Confronting the 'ugly truth' - Albuquerque Journal

Confronting the ‘ugly truth’

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham holds a news conference about racism in New Mexico at the Roundhouse on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With protests over race-related issues intensifying around New Mexico and the nation, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday it’s time to address the “ugly truth” of racism embedded in core institutions.

While New Mexico has one of the nation’s most diverse populations, the Democratic governor said the state is not immune from such structural racism.

“We have a tendency to wrap ourselves in that particular cloak and pretend sometimes that we don’t have the kind of inequalities, institutional racism and hatred that exists,” Lujan Grisham said.

In an attempt to identify potential policy changes, Lujan Grisham said at a news conference with African American community leaders she will create a council for racial justice and appoint a racial justice czar within her office.

House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, speaks during a Thursday news conference on institutional racism that took place in the Roundhouse and was broadcast online. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

While the council’s make-up is still being finalized, its members will include former state Treasurer James Lewis and House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque.

Other members will include state Cabinet secretaries, law enforcement officials and leaders from the state’s African American, Native American, Hispanic and Asian American communities, the Governor’s Office said late Thursday.

When asked, the governor suggested expanded conflict de-escalation training for New Mexico law enforcement recruits and an overhaul of probation and parole rules could be among the changes pursued in the coming months.

But she also said New Mexico leaders – including herself – have to start by listening more and talking less.

“We have institutional racism embedded in every construct in American society,” Lujan Grisham said. “The fact you might not see it every day means you’re not looking for it every day. It exists.”

The governor was joined Thursday by three African American female leaders, who spoke about their personal experiences and reactions to the recent events.

The Rev. Donna Maria Davis, left, with Grant Chapel A.M.E. Church in Albuquerque, and Alexandria Taylor, with the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, took part in a Thursday discussion at the state Capitol prompted by widespread protests over race-related issues. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Alexandria Taylor of the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs said black New Mexicans were hurting after the high-profile deaths of several African Americans in recent months.

“It is time for us to come together, not be further divided,” Taylor said.

Stapleton, the first black floor leader in the history of the New Mexico Legislature, said she did not let her son leave the state for college due to concerns about his safety.

“Black mothers are fearful for their young men,” she said.

Recent protests and demonstrations around the United States and in New Mexico have been sparked by the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd, who died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer was filmed kneeling on his neck.

Floyd’s memorial service took place Thursday and Lujan Grisham ordered state flags to be flown at half-staff through sundown Friday to honor him and other victims of systemic racism and police violence.

Large-scale protests have taken place in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces and other parts of New Mexico in recent days.

While the demonstrations have been largely peaceful, there have been incidents of widespread vandalism and disorderly conduct in the hours following the events, particularly in Albuquerque.

Lujan Grisham acknowledged concern the protests could lead to a spike in new coronavirus cases. But she said most individuals participating appeared to be following a state order to wear face coverings in public and added her administration would not interfere with those exercising their First Amendment rights.

Racial profiling

New Mexico already has a 2009 bias-based profiling law that bans law enforcement from investigating someone based on their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

That law also requires that law enforcement agencies develop policies and training protocols dealing with racial profiling.

However, some New Mexico cities have faced allegations of racial police practices in recent years. The Hobbs Police Department, for example, faced claims from several former officers who alleged police officials targeted enforcement efforts at black and Hispanic communities in the city, according to New Mexico InDepth.

In addition, New Mexico has placed either first or second in the nation for its rate of deadly shootings by law enforcement officers in recent years.

Donna Maria Davis, the pastor of the Grant Chapel A.M.E. Church in Albuquerque, said the commitment to addressing structural inequalities has to be sustained in order for it to make a difference.

“We can’t afford to be not racist,” Davis said during Thursday’s news conference that was held at the state Capitol and broadcast online. “We have to be anti-racist.”

She also suggested that younger New Mexicans should be included on the governor’s council, saying, “They deserve a life that’s worth living and not a life that’s full of fear.”

Fighting poverty

Lujan Grisham said addressing chronically high poverty rates and other economic issues could be one way to fight crime and fix systemic inequalities in New Mexico.

But her administration has at times taken an aggressive approach to combating violent crime, particularly when it decided to send 50 State Police officers to patrol certain areas of Albuquerque last year.

The two-month “Metro Surge Operation” cost about $1 million. It resulted in 14,674 traffic stops and netted 738 arrests – the majority of which were for felony or misdemeanor warrants.

The governor said Thursday that such decisions would be viewed through a different lens going forward.

She also said she was “appalled” by the White House’s response to the national demonstrations and the militarization of police departments.

The governor also alluded to Albuquerque’s history with police use-of-force issues that led to a 2014 settlement agreement after the U.S. Department of Justice found the Albuquerque Police Department had a pattern of violating people’s rights through the use of excessive force.

But she said she was hopeful the widespread protests would help bring about necessary changes.

“It is a public health emergency and New Mexico will treat is as such,” Lujan Grisham said.

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