“The shooting tonight was a tragic, outrageous, and unacceptable act of violence and it has no place in our city.”
A protester was shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Monday evening after violence broke out at a demonstration calling for the removal of a statue of a 16th-century ruler linked to the massacre of hundreds of Native Americans.
Footage online showed several clashes between protesters and members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, a self-proclaimed militia who were trying to protect the statue of the ruler, Juan de Oñate.
Albuquerque police Cmdr. Art Sanchez said officers who were stationed nearby to monitor the situation started seeing pepper spray being deployed on some in the area, then minutes later shots were fired.
Albuquerque police detained members of the militia for questioning, as well as one other man who was on the scene and appeared to be involved in a confrontation with several protesters but was dressed differently than the militia members.
The protester who was shot was transported to a local hospital and was in “critical but stable condition” Monday.
Later Tuesday, police announced in a statement that detectives had arrested Stephen Ray Baca, 31, on a charge of aggravated battery. According to local news station KOB4, Baca previously ran for the Albuquerque City Council.
“For weeks our community has been peacefully protesting against racism that has been ingrained so deeply in our system and the system around the country,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said during a press conference. “The shooting last night in old town at the Oñate sculpture was [a] horrific and unacceptable act of violence. This is something that despite all of that dialogue should never happen.”
While the investigation is ongoing, Keller said Tuesday it appears that Baca was “agitating” protesters well before the shooting took place.
“Multiple witnesses and some videos and reports have shown that he violently was throwing a woman to the ground before the fighting broke out,” he said.
According to a criminal complaint filed by police, Baca was observed utilizing pepper spray on protesters before being struck with a longboard by another person in the crowd.
After Baca fell to the ground, a second individual, identified as the victim, picked up the longboard and began swinging toward his head, the complaint said. At that point, Baca allegedly fired several gunshots.
It wasn’t clear whether Baca had an affiliation with any militia groups. On Facebook, the Curry County chapter of the New Mexico Civil Guard claimed Baca was not associated with their group.
“Our members had stepped away from the protestors, stepped back to watch them pull the statue down. They were no where near the shooter,” the post reads. “They ran towards the shooter when they heard the shots, disarmed the shooter, preventing anymore protestors from being shot. They circled to shooter to prevent any of the protestors from their continuing attacks. Our members did not pick a side, they stopped the violence on both sides.”
The New Mexico Civil Guard have made their presence felt at local demonstrations, including a Black Lives Matter protest which took place at the University of New Mexico.
Members arrived dressed in body armor and armed with assault-style weapons.
The same right-wing group has previously patrolled borders to detain migrant families at gunpoint before turning them in to Border Patrol agents.
“We are receiving reports about vigilante groups possibly instigating this violence,” the police announced. “If this is true will be holding them accountable to the fullest extent of the law, including federal hate group designation and prosecution.”
Earlier this month, the Albuquerque Police Department announced that it was investigating an unauthorized meeting between “a couple of our officers” and the group.
During the press conference Tuesday afternoon, city officials condemned the presence of armed civilians at demonstrations. They said police recovered more than 20 guns, about 34 magazines, and numerous knives at the scene following the shooting.
“We have done everything possible to keep them peaceful and protect the protesters, but the continued involvement of agitators whether its a single individual or a group of vigilantes is resulting in this violence,” Police Chief Mike Geier said. “We also discourage the presence of armed citizens at protests which has the potential to escalate violence not prevent it. We saw this last night.”
Keller said the state police would be taking over the investigation to ensure an independent review and that an oversight board would be reviewing law enforcement’s tactics.
In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, demonstrators around the world have been tearing down statues of figures linked to slavery and racism.
In 1599, hundreds of Native Americans were killed in the Acoma Massacre in what is now New Mexico. Juan de Oñate is known for having ordered the right feet cut off of capture Native Americans in retaliation for the killing of his nephew.
Keller said Monday that the statue would be removed due to the public safety risk.
“This sculpture has now become an urgent matter of public safety,” Keller said. “In order to contain the public safety risk, the City will be removing the statue until the appropriate civic institutions can determine next steps.”
Keller said state police will be taking over the investigation into the shooting to ensure an independent review and that a police oversight board would also evaluate the tactics used by the department.