They marched in droves, with a message: change is coming.
Through torrential rains and standoffs with Albuquerque police, thousands took to the streets to demand an end to police brutality and systemic racism after the death of George Floyd – a black man killed in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day. They joined countless others across the nation in screaming for justice, an outcry sparked by video of a handcuffed Floyd begging for help, and air, while officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into Floyd’s neck. Chauvin has been charged with murder, and the three officers who helped detain Floyd have been charged with aiding and abetting.
Some say this is the moment for change, and they worry that if it doesn’t come now, it never will. Others say they will fight to the end.
As the country watched police brutality and widespread looting in some cities, protests in Albuquerque remained relatively peaceful – although after last Sunday night’s demonstration, vandals broke windows and set fires Downtown. Organizers and police say it was a separate group that did the damage.
Kia Russ, an organizer with Black Lives Matter, said that to her knowledge, the rally Monday was the largest on record in the state, drawing hundreds if not thousands. And through the pouring rain, no less.
“It was absolutely amazing. I have no other word to describe it,” Russ told the Journal. “… It shows that Black Lives Matter is more than just the weather; we are worth more than the weather – it was just completely beautiful, and I felt so supported by the citizens of New Mexico, and there was just so much love.”
Almost every night since May 28, crowds of all ages and colors have filled Route 66 in rallies organized by various local groups.
For hours, they have waved signs that read “Say his name” and “I can’t breathe.”
And for hours, they have chanted, some growing hoarse, such phrases as, “Brick by brick, wall by wall, this racist system has to fall.” Megaphones were passed around to those retelling stories of racial violence, lessons learned. Yells and horns from passing vehicles joined in the clamor as employees of nearby businesses handed out free pizza or stood on the curb, holding fists in the air.
Russ said that this moment has been a long time coming and and that it’s time for local leaders and law enforcement to “sit down, shut up and listen.”
“I do my best to not get emotional when talking about it, because it’s just heartbreaking to see your people being killed, and no one, no one is being held accountable,” she said. “We’re here; we exist; we deserve the right to live; we deserve the right to be authentically and unapologetically ourselves. And if we have to protest every day so people can be held accountable, then that’s just what’s going to have to happen.”
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have publicly voiced support for the movement, with Lujan Grisham announcing plans to create a council for racial justice and appoint a racial justice czar within her office.
Worst kind of déja vu
Arthur Bell said, as a black man, it’s the worst kind of déja vu.
“It feels like living a horror movie every day, knowing exactly what’s going to happen in the horror film and not being able to do anything about it,” Bell, a local activist aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, told the Journal. “Even though you’re trying so hard to get a different ending, the ending seems to always be the same.”
Bell has been seeking change since Albuquerque police killed his little brother, 21-year-old Kendall Carroll, during a standoff in 2013. Bell began marching the streets when James Boyd – a homeless man suffering from schizophrenia – was killed the next year, and he hasn’t stopped since.
But in all those years, he’s never seen a cop charged with murder as quickly as Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer who pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck.
“It gives me some hope, but at the same time knowing how far we have to go, being that we can’t even see a finish line, I can’t be too optimistic,” he said.
Although Floyd’s death is all too familiar, Bell said the fact that it happened during the shutdown with everyone at home watching Floyd “live his last moments out on social media” pushed the issue.
“The fact that people want to be a part of whatever action is next, they’re more hands-on, it’s not just about talking – ‘I wish I could do something.’ They’re actually putting their money where their mouth is,” he said, calling the response in Albuquerque “overwhelming.”
Bell added, “I’ve never seen so many people get behind black lives in my life. Being that we’re only 3% (of the population in New Mexico), it means a lot.”
However, Bell said the response from Mayor Keller and the Albuquerque Police Department is not as reassuring.
Calling it a “clear slap in the face” he and others have said Keller showed up to a vigil for Floyd to speak but not listen. Keller left, Bell said, after being questioned about defunding Albuquerque police.
“Mayor Keller has a long record of not shying away from tough conversations and stands ready and willing to continue these in the pursuit of race equity and police reform,” said Jessie Damazyn, a spokeswoman for the mayor. “We encourage the advocates who did not feel heard to take us up on Keller’s offers to meet personally and continue the dialogue.”
As for APD, Bell was discouraged by their actions Thursday night; arresting four young men and, when challenged, showing up in riot gear and firing tear gas at the protesters following a tense standoff. Police later said they believed the four men were firing off a gun and were confronted by protesters during the arrest, prompting their action.
“The way you show up to something is the response you’re going to get. If they show up in military style armory they’re going to get a response that warrants their uniform,” he said, calling the armor and weapons “unnecessary.”
“We’re trying to make them understand how we feel,” he said. “… We just want them to treat us equally as they would treat someone they love and they care for. We all want to go home to our loved ones just like they want to go home to theirs.”
Bell said their demands are clear and simple: Defund the militarization of police and remove their military-style weaponry, engage programs that build community trust beyond the police force and pass legislation that says any officer who kills an unarmed person loses their job, their authority and pension – which will go to the victim’s family.
Before the fight is over, Bell said, it’s hard to believe there won’t be another George Floyd or Breonna Taylor.
“The reality is, they’re all just another hashtag. We all know there will be another hashtag sooner or later,” he said. “So I’m just glad the momentum got to where it is, and I hope it doesn’t let up.”
‘Running out of time’
The death of Floyd in Minnesota was not the first incident in which an unarmed person of color died at the hands of police officers, vigilantes, “or white people who felt threatened and thought a black person was in the wrong neighborhood,” said Harold Bailey, executive director of the NAACP in Albuquerque.
It’s not even the first time such killings have been captured on video and widely circulated.
What’s new, Bailey said, is that the young people who are out demonstrating after Floyd’s death represent all races and ethnicities.
“It’s not just young black people out there. It’s bigger than a black thing. This is a multicultural movement, and that’s what America is all about, and that’s what’s going to bring about change.”
Bailey said the death of George Floyd should motivate everyone to take a stand against injustice.
“We’ve been fighting for equality, justice and equal access and opportunity for hundreds of years, so this is a moment that change needs to come,” he said. “With young people involved, it’s sending the message that it’s their time, and we need to make this change now, because in my opinion, we’re running out of time.”
Finnie Coleman, a University of New Mexico professor who teaches in the English Department as well as in the Africana Studies Program, said that at the heart of today’s protests is the ongoing problem of “white privilege,” which set the stage for the death of Floyd in Minneapolis as well as the deaths of a long list of other unarmed people of color.
“In incident after incident, unarmed and unassuming black people have been killed in public and private spaces by an assortment of people ranging from neighborhood watchmen to local vigilantes to law enforcement,” Coleman said.
White privilege, he said, has allowed perceptions of black people to be perpetuated, particularly the perception that young black men are dangerous.
Charles Becknell Jr., director of the Africana Studies Program at UNM, said he believes the protests over Floyd’s death “will be one of those watershed moments in history, and we will look back at this moment and be able to declare that history has changed and the world has changed as a result of this movement.”
Not everyone is getting the message.
Last week, social media platforms circulated photos of smiling young white men with a knee pressed into the neck of another person lying facedown on the ground in what was described as the “George Floyd challenge.”
In April, Becknell was the target of racist, expletive-laden emails. The FBI is investigating, he said.
What got us to this unfortunate point in history, Becknell said, is history itself – particularly America’s history with slavery, and a skewed recounting of that history as taught to children in our schools.
“We need to reflect on over 500 years in which white supremacy and its manifestations were played out with the well-known habits of battering, mutilating, brutalizing and killing of black bodies,” he said. “It has existed for so long that it causes us to think that it is part of the world’s, and certainly this nation’s, DNA.”
At the time the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, ending slavery, that institution had become the driving economic force in the nation, Becknell said.
“Young people have to understand: It wasn’t a sideshow; it was the main event in the development and formation of the United States of America, and ultimately the globe,” he said. “We can’t detach it from the rest of history.”
That history has not been fully told, because “we’ve been teaching history from the Euro-centric mindset and framework,” Becknell said.
Young people today have a responsibility to “self-educate, because our educational institutions are designed to promote and enhance the story of the victors, not the victims, but that’s how white supremacy functions in this world,” he said.
And because young people have the ability to mobilize large numbers of individuals, they also have a responsibility to organize nonviolent protests against injustices, Becknell said.
“That’s how we engage the struggle, and we have to remain in the struggle until the end.”
That sentiment is not lost on those on the front lines.
Although Arthur Bell has taken to the streets of Albuquerque over and over, in the same fight, he said the dream of a “different ending” is never dead.
And he has a message for those “in our position, or in my position, that have lost people”:
“The families of the George Floyds, the families of the Breonna Taylors, the countless families,” he said. “To let them know we’re all here together, we’re all going through the same thing, fighting the same fight. I hope we get to the end result together, sooner than later.”