A demonstration on Monday demanding the removal of a statue depicting a repressive Spanish colonial official in New Mexico resulted in bloodshed when one person was shot after agitated counterprotesters, including a small right-wing militia, crashed the protest. It was not the first time protests around toxic monuments ended in apparently politically motivated right-wing violence.
The removal of statues commemorating Confederate leaders, slaveholders and colonial despots has become a flashpoint for conflict and right-wing vigilantism, most notably during the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017, when hundreds of white nationalists traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the city’s plan to take down a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee. During the riot that ensued, far-right militia members inserted themselves into the fray and trained automatic weapons on anti-racist counterprotesters, heightening the potential for bloodshed.
Monday’s shooting in Albuquerque occurred after a far-right militia group called the New Mexico Civil Guard showed up at a demonstration near the statue of Juan de Oñate, New Mexico’s 16th century colonial governor, who brutally oppressed New Mexico’s indigenous population. Oñate massacred 800 inhabitants of the Acoma Pueblo and ordered the right feet cut off of 24 captives.
When protesters tried to pull down the statue of Oñate, the militia members, heavily armed and clad in camouflage, moved to stop them. The crowd grew agitated. A man in a blue T-shirt later identified as Steven Ray Baca, 31, waded into the protesters and, according to local news reports and multiple videos, grabbed a woman from behind and threw her to the ground before scuffling with other people in the crowd and being forced out onto a street.
There, police say, Baca, the son of a former sheriff of Bernalillo County and a candidate for Albuquerque City Council in 2019, pulled out a pistol and fired four shots, striking one man, identified as Scott Williams, 39, who remains in the hospital in critical but stable condition.
Police charged Baca with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, a felony, according to a criminal complaint.
On Tuesday, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) called on the Department of Justice to investigate the shooting.
“This is not the first report of heavily armed civilian militias appearing at protests around New Mexico in recent weeks,” Heinrich said on Twitter. “These extremists cannot be allowed to silence peaceful protests or inflict violence.”
It is unknown if Baca has any affiliation with the New Mexico Civil Guard militia group, which encircled him protectively before members of the Albuquerque Police Department took them and Baca into custody. A county chapter of the militia group issued a statement on Facebook denying that Baca was a member.
Though the group started organizing in February and might have only about 20 to 25 members, according to Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Extremism and an expert on the militia movement, its armed paramilitaries can inflame tensions at protests. Like many militia groups, the New Mexico Civil Guard claims to have former military members in its ranks and displays an antipathy toward the Black Lives Matter movement.
In early June, the members of the group made a frightening appearance with guns at a peaceful BLM protest. On its Facebook page, which was recently taken down, the group, which wants a “hard reset” of the government ― through insurrection, if necessary ― published posts promoting “ambushing” techniques and urban warfare.
“It’s just more gunpowder in the barrel,” Pitcavage said. “When you have armed extremists showing up for any type of protest, that is a potential danger. They could be motivated to action in some way or provoked in some way.”
With President Donald Trump and his proxies falsely fearmongering about the danger of anti-fascist activists ― in some cases, when white nationalists spread disinformation about “antifa” being bused in to majority white locales to maraud ― the ongoing protests against racial injustice and police brutality have attracted a variety of armed extremists and right-wing vigilantes whose mere presence can incite violence.
Despite the hysteria about antifa spread by right-wing propagandists, only one known fatality caused by a member of an antifa group has been recorded during antifa’s 30-year existence in America, when in 1993 a multiracial anti-fascist shot a neo-Nazi skinhead during a fight at a gas station in Portland, Oregon, and was convicted of manslaughter.
Far-right extremists, on the other hand, have murdered and injured thousands of Americans. A report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found that from 1990 to 2012, far-right extremists were responsible for 670 fatalities, 3,053 injuries and 4,420 violent attacks in the United States. Since 2012, far-right extremists have killed at least 75 other people and injured hundreds more in the United States.
Pitcavage added that the unrest roiling America this year is intensifying the danger. “We’ve seen a lot of these situations in the past few months starting with the anti-lockdown protests and moving into the protests of the last few weeks.”
On Sunday, a Black Lives Matter demonstration organized by residents in the tiny town of Bethel, Ohio, which hasn’t had a protest in decades, was overrun by about 700 right-wing counterprotesters who stormed into town, many of them members of motorcycle clubs, many of them carrying rifles and bats. The bikers allegedly attacked the demonstrators. Police were overwhelmed. The mayor imposed a curfew.
In Philadelphia in recent days, a racist Trump-supporting mob armed with bats, guns, knives and other weapons massed in Marconi Plaza, ostensibly to defend a statue of Christopher Columbus. On Saturday and Sunday, with police watching at times and intervening at others, members of the mob called Native Americans “savages” and roughed up Chris Schiano, a reporter from independent media outlet Unicorn Riot, who was filming the scene, hitting him, damaging his camera and slashing the tires of his bike.
“I was knocked down a few times, punched, kicked and hit, and had my camera swung into a tree,” Schiano told HuffPost. “At the time, it was a surreal bizarre experience, but in hindsight, I should have been afraid for my life.”
Two weeks ago, a bat-wielding group of men in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia threatened Black Lives Matter protesters and attacked a producer at a local radio station, putting him in the hospital.
On Monday in Seattle, people associated with the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist street gang that has sparked violent confrontations in cities around the country, stalked into the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” a six-block area in the city where protesters are attempting to create a police-free neighborhood, seemingly looking to cause trouble. Among them was Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, a hulking goon who has been arrested repeatedly for attacking protesters. After leaving the autonomous zone, Toese and his associates did, in fact, get into a brawl with a man, roughing him up and smashing his phone before jumping in a minivan with the license plates removed and fleeing the scene.
There’s no sign the peaceful protests around police violence will slow down, nor will revived demands to remove monuments to toxic historical figures. Some political leaders are warning that militant right-wingers are a danger to these movements. Late Monday, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) addressed the shooting at the Oñate statue, the latest violent incident in a long, sorrowful history of them.
“The heavily armed individuals who flaunted themselves at the protest, calling themselves a ‘civil guard,’ were there for one reason: To menace protesters, to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force,” Lujan Grisham said. “To menace the people of New Mexico with weaponry — with an implicit threat of violence — is on its face unacceptable; that violence did indeed occur is unspeakable.”