The streets of Old Town in Albuquerque, New Mexico ‒ now crowded with tourists ‒ were once the venue for staged, Old West “shoot-outs”, where actors portrayed outlaws and sheriffs. These displays were discontinued years ago, out of local merchants’ concern for public comfort and peace.
Yet, this month, real life shooters and gunplay returned to the tranquil streets of this city, situated near the United States-Mexico border.
Armed, right-wing “New Mexico Civil Guard” (NMCG) vigilantes harassed Black Lives Matter protesters on more than one night in Albuquerque and other New Mexico towns.
On June 15, at a demonstration demanding the removal of a statue of a Spanish-colonial enslaver and murderer, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protester Scott Williams, 39, was shot in the back.
Several heavily-armed members of the NMCG surrounded the bronze statue of 16th Century Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate, a notorious perpetrator of genocide against indigenous peoples. They were also involved in scuffles with protesters at the time of the shooting.
Williams remains in hospital in a critical but stable condition as of June 23. The Oñate statue was removed on June 16 by city authorities and is in storage, according to Mayor Tim Keller’s office.
The alleged shooter, Steven Ray Baca, a Tea Party member and son of a retired local deputy sheriff, was an unsuccessful 2019 candidate for Albuquerque City Council and is a vocal supporter of the Albuquerque Police Department (APD). Baca was initially held in police custody but released on June 22, and is facing various charges, including carrying a concealed gun without a permit.
Some protesters claimed to have seen Baca arrive at the rally in a vehicle with NMCG members. The NMCG has since claimed Baca is not a member of their group.
Baca appears on widely-circulated mobile phone video recordings of the demonstration, shoving protesters and knocking a woman to the ground, prior to drawing and firing a pistol.
At least three bullets struck Williams, a well-known activist, who participated in the Standing Rock and other national protests in defense of indigenous people’s rights.
Keller and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham decried the violence. Keller called for the NMCG to be designated a “hate group”.
Police response questioned
The New Mexico State Police and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation are reportedly investigating this incident and the NMCG, including the APD’s handling of the protest.
Following the June 15 shooting, armed NMCG vigilantes immediately surrounded Baca, while he made calls on his cell phone. APD officers then arrived, encircled the militia, ordered them to the ground, and seized their weapons. They arrested Baca and temporarily detained the disarmed militia members. Then, with protesters still on the street, the APD fired tear gas and stun grenades, scattering any witnesses to the shooting without questioning them.
Many protesters who were photographed and filmed at the demonstration have since expressed fear of retaliation by both the NMCG and the APD.
A journalist reporting on the incident was accused by the NMCG on social media of being a “member of Antifa” and subject to “action” by the vigilantes.
In an inflammatory posting on June 22 on the NMCG’s public Facebook page, the group called for members and followers to “ride around” Albuquerque Civic Plaza during the upcoming Independence Day celebrations on July 4. The announcement did not specify whether NMCG members plan to bring weapons to this traditionally peaceful, family-friendly, multicultural public event.
The APD released a photo of weapons confiscated from NMCG members at the protest — an arsenal of rifles, pistols, magazines and combat knives.
Protesters and friends of Williams expressed grave concern about Baca being released from custody and told Green Left they feel he poses a threat to their safety and to Williams.
Albuquerque Police Chief Mike Geier has publicly undertaken to hold vigilante groups accountable “to the fullest extent of the law”, if they are found to have instigated the violence on June 15.
However, many in the New Mexico community and some local media suspect that collusion exists between the NMCG and local police.
Two weeks prior to the June 15 incident, a group of NMCG vigilantes were observed talking with APD officers and later confronting and intimidating protestors on the streets.
APD officers had also referred to NMCG members as “armed friendlies” at previous BLM rallies and on June 15.
The NMCG formed in March, at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown in New Mexico. Their early armed appearances were at protests against state government health restrictions and business closures. One NMCG leader reportedly has connections to a far right group called New Confederate States, thought to be a Ku Klux Klan front.
Their Facebook page hosts videos on weapons use and ambush techniques, and the group claims to be interested in “protecting property”. However, they also post memes taunting “Antifa members” and “liberals”, in addition to “doxing” [publishing the private information of] individuals, such as local university staff, accusing them of being members of Antifa.
The APD operates under a long-standing Federal consent agreement, put in place following a series of APD shootings of civilians.
In the week since the June 15 shooting, Keller has renewed calls to reform the APD and for civilian oversight of the police. However, Keller has not committed to significant defunding of the APD, which remains a central demand of campaigners against police brutality.