up while protests continue. Other buildings in the area also took precautions. Metropolitan Court in Downtown Albuquerque closed early as a precautionary measure to allow employees time to safely leave the area.
Windows were boarded up at Silver Street Market, as well. Co-owner Kelly Ortman said only two windows were damaged, but the grocery store made the decision to cover all exposed windows to prevent potential damage from future protests. She says the damage to her business was minimal compared to others in the area.
“It’s sad,” Ortman said. “I know that these were not the demonstrators, it was just opportunists.”