ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Police in Albuquerque were being criticized Tuesday for not stepping in sooner as a protest over a statue of a Spanish conquistador erupted in violence, leaving one man hospitalized with gunshot wounds.
Police units that had been monitoring the protest moved in minutes after the shooting and used tear gas and rubber bullets as they took the suspect into custody and aided the man who was shot. But some witnesses say things started to escalate long before the shooting as protesters surrounded the statue and a group of armed men who were trying to protect it.
Protesters wrapped a chain around the statue of Juan de Oñate and began tugging on it while chanting: “Tear it down.” One protester swung a pickax at the base of the statue.
The shots were fired in the street nearby, and protesters scrambled after hearing the gunfire.
Stephen Ray Baca, 31, was arrested and jailed on suspicion of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Baca was once a candidate for the Albuquerque City Council and is the son of a former Bernalillo County sheriff.
Baca had been among those trying to protect the statue when protesters “appeared to maliciously pursue him,” according to a criminal complaint. Video posted on social media showed protesters hitting Baca with a skateboard, punching him and chasing him before he opened fire.
Mayor Tim Keller said during a news conference that Baca appeared to be “agitating at the protest well before this shooting took place." The mayor pointed to a video that showed Baca throwing a woman to the ground and said investigators were still interviewing witnesses, reviewing video and working on a full account of what happened. It wasn't clear what precipitated the interaction with Baca and the woman.
Keller said the investigation was being turned over to New Mexico State Police and the tactics used by police would be reviewed.
“I want to be clear that this investigation will continue. It will be independent and all these facts will be brought to light,” he said.
The mayor also announced that the Oñate statue was removed Tuesday afternoon and placed into temporary storage given the city's concerns over public safety. Days earlier, the city announced plans to convene a council to consider the next steps for the piece of public art.
Oñate statues and other references to the Spanish conquistador have been sources of criticism for decades.
Oñate, who arrived in New Mexico in 1598, is celebrated as a cultural father figure in communities along the Upper Rio Grande that trace their ancestry to Spanish settlers. But he’s also reviled for his brutality among Native Americans.
The Albuquerque Journal reports members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, a self-described civilian militia group, showed up to protect the statue but protesters still tried to pull it down.
Police could not say if Baca had any connection to the group. He was dressed differently than members, some of whom wore camouflage, had tactical equipment and carried long guns.
Still, Keller said he was concerned about the group and used the incident to call on state lawmakers to consider gun control measures during their next session, specifically a possible amendment to the state Constitution that would give cities the power to regulate the right to bear arms.
Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis said he's concerned about the decisions made before and during the prayer vigil and subsequent protest outside the museum, saying at least three different groups with different agendas were allowed to converge and antagonize each other unimpeded.
“Those charged with making decisions about engagement have put our officers in the impossible situation of protecting the rights of conflicting protesters while not intervening to prevent the inevitable conflicts,” he said. “At its core, policing is about protecting life and property. By that standard, the city failed on both counts last night.”
The man who was shot, Scott Williams, suffered multiple gunshot wounds to the torso, according to the criminal complaint.
The violence came hours after activists in northern New Mexico celebrated the removal of another likeness of Oñate that was on public display at a cultural center in Alcalde. Rio Arriba County officials removed it to safeguard it from possible damage and to avoid civil unrest ahead of a scheduled protest.
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.