Alibi V.29 No.5 • Jan 30-Feb 5, 2020 

On Assignment

Portrait of the Activists

Peace center meeting highlights dissent

Where the action should be...
Where the action should be...
Corey Yazzie

If any Alibi readers—and that includes members of the current municipal administration—want to have a better idea of how far the city remains from fully embracing the city police as well as the reforms mandated in the DOJ settlement of 2014, then we highly recommend the following. Go to a meeting like the Activist Police Reform Forum held at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice on Saturday, Jan. 25.

We did. And the combination of fear and hope and suspicion and anger and acceptance experienced at the latest convocation of this collection of citizens, community activists, and yes, plain old local hell-raisers should be noted by those in leadership role around the Duke City.

That includes the Mayor and his entourage. That includes the Chief of Police and his cadre of sergeants, lieutenants and captains. And all the new, young, shiny, good-postured and forward-looking recruits, too.

Of course, that list also includes more people like you and me. That is to say, more ordinary citizens should consider adding their voices to the community-centered workshops being held in coordination with local activist groups like RISE New Mexico.

We’re sure that if there were more citizen participation, more voices and a higher level of moderation added to such gatherings, real work could be done and progress made.

By doing so, we’d all be sure to get a better picture of what is and what will be, regarding the conversion of our once notoriously dysfunctional police force into a trusted, progressive ensemble of officers whose main job is to serve and protect.

More importantly, by voluntarily participating in the community process—whether by sending a representative or meeting separately with organizers—the city could demonstrate a real willingness to engage deeper concepts contained within the umbrella of process called “community policing.” Held within public territory, such encounters would facilitate a sense of trust and togetherness amongst citizens.

And the fact is some citizens are still outraged by the events of two months ago, six years ago, 10 years ago and 40 years ago. And though our local police force is being rebuilt into a responsive and responsible model by Chief Geier and Mayor Keller, Weekly Alibi encountered many at the meeting who were still suspicious of APD, its motives and its future.

Getting There

The drive to the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice causes one to pass through what is affectionately known in Burque as the Student Ghetto. Over the years, the area has become wan but still retains a funky, Burque flavor that is culturally memorable. The Living Batch bookstore might be gone, but Frontier Restaurant, El Patio and the Peace and Justice Center remain.

As rental houses occupied by at least four generations of undergrads grow ever shabbier, some quaint holdouts—no doubt professorial digs—remain. There’s also some new development, if one considers more paid parking an upgrade. It’s sorta ironic that a Joni Mitchell song referencing that very thing was playing on the radio as our reporter arrived at the corner of Harvard Drive and Silver Avenue, home of the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice.

The west side of the building features a full color mural dedicated to the struggle of Leonard Peltier. The famous Indigenous rights activist was convicted of killing two FBI Agents in the mid-1970s. Since his imprisonment began—and even after an escape attempt in 1979—Peltier’s cause has been an important aspect of some forms of activist culture here in New Mexico and broadly in leftist communities across the nation—a cause célèbre as it were. Peltier’s next parole hearing is scheduled for 2024. By then, the activist will be 79 years old.

Meeting People

There’s a meeting hall just past the main office of the peace center. A large accommodating kitchen is adjacent to the space, but today it is quiet and dark. On the southern wall, a beautiful display of flowers, Buddhist symbols and bright colors bids a warm welcome to those who enter.

In the midst of it all, about 30 chairs had been formed into a circle. About two-thirds of them are taken. There are new activists, college student-aged and full of eloquent outpourings about injustice, organizing and the performative nature of social media as a basis to drive change.

Then there are people who’ve been coming to these types of meetings at the peace center for years, some for decades by their own accounting to us. They include some who are righteously angry over horrible events that transpired way before the name James Boyd became a local barometer of police dysfunction in the Duke City.

There are also local community activists. Those include Tom Dent, one of the leaders, along with Selinda Guerrero, of local activist group RISE New Mexico. Dent, Vice Chair of the Southeast Area Community Policing Council, is committed to bringing people together to solve local problems. That includes managing an ongoing bronca many other local activists continue to have with APD.

Right in the middle of the meeting, our reporter boldly and somewhat bluntly asked if anyone in the room was in favor of having more police officers on the local force. This question caused an uproar and none of those present were in favor of the 100 more police per year that Keller has proposed. In fact, some present at the meeting bristled at the idea—and the fact that it came from a member of the local press.

After that critical juncture came and went, many people with many different ideas spoke. Local independent activist Verland Coker took the microphone a few times to speak on the roots of police violence as a tool of oppression of the lower classes, particularly ethnic minorities and women.

Among other things, Coker told those gathered that the already compromised public education system—basically a school to prison pipeline for many young people of color—would be further stressed by the global climate crisis, saying, “a lot of education money is coming from oil and gas. This money coming in is pressuring the state not to divest. This will inevitably cause problems with the working class and the police may respond.”

Another, older woman recounted her experience with APD. She told a story of a close relative killed in an officer-involved shooting that occurred more than 10 years ago. Although she chose not to go on the record, her plea was passionate, even incredulously angry that there had been no justice for her son.

Taking Action

Two members of the discussion stood out more than the rest, however. Andres Valdez, a longtime voice in the local police reform movement, is working on two pieces of legislation that would accelerate progressive police reform. Valdez also keeps and constantly updates an ongoing chronicle of police abuses in Albuquerque. Felina Sunshine Romero is a woman interested in social justice and equity. Now a youth organizer at the local community college, Romero has her roots in Albuquerque’s Old Town area and is a veteran of peace marches and protests in Burque.

Valdez told the tale of Rito Canales and Antonio Cordova, local members of the Chicano movement who the activist says were murdered by Albuquerque police on Black Mesa on Jan. 29, 1972. Valdez said the murders were “a setup; basically that’s the story.”

Reports indicate that the two were lured into taking a trip to a local construction site. Elsewhere, someone tipped off APD that Canales and Cordova would be onsite to steal dynamite, potentially for a terrorist activity. Of course both men died and no one at APD was ever held responsible, according to Valdez.

Valdez is also the sponsor of two measures at this year’s legislature. One would call for a change in the prosecution process for officer-related shootings in Albuquerque. Under such an act, the local District Attorney would be recused and a special prosecutor named to investigate such shootings. Another proposal would involve asking for changes to the settlement agreement through an amicus briefing to the court.

Romero is just as dedicated but much more positive in her outlook. When asked to speak to the issue of addressing the root problems of crime in the Albuquerque, Romero pointed to this city’s children, urging better lives for all of them as a preventative measure.

According to the youthful activist, the best way to approach this problem is by each taking individual action. “What I’m going to do is start volunteering at the Metropolitan Detention Center. And I’m going to help enlighten and empower and motivate the youth. I want to be there to listen to them, to hear their stories and tell them that other people go through this. If we start to advocate for them and start to educate them [prisoners], we can possibly end this. I feel like we really need to educate the youth more, they should fill these chairs at the peace and justice center.”

That just about says it all.

Activist Police Reform Workshop, Part 2
Saturday, Feb. 22 • 1pm to 4pm
Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice
202 Harvard Dr. SE