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Protesters take over SF Plaza, topple obelisk

Protesters topple a section of the “Soldiers’ Monument,” also known as the Plaza obelisk, Monday in Santa Fe. Some 200 people overpowered police and destroyed the sculpture on Indigenous Peoples Day. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Protesters celebrate after taking down the “Soldiers’ Monument,” better known as the Plaza obelisk, in Santa Fe on Monday. Around 150 to 200 people overpowered police and destroyed the sculpture following a demonstration on Indigenous Peoples Day. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)


Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — Native American activists and their allies used cargo straps and chains to tear down the controversial obelisk that has stood at the center of Santa Fe’s historic Plaza for more than 150 years after an Indigenous Peoples Day rally turned violent.

Three police officers were injured when they were tackled as they attempted to make an arrest, according to a Santa Fe Police Department tweet around 9:30 p.m. Monday. It was unknown whether any demonstrators were injured or how many were arrested.

But police late Monday released the names of two men who had been arrested. Dylan Wrobel, 27, is facing battery on a peace officer and resisting arrest charges, and Sean Sunderland, 24, is charged with resisting an officer and criminal trespass, according to the tweet.

On Monday evening, Mayor Alan Webber called an emergency city council meeting to discuss the obelisk protests. During the meeting Webber said police officers were injured, but that Santa Fe Police Department Chief Andrew Padilla said the officers are OK.

Some city councilors were critical of the mayor and city manager over a decision to remove protesters from the Plaza over the weekend.

Webber said police had to intervene on Monday because protesters began attacking and throwing items at city workers building a barrier to protect the monument. However, two Journal reporters and a photographer at the protest saw no such activity.

Protest organizers said the decision to tear down the obelisk came four months after Webber had called for its removal, with many criticizing an inscription that originally referred to “savage Indians.”

“This is what happens when you break your promises to Indigenous women,” organizer Elena Ortiz told the Journal, referring to Webber.

But calls for the statue’s removal have been made for decades, coming to an emotional head on Monday.

A handful of protesters were taken away by police and arrested, but it’s unclear how many. Santa Fe police didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment.

Webber said City Attorney Erin McSherry is currently researching whether additional arrests should be made.

Protesters had occupied the area around the obelisk, formally known as “Soldiers’ Monument,” since Saturday and had invited supporters to show up for a rally at noon Monday.

“These pieces speculate and glorify a lot of the genocide in our history and it’s still celebrated,” said Autumn Billie, co-founder of Three Sisters Collective, a woman-based nonprofit that advocates for Indigenous causes. “We’re tired of being dismissed and tokenized.”

Monday morning, city work crews, under the supervision of Santa Fe police, were in the process of fortifying the monument that already had been encased in a plywood shell after it had been vandalized in June.

A metal barrier was also set up around the obelisk and police told people if they stepped inside the metal barrier they would be trespassing. But that didn’t stop a handful of protesters from trying.

Shortly before noon, a protester jumped in front of a large tractor that was carrying wood being used to fortify the barricade. Soon, more protesters joined him and held up their signs, blocking the tractor from delivering the wood.

As the rally started, Indigenous people beat drums and filled the air with the scent from smudge sticks. Other people held signs reading, “Land Back” and “It matters who we elevate and celebrate,” and other messages.

Todichiinii Rudeboy, sitting on a Plaza bench before the protest began, looked on as city workers used a tractor to haul long wood beams toward the statue.

“Luckily some allies are here, because they’ve seen and they’re not going to be passive citizens,” he said. “They’re sticking up for what is right.”

Most protesters refused to give their names, saying they didn’t want the spotlight on any one person.

Although the monument was erected to recognize Union soldiers who fought Civil War battles in New Mexico, one side of its base was inscribed with words honoring the “heroes” who died in battles with “savage” Indians. An unidentified Indigenous man chiseled out the word “savage” in 1974.

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Protesters topple a second section of the Soldiers Monument, better known at the Plaza obelisk, in Santa Fe, Monday October 12, 2020. Around 150 to 200 people over powered police and destroyed the sculpture following a protest on Indigenous Peoples Day. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Critics consider the obelisk a symbol of racism and oppression.

“What are y’all gonna do about it!” one protest leader shouted to the crowd.

“Take it down,” people chanted back.

The woman continued shouting, calling people to action. She said that if they were going to stand around on their phones, they should go home.

Shortly before 1 p.m., protesters responded to the calls to action and began clashing with police.

One woman led the charge, knocking over part of the metal barricade and lying down across the wood planks being used to fortify the protective barrier. Other protesters quickly joined her.

Some of the officers stood near the protesters, not moving to stop them, but one officer grabbed the first woman’s arms and started to drag her away.

The protest leader quickly said, “Are you going to let this happen?” At that point, people swarmed into the metal barricade, pushing it down and crowding police.

Protesters blocked the path of police arresting the woman, while others rushed toward the obelisk.

A scrum between protesters and police ensued, with people screaming and shoving, leading police to arrest at least two individuals.

Police presence around the obelisk soon dissipated as most appeared to leave the Plaza area. Two officers could be seen near the southwest corner of the Plaza.

Then, protesters started the process of tearing down the monument.

One man quickly climbed to the top of the obelisk and began wrapping a metal chain around it as others helped him. They connected a rope and cargo straps to the chain and began pulling on the obelisk, as the man chiseled away at its side.

Eventually, a line of protesters heaved on the strap and pulled down three large pieces of the obelisk one-by-one. Each time a piece fell, protesters cheered.

Beverly Leeds, an onlooker to Monday’s events, looked on with tears in her eyes.

“I’m overwhelmed and very proud of my Indigenous and Native and Black community,” Leeds said, adding she liked the obelisk when she first moved to the city. “It’s painful when you fall in love with a statue — you don’t understand its history.”

Billie of Three Sisters Collective said many people don’t understand what their protest was about.

“A lot of people are confused about why we’re here,” she said. “The counter argument is we’re destroying history, where what we’re actually trying to do is to authenticate history.”

Not everyone was happy about seeing the monument removed. One man, who identified himself only as Michael, thought the obelisk should have been allowed to stay.

“Instead of taking it down, they should put up a plaque that says we find this to be completely wrong. If they take the monument away, children will never see this,” he said. “If they take it down people won’t remember.”

On Monday evening, Councilor Chris Rivera asked Webber if the city could rebuild the monument. Webber said the city was exploring its options but did collect the remaining pieces of the obelisk for safekeeping.

Before the protesters took it upon themselves to tear down the obelisk, they had demanded that Webber take action to have it removed.

In June, Webber called for three monuments removed from Santa Fe’s downtown area amid the nationwide reckoning over racial issues following the killing of George Floyd and the movement across the country to remove statues of Confederate generals and other historical figures.

Since then, conversations surrounding the obelisk and a proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission have stalled. In a Oct. 5 press conference, the mayor said he had been too busy with other priorities to organize the committee.

“I would have gotten to it much faster, but things kept crowding the calendar,” he said.

Monday evening, councilors criticized Webber for delaying the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At the council meeting, Webber said these protests would push back those discussions even further, but councilors said the discussions were already overdue.

Webber and city spokesperson Kristine Mihelcic didn’t respond to interview requests.

But Webber did post a video to his Facebook page condemning the protesters’ actions. He said the violence and damage to the historic monument won’t help the community come closer together.

“The violence that broke out in the Plaza today that led to the wanton destruction of the obelisk — that is not how we do things in Santa Fe,” Webber said in the video. “It is not only a violation of the law, there’s no place in Santa Fe for people taking the law into their own hands and there is no place for people destroying historic monuments on their own.”

At the rally, several people said Webber wasn’t welcome at the event. The protest leader said it had been 120 days since Webber called for the monument to be removed.

As part of an emergency proclamation, Webber had a statue of Don Diego de Vargas, who led the resettlement of Santa Fe 12 years after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, removed from nearby Cathedral Park. That was done for “safekeeping,” he said.

Having the other two monuments removed has proven more complicated. The Kit Carson obelisk is on federal land. And while Plaza Park where the soldiers monument had stood is city-owned, it is also a National Historic Landmark, and federal funding tied to park improvements granted decades ago had raised legal concerns for the city about removing the monument.

And while conversations surrounding the removal of the obelisk have existed for decades, organizers laid the blame at the feet of Mayor Webber.

“You brought this upon yourself, Mayor Webber,” the protest leader said.


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