Things That Matter

A Man Was Shot During A New Mexico Protest Against A Statue Honoring A Spanish Conquistador

As the world comes to an inflection point on race and history, several communities are working to tear down long-standing memorials to racism, enslavement and other human rights abuses.

Monuments to European conquerors and colonists around the world are being pulled down amid an intense re-examination of racial injustices in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police.

In a video of the rally, shots could be heard as protesters tried to remove a statue of conquistador Juan de Oñate.

As protests take place across the country demanding statutes honoring blatant racists be taken down, the calls have been met with controversy for many. It’s no different in New Mexico, where protesters had gathered to remove a statue honoring a brutal Spanish conquistador. The protesters were met by a group of armed counter-protesters who were there to “protect” the statue.

Video taken at the scene shows protesters attempting to topple a statue of Juan de Oñate using a rope tied around the statue’s neck before four gunshots are heard. Additional footage shows a physical altercation between protesters and a man in a blue shirt before gunshots.

The scene turned into chaos as people ran for cover. Police in riot gear could be seen taking at least two people into custody as some protesters heckled the officers. It was more than two hours before the area was cleared.

In the end, one protester is in the hospital with critical injuries but is expected to make a full recovery.

Several videos of the shooting have popped up on social media – but it’s unclear who is guilty of firing the shot.

On Tuesday, a police statement said detectives arrested Stephen Ray Baca, 31, and that he was held on suspicion of aggravated battery. Authorities previously said several people were detained for questioning.

However, a militia group known as the New Mexico Civil Guard had reportedly arrived at the scene to protect the statue from protesters – and they were heavily armed. The Albuquerque Police Department (APD) has not confirmed whether the shooter was a member of the militia.

“We are receiving reports about vigilante groups possibly instigating this violence,” said APD Chief Michael Geier in a public statement. “If this is true will [we] be holding them accountable to the fullest extent of the law, including federal hate group designation and prosecution.”

But who was Juan de Oñate?

Credit: Susan Montoya Bryan / Getty Images

Juan de Oñate was born in Mexico (then part of New Spain) and set out to govern the New Mexico region for Spain in 1598, crossing north into the Rio Grande Valley through what is now El Paso, Texas with several hundred settlers.

To Native Americans, Oñate is known for having the right feet cut off of tribal members. After Oñate tried to force the Acoma to pay taxes, the tribe fought back, but were beat by Oñate’s men and enslaved for the following twenty years. Oñate was later charged with war crimes in Mexico City and banished from New Mexico

The protest in New Mexico is the latest in growing calls for racial justice.

Credit: @theconversation / Twitter

The protest against the Oñate statue is just one of dozens taking place throughout the country as thousands call for racial justice after the police officer-involved killing of George Floyd on May 25. Statues symbolizing the Confederacy have been either removed by public officials or toppled or disfigured by protesters calling for their removal. Additionally, protesters have toppled statues of Christopher Columbus, and officials in Dallas have removed a statue of a Texas Ranger with a well-documented racist history.

Several politicians have already come out in support of removing the controversial statue.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced late Monday after the shooting that the Oñate statue will be removed. “The shooting tonight was a tragic, outrageous and unacceptable act of violence and it has no place in our city. Our diverse community will not be deterred by acts meant to divide or silence us,” Keller said on Twitter. “Our hearts go out the victim, his family and witnesses whose lives were needlessly threatened tonight. This sculpture has now become an urgent matter of public safety.”

Other New Mexico officials have also spoken out since Monday night. “Historical trauma can carry weight for centuries. Juan de Oñate’s violent colonization and brutal enslavement of Pueblo people was not heroic,” wrote New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich on Twitter. “Removing a statue glorifying this man is only one important step in coming to terms with our state’s fraught history and building a stronger sense of reconciliation and understanding between all New Mexicans today.” Heinrich also called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the shooting, noting that armed civilian militias have appeared at other New Mexico protests in recent weeks.

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