A scheduled prayer gathering in Tiguex Park for the removal of the Juan de Oñate statue brought in community members the evening of Monday June 15th. A peaceful affair hosted by Genízaro Nation attracted 300 people from around the city, including families with children; a beautiful evening, cool breezes, white birds circling overhead illuminating in the evening sun in stark contrast to the dark clouds behind.
“It was incredible to hear the representation from these people who had some ties to the history and the area and the ways it impacted them and still impacts them,” said local resident Ben Savoca. “This is intergenerational trauma in so many ways.”
A group of self-professed militia men were there before protesters started showing up, said local resident Henry Hutchinson who showed up early with friend Scott Williams. Later that evening, Williams would throw his body on the line protecting his community from an aggressive gunman, making news all over the world.
Tuesday the following evening there was a candlelight vigil where people gathered in a circle to talk about Williams’ sacrifice, his big heart and how much he means to the community.
“I just wanted to say that the community is absolutely pouring their love out to Scott in a big way,” Hutchinson said. “And that community includes Black Lives Matter and the movement for indigenous people’s freedom and people fighting for LGBTQ rights. And that love pouring toward Scott right now is a direct reflection of the love he’s poured into that community; the amount of energy and the amount of work he has put into putting those issues on the forefront and made it part of his life to expand and energize those movements.”
Across the street was an empty space where the Oñate statue once stood. It had been removed that morning.
Monday evening, before everyone showed up, the two friends’ first encounter with a militia member was tense underneath the civility as they noticed the bumper stickers about coronavirus being a scam and right-wing graffiti. Hutchinson said that right off the bat before the ceremony got under way, the first people to arrive were armed gunmen calling themselves the New Mexico Civil Guard.
“The right-wing extremist militia men were saying they were there ‘in a capacity to protect and guard the statue,’” Hutchinson said, laughing at the strange wording. “[A militia member] walked by us and he said, ‘Hey fellas how you doing,’ and we said, ‘Oh we’re doing just fine’... and he said, ‘Oh well, you know, I hate this kind of shit, I hate to be here, I hate this kind of stuff.’ And Scott to that immediately retorted back, ‘Well maybe you should go home then, because we’re here out of love. We love this indigenous and black community, and we’re here to support them out of love. So if you hate it, you should go home.’ And yeah the guy said ‘What?’ and Scott said, ‘We’re here for the prayer and healing that these indigenous people are offering, and we want what they want, and we’re here out of love.’ And the guy said ‘Oh, well whatever.’ We parted ways, but that was the first interaction I personally had with any of the armed men.”
Kenneth Cornell, a local artist and musician, showed up at 4:55pm, parking his car between the museum and the park.
“I went there there to show support and solidarity for folks who wanted the statue removed,” he said. “I believe this is not a person we need to idolize or celebrate in any way—the horrible things that Oñate did are enough that I’m surprised not more people don’t recognize this. For Christ’s sake, his own king had him thrown in prison when he realized some of the things he was doing, you know? So the fact that here in the States we have statues to celebrate or commemorate this guy, it’s pretty atrocious. I was there to support that. I believe we don’t need to keep celebrating figures of oppression and genocide and tyranny and this sort of thing.”
This isn’t only about the removal of statues, said local artist Autumn Chacon, who was at the gathering, but she absolutely maintains no museum that calls itself enlightened or cultured should present itself as a living colonial monument.
“It’s also about the removal of statues, but if you look at the entire country, it has been unrested going on three weeks and it’s not because there’s statues. It’s because everywhere we turn we are reminded that there are oppressive values in this country,” Chacon said. “And Scott, who is white, understands this. His being a white male in front of somebody like myself—I’m a Native American single mother who doesn’t have the same privileges—if that had been me, I would immediately be criminalized. I could’ve been executed in the street with nobody advocating for me. … Systemically and institutionally, people of color are allowed to die.”
Hutchinson thinks there were several groups agitating for the removal of the statue but said he and Williams both believed that the city was going to remove the statue.
“Just before the protest began, Scott and I and several other people were all standing around, and he said, ‘We’re not going to agitate, we’re gonna follow the lead of the people who are performing the ceremony, and we are not going to instigate violence, and we’re not going to agitate to begin removal of the statue ‘cause there’s no reason to potentially have a violent incident when we have probably already won this battle,’” Hutchinson said. “That’s a statement Scott made to me before this all started.”
Chacon was watching panorama-style from the street between the park and the museum with her 2-year-old and social distancing next to Williams’ mom.
“I saw the shooter. He had been ejected from the crowd twice ’cause the way he was behaving. The second time he got ejected, he sort of huffed away, mad that he had been asked to leave,” Chacon said. “And then he went and met somebody; from a distance we saw him walk down the street. He met somebody at a car and he came back in a huff. I was with Scott’s mom, and all of us are pretty experienced protestors and able to recognize violence and toxic behavior. And it was Scott’s mom who called it. She said, ‘He went and got a gun and came back.’” Baca went back into the crowd, attacked a woman and was chased out again.
Chacon heard four shots. A lot of dust. An immediate crowd around the victim and at that moment, they didn’t know it was Williams.
Musician AJ Woods rode his bike to Tiguex Park early to hear the people in the park.
“I sat below a cottonwood tree and kind of listened and caught the last 20 minutes of it,” he said. “On my way in, though, I rolled by the statue, and I saw all those dudes surrounding it. I just saw this white dude with a belt on that was just covered in ammunition. He was belted in ammunition with an automatic rifle in his hand. He was stacked! These people were clearly looking for an opportunity to play with their toys. It was deeply intimidating. I rode by and saw them and was like, ‘Fuck this, I’m not even going to walk over there. They’re gonna shoot someone.’ I felt it. Who shows up that heavily armed and doesn’t use it, you know what I mean? As soon as the prayer ended in the park, I knew—I’m just gonna get the hell out of here. I had heard the statue was going to come down the next day, and I was like, ‘Cool, done.’ I’m kind of upset the confrontation even broke out. It was already said the statue was gonna come down.”
The night of the shooting, Hutchinson said he had horrible anxiety.
“I was pacing around the house and trying to calm my mind and I was just exhausted,” Hutchinson said. “But every time I would lie down to try and sleep, when I’d doze off, I would have these really troubling visions of Scott on the ground bleeding full of holes. I had dreams of projectiles pummeling through my organs, just really bad feelings all night,” Henry said. “The main trauma was witnessing Scott be shot. I thought he was going to die. And he very nearly did. And since then too, I’ve been reliving the trauma daily as it works its way out of my system.”
Hutchinson said it was horrific for the protestors; that once he went to the hospital, all news of Scott went dark.
Headlines are reading that the District Attorney dropped the charges against the shooter. But it might not be that simple.
“I feel it’s a horrific miscarriage of justice,” Henry said, wondering aloud how the DA, with access to so much footage, would choose to be incurious about what really happened.
The DA dropped a charge and added some others based on concerns over how the Albuquerque Police Department handled the report, according to the Albuquerque Journal. It also states that shooter Steven Baca is currently facing a felony charge of aggravated battery (it had read “aggravated battery with a deadly weapon” but the DA dropped “with a deadly weapon” according to Newsweek), two petty misdemeanor counts of battery and unlawful carrying of a deadly weapon without a concealed carry permit.
Basically, the way the police reports are written now, it looks like Baca showed up to the protest, was attacked, and then he defended himself with a gun.
“No one chased this guy out of the blue, he assaulted women,” Cornell said. “That guy had already been shooed out and pushed off a couple of times already. A couple times people were telling him, ‘You need to go home.’ He would eventually make his way back into the crowd each time.”
So the police reports failed to mention Baca’s initial counts of aggression. To shortcut it, the police gave him a defense in the report that they filed, which creates a loophole for him to easily claim self defense in the police report. That police report is contradictory to witness testimony and video evidence. The DA has handed the case over to the state police to look at what really happened and maintains the option to adjust the charges based off of that investigation.
There is a 13-minute YouTube video shot on scene by ABQRAW where the statue stand-off appears to go from very heated to oddly jovial and friendly, as if the two parties have negotiated a switch. The pro-Oñate protestors (a civilian group presumably not associated with the New Mexico Civil Guard) jump off the statue’s base, and the protestors proceed to have a go at pulling the statue down with a chain. Then, four gunshots pound in the background—a bunch of people run off in different directions and a group runs over when they notice Williams on the ground, who had been running after Baca with a few others. Baca had been assaulting women in the group, kept getting kicked out, and would run back in again, according to several people interviewed in this article. The gathering now descends into total chaos while police run in to form a circle of their backs around Williams and the people attending to him; you can see the police standing over the militia men in their camo and Baca in his blue shirt lying on the ground on their stomachs, their wrists handcuffed behind their backs. And then you hear yelling in the background: “Fucking fascists!”
Moises Gonzales helped Genízaro Nation organize the prayer ceremony and spoke at the gathering of about 300 people in Tiguex Park across the street from the Albuquerque Museum.
“It was a prayer gathering of indigenous people reflecting on all that went down with the history, the monument and how we move forward,” Gonzales said. “I don’t know people who stuck around when things started getting tense. The reason things started getting tense is we had hecklers who were getting violent.”
The organizers had to stop their prayer gathering at one point because they were getting heckled so bad, Gonzales said. He mentioned Steven Baca as one of the hecklers.
“After that, we cleared out our people,” Gonzales said. “I was out of there, and that’s when things got intense with what became a very violent altercation with the people who were heckling our event and roughing up protesters. The prayer ceremony wasn’t even located at the statue.”
Cornell recalls there were a dozen or so protesters there rallying for the statue to stay.
“They had started to climb up where the statues were,” he said. “The women were on the ground doing prayers and burning sage. These men started climbing to the top of the sculpture and started to interfere with the prayers by saying the Lord’s Prayer as loud as they could. A couple started singing these church hymns, it sounded like.”
They did it to overtake, or at least just disturb, what these women were trying to do, Cornell speculated.
“Being an anti-fascist, I can tell you, we’re not paid!” Chacon said. “I feel like that needs to be published somewhere. We’re not paid, and we don’t have a boss, if anybody were still wondering. All of this is our consciousness in action. Nobody is telling us to do this. That has to be said as far as what people think a patriot is. Protesting an oppressive government is patriotism, not shooting people and depriving them of their civil rights—that is not an American value.”