Joining national protests against racist police violence, hundreds of people in Albuquerque participated in a Black Lives Matter car rally Thursday evening, May 28. Near the end of the rally, the Albuquerque Police Department deployed their riot teams, with military-grade equipment, and took into custody four teenagers of color after gunshots were fired nearby. They were not charged and were later released. Their detainment sparked a police altercation with demonstrators. The escalated police response to unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters stands in contrast to the lack of visible police presence at an anti-shutdown demonstration that included armed white protesters on Civic Plaza last month.
Black Lives Matter demonstrators, many wearing masks, gathered in cars and on sidewalks in Albuquerque’s International District Thursday evening to grieve the death of George Floyd and others killed in police custody, and to call for justice. Selinda Guerrero, a community organizer with Building Power for Black New Mexico, says they gathered in solidarity with others across the country, but also in response to local police killings of people of color, such as Vicente Villela at the Metropolitan Detention Center in 2019.
“Vicente Villela was murdered one year ago in MDC and he was screaming, ‘I can’t breathe’ in the video,” Guerrero said over a bullhorn at the protest. “We are out here for our own people.”
Several hundred protesters hung signs from cars, honked and chanted as they looped around the block, with community volunteers in neon vests helping direct traffic.
The sign on Katy Wellman’s car read “White silence equals White consent”. “I think it’s very important to show up to all these protests,” said Wellman, “and to show faces, and to show the world that there are supporters, and we do care what’s going on.”
APD officers blocked traffic from Central Ave. as many protesters parked their cars and began walking on foot chanting and waving signs.
Albuquerque Police Deputy Chief Harold Medina says officers were briefed not to intervene unless there was criminal activity.
The department says around 10:00 p.m. they were informed of several shots fired from a vehicle in the area. Once the suspected vehicle got further from the protest site, they pulled it over, and in the car were four young men, two of them black and two Latino. Protesters, including Selinda Guerrero, saw it happening and walked over.
“They appeared to be 16 to 18 years old at the most,” said Guerrero. “APD showed up in all unmarked vehicles and they had the kids surrounded. But the officers were dressed in full fatigues, like you would see on a soldier in Afghanistan.” Guerrero says the officers had semi-automatic weapons in the young men’s faces, with an armored vehicle approaching, which APD says was deployed to remove the suspects from the scene. “They were on the ground initially, and then they stood them up when we all came.”
The four teenagers were detained but not booked.
Deputy Chief Medina says all four people were released, and no weapons were recovered at the scene. APD is investigating whether the four young people were armed.
The Albuquerque Police department has a history of using excessive force. Following an investigation, the U.S. Dept. of Justice in 2014 said it was a pattern in the department and it was unconstitutional. They entered into an agreement and yearslong process to enact reforms.
In a press conference Friday, Mayor Tim Keller said Thursday night’s incident will be investigated, with the Police Oversight Board and independent investigators from the Department of Justice involved.
Deputy Chief Medina says the type of equipment deployed Thursday night -- which included throwing gas canisters -- was not unusual. “Every single large protest, we have our officers prepared in that type of military gear, but we call it riot-control gear,” Medina said. “To go out and respond if necessary and be safe. We also have to think of the safety of our officers.”
Last month, several protesters at an anti-shutdown demonstration on Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza were armed with semi-automatic weapons, according to Daily Lobo reporting and photos. Most of those protesters were White, and KRQE reports no Albuquerque police officers were on site.
We asked Deputy Chief Medina about this discrepancy in police response at an APD press conference Friday morning. He said they didn’t stage the emergency response teams then because the anti-shutdown protest was expected to be much smaller, whereas 400 people were expected to show for the Black Lives Matter protest.
Later Friday morning, at the Mayor’s press briefing, he contradicted himself, saying they were staged at that anti-shutdown action, just not deployed. “We do prepare for all gatherings and all protests the same way,” the Deputy Chief said. “It’s just that our officers last night, our ERT teams, were deployed because we were no longer dealing with a protest.”
Medina said the riot teams were deployed Thursday to assist officers after protesters approached and broke the windows of several police vehicles with a bat.
Organizer Selinda Guerrero says they chose to hold Thursday’s protest in the International District because its residents, who are predominantly people of color and have low incomes, experience disproportionately high rates of policing. “Somebody who holds the narrative of ‘serve and protect’ – who shows up in military-grade equipment – how are we not to believe we’re in a war zone, when these are our conditions?” she asked. “Why would those children not feel like they’re at war with the police? How could they ever have trust?”
The officers in riot-gear left the scene by bus after protesters were pushed back by what the AP reports was tear gas. APD says the protesters dispersed soon after.
CORRECTION 6/4, 9 a.m.: Four teenagers were in the vehicle that APD stopped after the protest. Two of them were black, and two Latino. They were all detained and later released, with no charges filed.