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Editor’s Note: A Journal reporter and photographer spent last weekend with the Civil Guard, an armed group that confronted protesters trying to remove the statue of conquistador Juan de Oñate in Old Town.
WAGON WHEEL – Bryce Provance scratches combat formations into the dry earth as four others – camouflaged in bulletproof helmets and vests – watch intently.
Each man holds a high-powered rifle tight to his body with a pistol and several magazines often ready on his hip.
You would never guess it by looking at them, but they’re thousands of miles from the nearest battlefield.
These are members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, the group that made international headlines for its heavily armed presence at an Albuquerque protest that culminated in a shooting last month.
“The world is a scary place and, it seems like, if you don’t have friends with weapons – you better find some,” Provance, the group’s chaplain and founder, told the Journal. “So we decided we want to protect our communities, we want to be an auxiliary force.”
He later added, “We go out and train, we learn cool stuff, then we barbecue on Fridays.”
Their words, actions and appearances didn’t always jive when the group gathered to train, in the blustery wind and heat, on a rural stretch of land east of Moriarty last weekend.
It was their first get-together since the June 15 incident, when tensions rose between the Civil Guard and protesters who were trying to topple the statue of Juan de Oñate near Old Town before Steven Baca – a counterprotester – shot and critically injured Scott Williams after a scuffle.
Since then, local leaders and authorities have condemned the group’s actions even though the guard says it was not there to instigate and had “no clue” who Baca was.
Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said APD is not investigating the group but the city asked the FBI to determine whether the Civil Guard meets the federal definition to be classified as a hate group. He said the group has repeated “blatant falsehoods” on social media to inject “anti-APD” sentiment into Albuquerque.
Frank Fisher, an FBI spokesman, said the agency doesn’t designate hate groups and will “not confirm or deny” whether the agency is investigating the group.
Kia Russ, an organizer with Black Lives Matter, considers NMCG a hate group.
“Plain and simple, lives were at risk when they showed up as this ‘Civil Guard,’ and I feel that the police need to hold these individuals and hate groups accountable due to their blatant acts of just hate,” she said.
Russ said the group – with its guns, armor and posturing – is a prime example of “white male fragility” emboldened by the likes of President Donald Trump.
Mark Pitcavage, with the Anti-Defamation League, said the militia movement “as a whole” is about anti-government extremism, not white supremacy. But, he said, “there is a small amount of crossover” and some hold elements of racism and bigotry within their ranks.
Pitcavage said with NMCG, it’s too early to tell.
“They haven’t had much time to establish much of a track record,” he said.
Pitcavage said the Civil Guard, like most militias started since 2017, show up at places where they think leftists will be – like Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests.
“They like the idea of confronting the leftists while rationalizing it, and by telling people that they are there to help police keep the peace or help protect everybody’s rights,” he said. “But what they really want to do is stare down the leftists and some of them probably wouldn’t mind brawling with them.”
Pitcavage said, despite their various beliefs, militias are not harmless and their actions can embolden others and be damaging.
Provance, a wiry 30-year-old redhead, said his group doesn’t take sides and is “very centrist” – although the majority of its members lean conservative with some libertarians thrown in. He hides several damning tattoos – including a swastika on his shoulder – that he said he got “to survive” a lengthy prison stretch.
He touts three years of sobriety, lugs around a large Bible and is the only one who doesn’t carry a gun. He pretends to have one on patrol, his hands tight to an invisible rifle as the group stalks the barren hills of scrub brush full of bounding, baby crickets.
The members share a serious love of firearms, a nonstop harping on Antifa – a militant left-wing group opposed to fascism – and what they describe as a drive to “protect innocent life, liberty and property.”
And other people’s opinions don’t seem to figure into the equation.
“Your feelings don’t matter,” Provance said at one point, before catching himself. “… Well they do, but your feelings don’t dictate what happens in the world.”
“Because I have feelings on history, doesn’t mean that history is fake, just because I don’t like it. My feelings shouldn’t dictate your actions, your feelings don’t dictate my actions. Laws and the constitutions dictate our actions.”
Victims of ‘bad press’
Civil Guard members told the Journal they take zero responsibility for the way the June 15 situation played out. They said Baca was “justified” in shooting Williams and believe their armed presence stopped more bloodshed.
At times their views are contradictory.
“If I’m unarmed and see a guy with a gun in the store, I’m immediately thinking ‘OK, how am I going to disarm this guy if he starts shooting?’ … That’s kind of my thought when I see people with weapons,” Provance said.
Perfectly aware of – and seemingly ridiculing the public’s perception – the members joke about forgetting the “white sheets” and unintentionally goose-stepping. But at any mention of possible racism among their ranks, they will give a laundry list of Hispanic or Black fellow members, spouses or relatives.
“This isn’t something you do because you hate something,” said David Rice, a giant of a man with a gravelly voice. “This is an act of love, kindness and generosity. We know we’re putting ourselves in harm’s way.”
Since all the “bad press” some members say they’ve been victimized; fired from their jobs, and had their lives – and those of their family – threatened. Others say they’ve been stalked and followed home.
They got involved in the Oñate incident after, Provance said, a local group associated with a presidential campaign told them there would be a riot after the statue fell.
He said they wanted “nothing to do with” Oñate and were there to give protesters “something to think about.”
“You know what the police are going to do, you don’t know what we’re going to do,” Provance said. “Our goal was to be that question mark in their minds that made them think maybe this isn’t the greatest idea to go burning through Old Town.”
The group said things would have escalated “either way” but they admitted the protesters called their bluff on the firepower when they pulled out a pickax to remove the statue despite the armed patrol. The Civil Guard doesn’t shoot unless shot or aimed at, and they retreated soon after the pickaxe came out.
Rice said APD should have posted officers at the Oñate protest, but called Baca’s actions a “clean shoot,” asserting that Baca was being attacked.
The shooting is still under investigation. Baca’s lawyers say it was self-defense, and so far the charges against him are unrelated to the shooting. Baca is charged with battery on other protesters and concealed carry without a license.
After the gunfire, Provance said, his men set their scope on Baca and “would’ve blown his brains out” if he kept shooting.
John Burks, an Army veteran who served in “quite a few deployments” that he can’t “specifically speak on,” said he kicked the gun away to “secure the crime scene.”
“People said we protected him after he shot,” he said. “No, we detained him and formed a perimeter around him so that he didn’t pick that gun back up and shoot more people.”
When they were detained, Provance said an APD officer and FBI agent treated them like “witnesses.” Afterward, Provance said, the APD officers told them if it wasn’t for them, more people “would’ve left in body bags.”
Gallegos, the APD spokesman, said he couldn’t comment on the matter.
Members said they are still waiting to get more than a dozen guns back that were confiscated by APD. That didn’t stop them from pulling out a dozen more during their training and firing at bottles, metal plates and other targets in the hillside.
Amid the smell of gunpowder and crack of rifle fire, Burks asked how he could be a racist when his wife and children are Native American. He argued that “everybody’s life matters” and said he doesn’t believe in toppling statues.
“When Native people want to say we’re visitors on this land, I say ‘no we’re not, we’ve earned it just as much as any other race here,’ ” Burks said. “We’ve had men and women of all different races, cultures, creeds fight overseas for our freedom.”
He added, “Nobody’s hands in history are clean.”
A mix of characters
There is a mix of characters in the militia.
Some are loud and others are quiet, they talk about the end of the world “as we know it” and wax poetic on the “good old days” of militiamen – before everything got “politicized.” They spout out conspiracy theories in one breath and talk about creating their own political party in the next.
Although they seem to align best with Trump, the members express some issues with his rhetoric. More often, they slam CNN anchor Don Lemon, the Clintons and Biden.
As the sun sets on the first night at camp, men like Rice stay up to drink whiskey, swap stories and smoke cigars, while Provance retires to his sleeping bag beneath an old, windswept tree in a nearby canyon.
The following day, more than a dozen practice combat formations, teach compass readings, go on patrols and come back again to their campsite. They geek out over guns, binoculars and gear, and they advertise themselves as a one-stop shop for community service: natural disasters, search and rescue, campaign security, and stopping riots and mass shootings.
Provance started the militia, with the first muster call in February 2019, spurred by the red-flag firearms bill in the Legislature that the governor later signed into law. He didn’t think anyone would actually join.
“Sure enough, people showed up, and people kept showing up every muster call we did, every training,” he said. “And people keep showing up.”
Now they say they have 150 members across a dozen or so counties, who range in age from their 20s to 70s. Their members include police and corrections officers, electricians, truck drivers, painters and – like Provance – war reenactors.
Provance said they lost some members after the Oñate incident but also have 125 waiting to “join up,” 30 of them in Bernalillo County. They say they do background checks on those who sign up and don’t allow extremism, kicking out one prospect for using a racial slur and getting high during a training near Las Cruces.
Provance said one member, who was with them during the Oñate incident, is also a member of the Proud Boys – a right wing group often associated with racism and violence – but, he said, “the ones out here seem pretty mellow.”
Since forming, he said, they’ve been called to protect campaign events and a couple of businesses during recent protests in “Operation Floyd.” The group says it is not anti-government, anti-police or anti-protest. They seek to root out those who “piggyback” on demonstrations and incite violence afterward.
Gallegos, the APD spokesman, said they have told members of the group they “are not welcome” at public events.
“The fact remains that the New Mexico Civil Guard has actively worked to intimidate peaceful protesters, make them fearful and raise tensions,” Gallegos said. “Their presence and actions have made these events less safe and put the lives of officers in jeopardy.”
Provance said the group is now practicing crowd control techniques and plans to elect a colonel who would oversee members statewide so they can grow their ranks. He said they will still go when called, whether it’s to a campaign event, legislative action or protest.
As for the Civil Guard’s future, with such small numbers, Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League said they may only “last a few years.”
“Even if they don’t ever break the law, they might do damage in terms of conspiracy theories, in terms of spreading extreme rhetoric and ideas,” he said. “The militia movement is not a beneficial or benign movement … Even if a particular militia group doesn’t have a track record of violence, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing.”
As the training started to wind down and the journalists set out for their vehicle, Provance yelled, “Now let’s get out the crosses!” to a chorus of laughter from the others. Then they went back to shooting at soda cans.