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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
On Tuesday morning, still shaken from the chaos of the night before, Lisa Christopherson and her mother joined a crowd at Mountain and 19th to watch a 500 to 600 pound bronze statue of a controversial conquistador — known for his brutal treatment of Native Americans — get hauled away.
For Christopherson, a local activist who said her great grandmother was a slave to Spanish colonizers in the Caribbean, the moment was deeply personal — and even optimistic.
“I really feel encouraged and hopeful that maybe, as Americans, we can talk about our beginnings,” she said.
Ultimately, the departure of the Juan de Oñate statue was 14 hours after violence erupted in front of the Albuquerque Museum, leaving one man shot in the street.
The Monday evening protest calling for the removal of Oñate from the “La Jornada” sculpture started out peacefully at Tiguex Park. But, in the hours that followed, tensions escalated as protesters tried to tear down the bronze statue with a pickaxe and chain, clashing with members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, a self-described militia group, that stepped in to protect it.
At some point, video shows a man later identified as Steven Ray Baca, 31, throw a woman to the ground. He is immediately confronted by other protesters who chase him down and tackle him.
In the melee that followed, police say Baca shot and critically injured 39-year-old Scott Williams. Baca has been arrested and charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.
APD says the investigation is ongoing and now being handled by the New Mexico State Police. The FBI is assisting.
“Human life is non-negotiable. Human life cannot be replaced,” said Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office. “Inanimate ‘property’ is not sacred in that way.
“To be very clear: That is not to say the attempted destruction of property is condoned,” he added in a statement. “But it would be a heinous false equivalence to suggest that any inanimate object — in this case a statue with implicit overtones of a celebration of oppression and genocide, as viewed by many New Mexicans and Native Americans — is as important as any one human life, which was grievously endangered … .”
Late Monday night, city officials, and state and local politicians condemned the shooting, pointing to “heavily armed individuals who flaunted themselves at the protest.” The Albuquerque Police Department chief issued a statement saying he was “receiving reports about vigilante groups possibly instigating this violence.”
But the connection between Baca and the New Mexico Civil Guard remains unclear. The militia group has announced on Facebook that he is not one of their members.
“Our guys held (Baca) at gunpoint until the police arrived,” the post states. “NMCG was not involved in the shooting.”
At a news conference Tuesday, police said they took the group into custody for questioning and collected 13 guns and 34 magazines from four or five members of the militia. None of them appear to be facing charges.
City Attorney Esteban Aguilar said New Mexico state law, as well as the constitution, prevents law enforcement from intervening if a person is legally allowed to carry a gun.
“Unfortunately the current legal reality is that any effort to step in before a crime is committed is frustrated by both First and Second Amendment rights of individuals who have the right, as the courts have interpreted, to attend those protests without interference,” Aguilar said.
‘Nobody would explain’
For Christopherson, the tensions appeared to rise as soon as the pickaxe came out, but she said a fight between the two groups wasn’t going to be balanced.
“I’m not saying some of those kids weren’t pushing back — that they weren’t aggressive as well — the difference is they didn’t have guns,” she said.
Christopherson said a handful of people called 911 for help, to no avail, as members of NMCG tussled with protesters. At any point in “that half hour of all that pushing and posturing,” she said APD could have stepped in.
“They could’ve prevented the shooting, and then the tear gas, all of that could’ve been prevented,” she said. “They were in the museum, they were just standing in there. They didn’t come out.”
Christopherson said all hell broke loose once Baca, who was speaking with militia members during the protest, pushed three women and maced another. But even after the shots, Christopherson said it was several minutes before Williams was loaded into an ambulance. She said APD’s use of force on the crowd was unnecessary and came out of nowhere after Williams had been taken to the hospital and Baca had been detained in an officer’s vehicle. “They were pushing and people were falling down, like ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this?’ Nobody would explain,” she said. “So I don’t know if their idea of community policing doesn’t include giving information to a group. Sometimes just information will help.”
In the chaos, Christopherson said she got hit by “a huge canister” and flashbangs exploded as yells and tear gas filled the air around her.
City councilors Pat Davis and Isaac Benton also criticized the police response and asked for a full review.
“At its core, policing is about protecting life and property,” Davis said. “By that standard, the city failed on both counts (Monday) night. It is time for the City to engage in serious soul searching about how we help de-escalate conflicts across the board.”
Benton drew parallels between the incident and the riots Downtown a few weeks ago.
“In events (Monday) night and a few weekends ago, the City failed to plan for, or respond quickly enough, as the dynamics evolved,” he said. “There is now an unfortunate perception that the City has been willing to stand aside as destruction occurs. That perception must be changed.”
During a Tuesday news conference, Chief Michael Geier said APD has switched up its response to protests after criticism of being too heavy-handed in the past and decided it was better to hang back at this one since it appeared, at least initially, to be a peaceful vigil.
“The challenge with these situations is we have to monitor them closely and make the appropriate response, the most reasonable response being to protect human life,” he said.
APD Commander Art Sanchez said that, once they heard of the armed militia, they put together a quick response team to “ensure the safety of everybody” and staged them nearby, but “out of sight.”
When tensions heightened between armed men and protesters, Sanchez said they had to “evaluate that” and determine if an officer would “escalate” things.
“Our goal is not to escalate any kind of event like this, our goal is to ensure that it is safe for everyone,” he said.
Sanchez said they deployed “within two minutes” of the shooting to make arrests, collect guns and transport Williams. He said they deployed non-lethal munitions — including gas, OC spray and rubber bullets — to “create space.”
“We did have to use some crowd control techniques … it was important for us to secure that scene,” he said. “We did have to move some of the individuals back.”
As the department fielded numerous questions about non-lethal munitions, armed miltiia men and undercover officers, Sanchez said they do their best “to learn from those situations and improve.”
Artist signs waiver
Albuquerque wasn’t the only city to lose an Oñate statue this week.
But a very different scenario played out in Alcalde, north of Española.
There, Rio Arriba County officials decided to temporarily remove the statue ahead of protests that were planned for Monday afternoon. Officials said those organizers had also threatened to tear it down and the sheriff’s office didn’t have the resources to protect it all night.
But, in Albuquerque, the sculpture is part of the city’s public art collection and is guided by the Albuquerque Arts Board, whose recommendations are not directed by the mayor or city staff. The artist also had to agree to alter the work.
“La Jornada” was completed in 2004 “to reflect a part of New Mexico history” and, simultaneously, a pueblo artist created “Numbe Whageh,” which “honors a place of solace and reflection” in response to “La Jornada,” according to a city news release.
The conversation about removing it began anew last week when the Albuquerque Museum Board of Trustees voted unanimously to request that the sculpture be removed from its property.
“There have been threats in the last 24 hours on Facebook from citizens who have expressed their desire to damage the ‘La Jornada’ monument,” the trustees wrote in a letter to Mayor Keller. “We would rather see the City of Albuquerque being proactive, not reactive. … Since its inception, the monument has caused conflict, pain, and has divided our communities. Its removal is overdue.”
Cultural Services Director Shelle Sanchez said the city had begun calling for community input on Saturday about what should be done about the piece. Then, on Monday, one of the artists who had been commissioned to create it, Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera, contacted the city before the protest to request that the sculpture come down. He signed a waiver on Tuesday morning, which waives his rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act.
“This was out of his personal concern for community safety, as well as for the safekeeping of this sculpture,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said the city will store the piece in a secure location for up to 12 months.
“People are extremely passionate about this statue, and about Oñate, not only today, but for many, many years in our history,” Sanchez said. “Albuquerque, we are better than the violence that we saw last night.”
On Tuesday night more than 100 people gathered across from where Oñate once stood to hold a vigil for Williams.
Williams’ father, Dan, told the crowd, many of them holding candles, that Scott was “hanging in there” after his second surgery. He emphasized Scott’s unwavering passion to fight for equality for all colors and creeds — those that are voiceless.
“I know Scott would want everyone to be energized, not for him, but for the movement,” he said.
Journal staff writer Adrian Gomez contributed to this report.