Albuquerque police have arrested the man who shot a protestor last night at a demonstration against a statue of Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque’s Old Town. The violence broke out after heavily armed men antagonized unarmed protesters who wanted to remove the monument to the violent Spanish colonizer. Police charged 2019 City Council candidate Steven Ray Baca with aggravated battery and took several militia men into custody for questioning. APD reports the victim is in critical condition but is expected to survive.
The night started with a prayer gathering in Tiguex Park, led by some of the same women who fought the statue’s commission 20 years ago.
Across the street from the monument, a couple hundred people gathered to hear prayers, songs, and accounts of the harms inflicted by Oñate and his legacy.
Aleta “Tweety” Paisano Suazo is from the pueblos of Acoma and Laguna. She recounted the atrocities against Native Americans for which Oñate was eventually convicted and banished from New Mexico in 1614.
“Oñate was responsible for killing hundreds of Acoma men, women and children, and the brutal sentencing of their survivors, which also included the cutting off of the men’s right foot,” Suazo said.
In 1998, the year before city officials approved the memorial in Old Town, someone cut the foot off of a bronze Oñate statue north of Española. Suazo said that’s what prompted her to learn about the crimes of the man who’s revered by some in New Mexico as a Hispanic founding father.
“It hurt 20 years ago, to relive it,” she said, “and it’s hurting again.”
Speakers voiced their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and commitment to working against white supremacy. They said this was the beginning of efforts to work with local officials to have the Oñate statue removed, along with local confederate monuments.
As that event wrapped up, several dozen people were across the street in front of the Albuquerque Museum, on and around the monument. They chanted “Tear it down! Tear it down!”
Amid protesters stood several members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, gripping assault-style rifles. That’s one of the militia groups that’s shown up to Black Lives Matter protests in New Mexico, saying they’re there to protect property and deter violence.
Protesters put a chain around the statue and one took a pickaxe to the base. A militiaman carrying a long gun jumped up to stop him.
Some protesters pushed back. Things got chaotic for a few minutes. One man wearing military fatigues repeatedly reached for his handgun, and a woman pleaded with him not to shoot.
As a group of protesters heaved on the chain around the statue’s neck, according to multiple videos and eyewitness accounts, Steven Baca threw a young woman to the ground from behind her, making her hit her head on the sidewalk. He ran off. Someone hit him with a skateboard. He sprayed pepper spray in another woman’s face, and someone else tackled him.
Then he fired several times, wounding a man in the back and near his shoulder.
Several militiamen then formed a ring around Baca with their backs to him as he sat on the ground using his phone.
About three minutes after the shooting, APD riot police and SWAT arrived with two armored vehicles. Officers ordered Baca and at least four militiamen down on the ground and handcuffed them, while a street medic and other protesters continued to tend to the man bleeding on the pavement.
It was another several minutes before an ambulance arrived to take the man to the hospital.
APD ordered people away from the crime scene. They used tear gas and flash bangs, and fired nonlethal rounds. No one in the crowd was brandishing guns or other weapons. People hung around a bit longer before dispersing around 9:30 p.m.
Armed militia groups have shown up at several peaceful demonstrations in Albuquerque and Gallup in the past few weeks. Someone from another group, the American Patriots of New Mexico, told KUNM they’d been working with police for years.
APD says working with these groups is not sanctioned by the department.
We asked APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos last week why police don’t intervene when armed militia groups intimidate and provoke protesters.
“We’ve monitored them, we’ve talked to them,” Gallegos said, “we’ve tried to figure out, you know – but when they’re out there with weapons, unless they’re committing an assault, what are we supposed to do?”
Mayor Tim Keller says the city will remove the statue in Old Town for public safety reasons, “until the appropriate civic institutions can determine next steps.”
Baca is a 2019 candidate for City Council in Albuquerque's District 2, whose father is a former Bernalillo County sheriff, according to the Albuquerque Journal. He has been charged with third degree felony aggravated battery and use of a firearm in a felony. In 2014, he started a Facebook page called "Citizens Who Stand With APD" after protests erupted around the city when video surfaced of police killing James Boyd, KOAT reported. He's been booked into the Bernalillo County jail.