ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Gunfire broke out during a protest Monday night in Albuquerque to demand the removal of a statue of Juan de Oñate, the despotic conquistador of New Mexico whose image has become the latest target in demonstrations across the country aimed at righting a history of racial injustice.
As dozens of people gathered around a statue of Oñate, New Mexico’s 16th-century colonial governor, shouting matches erupted over proposals to take it down and a man was shot, prompting police officers in riot gear to rush in.
The man, who was not identified, was taken away in an ambulance, and the police took into custody several members of a right-wing militia who were dressed in camouflage and carrying military-style rifles. It was not clear whether any of them had fired the shot; witnesses said the gunman was a white man in a blue shirt.
“We are receiving reports about vigilante groups possibly instigating this violence,” Chief Michael Geier of the Albuquerque Police Department said on Twitter. “If this is true will be holding them accountable to the fullest extent of the law, including federal hate group designation and prosecution.”
The victim was in critical but stable condition, the police said on Twitter late Monday night.
The protest turned into pandemonium as protesters screamed and dove for cover and police officers attempted to secure the scene.
The police used chemical irritants and stun grenades to “protect officers and detain individuals involved in the shooting,” he said. “The individuals were disarmed and taken into custody for questioning.”
Hours later, Mayor Tim Keller announced that the Oñate statue would be removed until “the appropriate civic institutions” could determine how to proceed.
“The shooting tonight was a tragic, outrageous and unacceptable act of violence and it has no place in our city,” the mayor wrote on Twitter. “Our diverse community will not be deterred by acts meant to divide or silence us.”
He added: “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.”
The protest over the statue came on the same day that political leaders in Albuquerque announced a sweeping reorganization of policing in the city, shifting funds away from its scandal-plagued Police Department to create a new community safety department.
The initiative will give 911 dispatchers the option of a “community safety response” aimed at de-escalating situations, rather than involving police officers or firefighters. The new department is expected to respond to calls related to homelessness, addiction and mental health.
Police officers were not seen during the early portions of Monday night’s protest over the statue, which marked a new phase in the debate over racial inequities that began with the death of an African American man, George Floyd, in police custody in Minneapolis last month.
As protesters across the country have targeted a variety of symbols of racial injustice, including statues of Christopher Columbus, the protests in New Mexico are evolving to target symbols of colonial atrocities.
Earlier in the day, authorities in the northern town of Alcalde removed a different statue of Oñate, whose brutal rule as provincial governor put into motion centuries of Spanish rule in the region.
The agitation against honoring Oñate reflects a tension that has long festered between Native Americans and Hispanics over Spain’s conquest more than four centuries ago, with protests this year over police violence unleashing a broader questioning of race relations in this part of the West.
Oñate’s period as governor was marked by a violent repression considered severe even by the standards of his time. He killed 800 indigenous people in Acoma Pueblo and ordered his men to cut off the foot of at least 24 male captives. Spanish authorities convicted him on charges of excessive violence and cruelty, permanently exiling him from New Mexico.
Maurus Chino, 66, an Acoma artist, said he welcomed the efforts to take down the statues. But Chino said that in his view, removing the monuments did not go far enough.
“Melt them down and recast them as commemorative pieces,” said Chino, adding that doing so could help draw attention to crucial junctures in New Mexico history, such as the 1680 uprising that figured among the most successful indigenous rebellions against the Spanish empire anywhere in the Americas.
The statue in Alcalde that was removed on Monday gained notoriety decades ago when the right foot of the statue was cut off in a secretive act of protest. Since then, that act has resonated widely in New Mexico as a symbol of indigenous resistance.
Some Hispanic leaders in New Mexico oppose removing the statues, though there is by no means consensus on the question. Ralph Arellanes Sr., president of the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico, said that taking down the Oñate statue in Albuquerque would be wrong.
“It is a sculpture of a group of people on their journey into New Mexico with their livestock,” Arellanes said in a Facebook post about the statue, which was completed in 2004 and depicts Oñate leading an expedition of settlers and soldiers.
The Albuquerque Museum board of trustees voted last week to remove the sculpture, called “La Jornada,” or the journey. The city’s Cultural Services Department said over the weekend that it would convene a group of artists and community leaders to discuss the issue.
At Monday night’s protest, demonstrators engaged in shouting matches over whether to keep the statue or take it down, with the majority demanding its removal. Some looked on derisively as members of the New Mexico Civil Guard arrived with their long guns.
“These guys should worry more about diabetes than the statue coming down,” Kurly Tlapoyawa, an archaeologist who had come to urge the removal of the statue, said as he pointed to a militia member who was grasping a Burger King bag along with his rifle.
At one point during the protest, Oñate’s foot even made a surprise appearance. Three men wearing masks carried the bronze foot, taken all those years ago, to the entrance of Tiguex Park near the statue, and briefly held the foot aloft.
One of the men was Brian Hardgroove, a bass player for the hip-hop group Public Enemy. Hardgroove, who lives in New Mexico and has worked as an artist in residence at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, said he came to express support for solidarity between Native Americans and African Americans.
“Carrying this foot is a powerful act of resistance,” Hardgroove said.
Officials in Rio Arriba County told the Albuquerque Journal that the statue in Alcalde was being removed “temporarily.”
The discussion about what to do with the statues is feeding a broader debate over race and identity in New Mexico. For many Hispanics, statues of Oñate and other conquistadors represent symbols of resistance to Anglo dominance in New Mexico since the 19th century.
“We’ve been living among each other for 400 years, intermarrying, making New Mexico what it is today,” Arellanes said in a telephone interview, while emphasizing that he had indigenous ancestry from Tewa-speaking peoples. “This is what happens when people try to drive a wedge between us.”
Others, however, said it may be time to stop honoring conquistadors. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the governor of New Mexico, said on Twitter that taking down the Oñate statue in Alcalde was “a step in the right direction” toward understanding New Mexico’s complicated history and “imbalanced power structures.”
Brian Vallo, the governor of Acoma Pueblo, said he agreed with removing the Oñate statues, drawing a connection between the atrocities carried out centuries ago during the conquest and the legacy of those events today. He pointed to the vulnerability of tribal nations in the face of COVID-19 and the heightened risk they face of dying, as an example of how indigenous peoples are still struggling with extreme inequality.
“This is not anything new for Acoma,” said Vallo, who opted against speaking at the Albuquerque protest on Monday to remove the Oñate statue. He said he was trying to lead by example for a people that have followed strict distancing measures in an attempt to prevent infections. “It has to be understood that Acoma has been dealing with this trauma since it happened in 1599.”
The impetus for removing the statues also points to shifting definitions in New Mexico of what it means to be Hispanic or Native American. Some pushing to take the monuments down identify as Genízaros, descendants of enslaved Indians who were raised in Hispanic culture, while other proponents of the statue removals suggest there are other ways to recognize the endurance and resilience of New Mexico’s Hispanic culture.
“We are not static museum pieces and history has never stood still like these statues,” Estevan Rael-Gálvez, a former New Mexico state historian, said in another Facebook post. “The fact that Oñate and other figures of conquest have been embraced as a symbol of identity reveals a lack of critical thinking and imagination.”