Recent protests against Oñate statues in New Mexico mirror similar calls to tear down Confederate monuments amid a rise in demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd, who died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
In the hours leading up to the violence Monday, protesters faced off with members of an armed group that calls itself the New Mexico Civil Guard and counterprotesters toting “All lives matter” signs. Several members of the armed group told The Washington Post they were worried that tearing down the statue would beget widespread destruction of property.
The members said they did not know the alleged shooter or the victim and cast themselves as attempting to prevent violence from erupting at a tense scene. But state officials denounced their presence, which they said was meant to intimidate protesters.
Militia gathering at Oñate statue in Albuquerque ahead of protest. Incredibly menacing & intimidating. They say they’re with a group called “New Mexico Civil Guard” pic.twitter.com/KG1oPehsIl — Simon Romero (@viaSimonRomero) June 16, 2020
“The heavily armed individuals who flaunted themselves at the protest, calling themselves a ‘civil guard,’ were there for one reason: To menace protesters, to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said in a statement.
Violence has been an occasional feature of the demonstrations across the country since the police killing of Floyd last month — though the majority of protests have been peaceful.
Federal authorities have charged dozens of people with looting, arson, the use of molotov cocktails and other protest-related crimes. According to a list of their cases reviewed by The Post on Tuesday, the majority of those accused of being intent on committing mayhem seem to be individuals who aren’t affiliated with any particular group.
Attorney General William P. Barr has said there is a “witch’s brew” of extremists trying to infiltrate the demonstrations, though he, President Trump and others have also singled out the far-left antifa ideology, despite scant evidence of involvement by the loose collection of groups. The Anti-Defamation League has tracked dozens of instances of what it calls a “small but vocal array” of right-wing extremists appearing at protests.
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the league’s Center on Extremism, said that even those on the right, though, have “viewed these protests very differently and shown up for different reasons.” And while they have been present, he said, they have mostly not caused problems, as they represent a “tiny minority” of those demonstrating.
“Most of the people taking part in these are — whatever side you want — not extremists,” Pitcavage said. “They’re just folks, whether they like or dislike the protests.”
There have, though, been some notable exceptions.
In Oakland, Calif., authorities on Tuesday announced charges against two men accused of killing a security officer outside a federal building there on May 29, when they knew most law enforcement would be busy responding to protests.
Authorities allege that Steven Carrillo, an adherent of the radical Boogaloo movement, which openly anticipates a civil war, killed one security guard and injured another. Officials say he was aided by Robert Justus, who is accused of driving a van that authorities said Carrillo fired from. Carrillo was previously arrested in connection with the killing of a sheriff’s deputy in June.
FBI Special Agent in Charge John Bennett said the two men “came to Oakland to kill cops” and thought the mass protests going on at the time would keep most law enforcement in the city busy, making it easier to conduct such an attack.
The Albuquerque Police Department said Tuesday that it had arrested Steven Ray Baca, 31, in connection with the shooting in Albuquerque, where protesters were trying to topple the monument to de Oñate, a 16th-century despot who massacred indigenous people.
Police charged Baca with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, a felony, according to a criminal complaint. Baca’s longtime girlfriend, Jacqueline Valdez, confirmed Tuesday that Baca has an attorney, but she declined to give the lawyer’s name or offer other details.
Authorities said Scott Williams, 39, was the victim. Laura Schauer Ives, an attorney for his family, said Williams remains in a hospital.
“His family very much is certain that had Scott not taken the bullets from Mr. Baca that the community, somebody in the community he cared about would have been harmed,” she said, adding that Williams’s family “has very, very serious concerns about the Albuquerque Police Department’s failure to respond to what was obvious escalating violence at what was supposed to be a peaceful protest.”
City officials defended the police, saying that officers responded to the shooting within minutes and that their job was complicated by the dozens of guns and other weapons they recovered from people on the scene.
Mayor Tim Keller (D) denounced “outside groups interfering with peaceful protests” who come with weapons and attempt to “prop up white supremacy.” But he said constitutional rights limit local officials’ ability to keep such groups away from demonstrations like that in Albuquerque.
John Burks, captain of what he described as the New Mexico Civil Guard’s “Bernalillo Company,” said seven or eight of his roughly 20 members came to the demonstration not because they believed the statute should be preserved, but because they wanted to prevent it from being torn down by demonstrators. Another member said they were armed as a “visual deterrent” to prevent violence.
“My thing is, it’s public property, if you want to take it down, vote on it, do it the right way,” Burks said.
The police complaint cast Baca as seeking to “protect the statue,” then defending himself against protesters who were “pursuing” him “while he backed away from them, using pepper spray to douse the oncoming crowd.” Baca’s “retreat,” the complaint said, continued even as “the group appeared to maliciously pursue” him, with several people striking him with their hands and legs. The protesters also hit him with a long board and tackled him, the complaint said.
According to the complaint, Williams can be seen on bystander video retrieving a board and swinging it toward Baca’s upper body and head. Then, the complaint says, Baca fired several shots. The crowd scattered.
In a second video that captured the moments after the shooting, the alleged gunman sat in the middle of a road as the New Mexico Civil Guard members formed a circle around him. One man carrying a semiautomatic rifle and wearing camouflage fatigues and a military-style helmet kicked a handgun away from the man and stood with his foot on the weapon.
Keller acknowledged concerns about the initial criminal complaint filed, saying that a supplemental filing will incorporate evidence suggesting Baca initiated the violence by “violently throwing a woman to the ground” before protesters pursued him. State police will be taking over the investigation, city officials said.
Burks said his group had earlier scuffled with demonstrators, but when they put a chain around the statue’s head, he decided his members should back off.
“I’m not going to fight with them if they want the statue that bad,” Burks said.
Police responded to the scene with tear gas and rubber bullets to force the crowd back. Burks said all of the militia members were taken into custody. He said they spent about three hours at a police precinct — most of that time in squad cars — and were questioned by the FBI and local detectives. A police oversight board will also be reviewing officers’ tactics Monday night, after some accused officers of letting an armed group initially dominate the shooting response and criticized the police’s crowd-control measures.
Burks and other members of the group said that as far as they were aware, none of their members was charged with crimes. He said he and his members did not know Baca; officials said they could not speak to whether Baca was connected to the group.
The FBI’s Albuquerque Division confirmed in a statement that it was assisting the local investigation and that agents were “focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals who are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity in New Mexico.”
Baca did not appear to be injured in the video but was taken to a hospital and declined to speak to law enforcement, according to the criminal complaint.
Baca is a political conservative and a registered Republican, according to voter records. He ran unsuccessfully last year for a seat on the Albuquerque City Council, telling the Albuquerque Journal at the time that “he felt compelled to seek his first elected office out of fear the community is becoming a ‘Third World country.’ ”
On his campaign Facebook page, which no longer exists, Baca criticized local authorities as being “complete wimps when it comes to fighting crime,” the newspaper reported. He went on to receive less than 6 percent of the vote.
Keller said the Oñate statue would now be speedily removed as an “urgent matter of public safety” until authorities determine a next step. Early Tuesday afternoon, the statue lay flat on the ground over a blue tarp, freed from the ground earlier that morning but yet to be taken away.
Devlin Barrett, Katie Mettler and Julie Tate in Washington; Will Ford in Albuquerque; and Shayna Jacobs in New York City contributed to this report.