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DA makes a difficult, but right, call in obelisk case

District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies, just five months into her first term, has set off Santa Fe’s latest white-hot debate over ethnic and historical issues by diverting criminal charges against people who pulled down the Plaza obelisk to a “restorative justice” program.

The move has received searing criticism from Santa Feans who were outraged by the toppling of the 152-year-old Soldiers’ Monument.

District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altweis in a campaign photo from 2019.

“What a shameful day for New Mexicans and all Hispanics that District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies cut sweet plea deals for the people who destroyed and desecrated one of the Hispanic community and northern New Mexico’s most treasured cultural icons,” Virgil Vigil, president of the fraternal organization Union Protectiva, said in a statement.

Others say the vandalism amounted to mob rule and that those who participated in the destruction didn’t realize or didn’t care that most of the inscriptions on the monument honored Civil War soldiers – Hispanic soldiers – who fought to keep the pro-slavery Confederate army out of New Mexico.

The offending, racist part of the obelisk was the panel on one of its four sides that honored soldier “heroes” who fought “savage Indians” in the United States’ Indian Wars. The word “savage” had been chiseled out, in broad daylight, in 1974 by a Native American man. That damage was never repaired, a circumstance that effectively served as a community endorsement of the chiseled editing to the panel’s text.

The obelisk was pulled down on Indigenous Peoples Day last October, eventually resulting in arrests. Carmack-Altweis recently offered all obelisk defendants the option to divert into a restorative justice initiative for first-time nonviolent felony offenders. Seven of the eight chose to participate in the program.

We support Carmack-Altweis’ move. While the obelisk defendants committed vandalism that destroyed the monument, a lack of community leadership on what to do about the thorny issues the monument represented was a contributing factor.

Also, the restorative justice process for the obelisk defendants might finally provide the first effort at a real dialogue over race and history in an official setting, something that City Hall has never been able to get started, even now, about eight months since the Soldiers’ Monument came down.

For nearly 50 years, Santa Fe’s elected leaders have vacillated over what to about the obelisk. In 1973, the City Council voted in favor of removal. Nothing happened.

In March 2020, Mayor Alan Webber called for it to be taken down while speaking at an anti-racism rally. Then, he announced that he would create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the difficult issues of race, history and monuments in Santa Fe, but nothing got started during the following three months leading up to Indigenous Peoples Day.

All of this was taking place amid nationwide racial unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by police in Minneapolis.

Historic preservation restrictions and questions about which government entity actually owns the obelisk also have been problematic. But there never was any obvious effort to push through those issues and reach a resolution.

The Journal North advocated for what seemed like a relatively simple change – remove the plaque celebrating the conquering Indian Wars and replace it with text commemorating Native culture and other contributions to New Mexico. Something explicitly decrying the enormous historic damage to Native Americans by war and American expansion would have been even more appropriate. The rest of the monument honoring soldiers who gave their lives to preserve the Union and end slavery during the Civil War could have remained intact.

It would have been great if the current mayor and City Council could have taken a stance on the obelisk over the past two years or so, as elected officials speaking for their community. But Santa Fe officialdom never got beyond extended thumb-twiddling, even as a nationwide debate over racial issues raged. This is the context in which the Indigenous Day protesters took down the monument in October.

Carmack-Altwies says that, in the restorative justice process, the obelisk defendants will be involved in programs ranging from six months to two years, at their own expense, to “engage victims, community members and all those affected by the obelisk destruction,” and “meet and discuss terms of reconciliation,” including possible restitution and what kind of community service the defendants should complete.

She acknowledges identifying the “victims” of the obelisk’s toppling could be difficult, but told the New Mexican anyone is welcome to present grievances to the restorative justice mediator.

It would be great if the discussion over reaching “terms of reconciliation” in this case could take place in public. At the very least, what was said and what the outcomes turn out to be should be presented to the community.

The results of civil, face-to-face engagement between protesters who felt passionate enough about historical wrongs to pull down a 150-year-old monument and those who considered the now-destroyed spire an icon of their city and culture could be invaluable.

At the very least, it would be a lot more significant, and helpful, than the standard range of non-confinement punishments that the obelisk defendants faced.