Demonstrations against racism and police violence continue around the United States and here in New Mexico. KUNM’s team has been to nearly all of them in Albuquerque and reports that protesters are pretty much always peaceful. On Thursday, Aug. 6, organizers with the Black New Mexico Movement gathered Downtown to speak out against what they said is biased news coverage about them and an inadequate police response to militia threats.
Around 50 people gathered in front of Filling Philly’s sandwich shop on Central, drawing images in chalk on the sidewalk. Passing vehicles honked in support. Others yelled anti-Black Lives Matter sentiments. Organizer Laquonte Barry addressed the crowd. "I told the news the other day, 'I want to get the vibe of us being violent people out of here.' We’re not violent people," he said. "And you can see all these fools running up and down the street today saying all this stuff that’s not needed."
They weren't there trying to run anyone out of business, he emphasized. "We’re here to have conversations with people. And I think a lot of people are scared to have those conversations with us."
News coverage of tensions, property damage or the rare instance of violence is often based entirely on the police department’s narrative afterward, because reporters weren’t there to see what happened firsthand.
Take the property damage in Downtown Albuquerque at the end of May. Around 100 people or so remained Downtown that night and some bashed windows, hours after a massive peaceful protest had dispersed. Filling Philly’s bore much of that damage, inside and out.
But headlines the next day said thousands had turned out for a protest that erupted into violence.
Fast forward to last weekend. Hundreds marched on Friday, July 31, led by The Red Nation, Indigenous Women Rising and the Pueblo Action Alliance. "Free! Free! Clifton White!" they chanted at one point, on behalf of an organizer taken to prison on an administrative parole violation a couple of days after the late-May Black Lives Matter demonstration in the International District.
Between Trump’s promise of federal agents and the possibility of armed militia presence, speakers’ final words last weekend included caution against people leaving alone. "Just a reminder, if you need any escorts, please come up here," one organizer said into a bullhorn. "Also, just a reminder, Civil Guard is all around us. Please stick together. Take care of each other."
On Sunday, Aug. 2, there was another march of hundreds Downtown, centered on unity among anti-racist groups. Barry said he was walking some folks to their cars afterward. "As we go left on Central and Third, I look into the window, and a gun rises up with a flashlight on it. So I’m like, 'Oh, he pulled a gun!' So I jumped back, and everybody was like, 'Oh, it was a gun!' Because they could see the light."
Looking in the window of Filling Philly’s, Barry says, they saw men with rifles crouched behind the bar. They called police, who showed up a while later, he said, staying about a block away.
Later that night, a detective called Barry. "At that point, I told him it was already too late," he said. If the situation had been reversed, Barry said, police response would have been fast. It would have been, in his words, “all hell.”
That night, a fellow reporter and I walked past frustrated protesters trying to get police officers to come with them to where they said members of the New Mexico Civil Guard were aiming guns. "But it's against the law to point a gun at somebody's face, isn't it?" one person asked an officer.
I have this on video: At 9 p.m., two loud bangs and two flashes appeared to come from inside the restaurant. We ran, thinking they were gunshots. It’s true that they could have been blanks, or fireworks, or something else. Gilbert Gallegos, spokesperson for APD, said via email that both sides reported threats. Regardless, those two loud bangs didn’t draw nearby officers to the scene.
Reporters waited and watched for more than an hour. And though police officers were stationed all over Downtown, we never saw them approach. Nor did they stop passersby from walking up to peer in the restaurant’s windows. Still no direct answers from APD’s Gallegos about any of that.
Gallegos said there were no gunshots that night, just fireworks. We heard those fireworks, too—a good 30 minutes after I recorded the bangs.
Organizer Arthur Bell said he wasn’t surprised that this all happened. "You don’t really hear about the New Mexico Civil Guard outside of a Black Lives Matter demonstration or a Red Nation demonstration," he said. "So, they really thrive off of showing up to our events, acting as if they’re stopping us from something that we’re not even known to do."
APD looks at the demonstrators as the bad guys already, Bell said. "The police force is really put in place to just police us and to make sure we don’t get out of character and we don’t get out of place," he said, "but they don’t treat the people who disrespect us or violate our rights in that same manner."
It’s part of that frightening media narrative around the protests, Bell said, and the pandemic is making people who were already scared—in a nation built around fear—more afraid.
KUNM reached out to the New Mexico Civil Guard for comment but didn’t hear back as of air time.