A man was shot and wounded outside the Albuquerque Museum last night during a protest over a statue of New Mexico’s 16th-century colonial governor, Juan de Oñate. As one group attempted to take down the massive bronze, a scuffle ensued with defenders of the statue, and shots were fired. Armed members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, a right-wing militia, had infiltrated the protest, reports say.
A suspect, 31-year-old Steven Ray Baca, has been arrested in connection with the shooting, and several members of the militia group have also been taken into custody, according to KOB. The victim remains in critical but stable condition.
Marisa Demarco, a friend of the victim and reporter for the local NPR affiliate KUNM who was present at the scene, said she saw Baca push a woman in the crowd to the ground, her head hitting the pavement. A video shared with Hyperallergic, excluded from this article due to privacy concerns, confirms her account.
“Demonstrators gathered around to help her because they were worried she was seriously injured,” she told Hyperallergic. “That’s when I heard four gunshots. I thought maybe it was fireworks or someone shooting a gun in the air, but my heart just sank when I got closer and saw my good friend on the ground.” Even as swat and riot police continued to arrive, she said, an ambulance was nowhere to be seen, arriving only several minutes later.
“I remember saying, this place is full of police, but we need an ambulance. He was there on the street bleeding.”
Demarco also expressed concern with some accounts of the incident that have circulated. A criminal complaint filed by a police officer says Baca was protecting the statue before he was chased by demonstrators with “malicious intent.”
“What I really want to correct in the narrative is that this guy threw a woman on the ground, smashed her head, and then he ran. And I am certain that the reason that the demonstrators were chasing after him is because he had done something violent,” she said.
Albuquerque mayor Tim Keller condemned the shooting and had the statue removed this morning, kept in storage “until the appropriate civic institution can determine next steps.” Video footage shows city crews taking down the conquistador’s statue while a crowd of onlookers cheers in the background.
— KOB 4 (@KOB4) June 16, 2020
In a statement, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said that she was “horrified and disgusted” by the incident. “To menace the people of New Mexico with weaponry — with an implicit threat of violence — is on its face unacceptable; that violence did indeed occur is unspeakable,” she added.
The statue was part of the sculptural group “La Jornada,” which depicts Oñate leading a band of Spanish settlers from Ciudad Chihuahua in Mexico to the then northernmost province of New Spain (presently New Mexico) in 1598. It was commissioned as a public works project in the 1990s and is one of the latest monuments to cause uproar over its glorification of the brutal conquest of Native lands.
In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, calls to remove symbols of racist violence — from the Mississippi state flag, which still features the Confederate banner, to Christopher Columbus statues in Florida, Minnesota, and elsewhere — have grown louder.
According to Ralph Arellanes Sr., president of the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico, however, “La Jornada” presents a diverse group of figures on a journey to New Mexico and was created “with equal input from Native American leaders and Hispano leaders.” In a Facebook post, he argued that the grouping also includes a work by Native American artist Nora Naranjo-Morse, and that the statue’s removal would be “a violation of an agreement by the City of Albuquerque, the Native American community and the Hispano community.”
On Monday, authorities had removed another statue of Oñate located in the town of Alcalde in New Mexico. A petition circulating a few days earlier to remove the sculpture of the conquistador, notorious for his bloody killings of Native Americans and convicted by the Spanish for excessive violence, garnered around 3,000 signatures.
Rio Arriba County Manager Tomas Campos told local newspaper The Journal that the commission will solicit public opinion on how to move forward with the statue of Oñate removed from the Albuquerque Museum.
Demarco told Hyperallergic that although Baca was not part of the New Mexico Civil Guard, recognizable at the protest by their camouflage gear, the militia group nevertheless formed a protective circle around him when police arrived to arrest him.
“My argument remains that a person can be acting like militia by showing up at a demonstration armed with the intent to protect property out of a sense of nationalism,” says Demarco.
“To my mind, it doesn’t matter if he’s part of the civil guard or not. That is militia, according to the definition of the word,” she said.
Demarco and her colleague at KUNM, Hannah Colton, had previously interviewed members of armed vigilante groups in New Mexico who show up to demonstrations against racist police violence. In one article, Colton discusses possible collaborations between such groups and the Albuquerque police department, raising urgent questions about the intersection of policing and vigilantism.
“For me, a pending question is whether these folks have relationships with our police force and what the extent of that relationship is,” said Demarco. “I think that’s a really important question that we need to keep asking right now.”
A fundraiser to help cover legal and medical expenses incurred by survivors of the incident, launched by the SouthWest Organizing Project, has nearly reached its stated $35,000 goal.
Editor’s note 6/17/2020 3:30pm EDT: An earlier version of this article was published on June 16, 2020, at 2:04pm EDT. It has been updated to include new information, including quotes by Marisa Demarco, a reporter for KUNM.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.