Police in Albuquerque, N.M., on Tuesday announced they had arrested a failed former city council candidate who allegedly shot and wounded a man at a protest that grew contentious as demonstrators clashed with a militia group.
The Monday night episode – which erupted after a crowd tried to tear down a monument to Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate – appeared to reflect a phenomenon that federal and state officials have long warned about: Protests over racial injustice, such as the ones currently roiling American cities, can draw a medley of fringe actors or groups with their own ideological agendas.
In New Mexico, shots were fired after confrontations between those who wanted the removal of the monument and members of a militia group called the New Mexico Civil Guard, several of whom told The Washington Post they were worried tearing down the statue would beget widespread destruction of property.
The members of the group said they did not know the alleged shooter or the victim and cast themselves as attempting to prevent violence from erupting at a tense scene. But state officials denounced their presence, which they said was meant to intimidate protesters.
“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,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Violence has been an occasional feature of the demonstrations across the country since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month – though the majority of protests have been peaceful.
Federal authorities have charged dozens of people for looting, arson, using molotov cocktails and other protest-related crimes. According to a list of their cases reviewed by The Washington Post on Tuesday, the majority of those intent on committing mayhem seem to be individuals who aren’t affiliated with any particular group.
Attorney General William Barr has said there is a “witches brew” of extremists trying to infiltrate the demonstrations, though he, President Donald Trump and others have also singled out the far-left antifa ideology, despite scant evidence of their involvement. The Anti-Defamation League has tracked dozens of instances of what it calls a “small but vocal array” of right-wing extremists appearing at protests.
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the league’s Center on Extremism, said that even those on the right, though, have “viewed these protests very differently and shown up for different reasons.” And while they have been present, he said, they have mostly not caused problems, as they represent a “tiny minority” of those demonstrating.
“Most of the people taking part in these are – whatever side you want – not extremists,” Pitcavage said. “They’re just folks, whether they like or dislike the protests.”
There have, though, been some notable exceptions.
In Oakland, Calif., authorities on Tuesday announced charges against two men who allegedly killed a security officer outside a federal building there on May 29, when they knew most law enforcement would be busy responding to protests.
Authorities allege Steven Carrillo, an adherent of the radical fringe Boogaloo movement that openly anticipates a civil war, killed one security guard and injured another. Officials say he was aided by Robert Justus, who allegedly drove a van that authorities said Carrillo fired from. Carrillo was previously arrested in connection with the killing a sheriff’s deputy in June.
FBI Special Agent in Charge John Bennett said the two men “came to Oakland to kill cops,” and thought the mass protests going on at the time would keep most law enforcement in the city busy, making it easier to conduct such an attack.
In Bethel, Ohio, over the weekend, 80 or so expected demonstrators for a Black Lives Matter protest ended up dwarfed Sunday afternoon by some 700 counterprotesters – motorcycle gangs, “back the blue” groups and proponents of the Second Amendment, village officials said. Some carried rifles, a local news station reported, while others brought baseball bats and clubs. Police said they are investigating about 10 “incidents” from the clashes that followed, including a demonstrator being punched in the head.
The Albuquerque Police Department said Tuesday that it had arrested Steven Ray Baca, 31, in connection with the shooting in Albuquerque, where protesters were trying to topple the monument to de Oñate, a 16th-century despot who massacred indigenous people.
Police charged Baca with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, a felony, according to a criminal complaint. Baca’s longtime girlfriend, Jacqueline Valdez, confirmed Tuesday that Baca has an attorney, but she declined to give the lawyer’s name or offer other details.
Authorities said Scott Williams, 39, was the victim. Laura Schauer Ives, an attorney for his family, said Williams remains in the hospital.
“His family very much is certain that had Scott not taken the bullets from Mr. Baca that the community, somebody in the community he cared about would have been harmed,” she said, adding that Williams’s family “has very, very serious concerns about the Albuquerque Police Department’s failure to respond to what was obvious escalating violence at what was supposed to be a peaceful protest.”
City officials defended the police response, saying that officers responded to the shooting within minutes and that their job was complicated by the dozens of guns and other weapons they recovered from people on the scene.
Mayor Tim Keller, a Democrat, denounced “outside groups interfering with peaceful protests” who come with weapons and attempt to “prop up white supremacy.” But he said constitutional rights limit local officials’ ability to keep such groups away from demonstrations like that in Albuquerque.
In the hours leading up to the violence Monday, protesters faced off with members of an armed group of civilians that calls itself the New Mexico Civil Guard, and counterprotesters toting “All lives matter” signs.
John Burks, captain of what he described as the Civil Guard’s “Bernalillo Company,” said seven or eight of his roughly 20 members came to the demonstration not because they believed the statute should be kept up, but because they wanted to prevent it from being physically torn down by demonstrators. Another member said they were armed as a “visual deterrent” to prevent violence.
“My thing is, its public property, if you want to take it down, vote on it, do it the right way,” Burks said.
The police complaint cast Baca as seeking to “protect the statue,” then defending himself against protesters who were “pursuing” him “while he backed away from them, using pepper spray to douse the oncoming crowd.” Baca’s “retreat,” the complaint said, continued, even as “the group appeared to maliciously pursue” him, with several people striking him with their hands and legs. The protesters also hit him with a longboard and tackled him, the complaint said.
Williams, described in the complaint as a man “dressed in a black hooded shirt with a pair of black pants,” is noted to have “struck Steven” with the longboard.
According to the complaint, Williams can be seen on bystander video retrieving a board and swinging it toward Baca’s upper body and head. Then, the complaint says, Baca fired several shots. The crowd scattered.
In a second video that captured the moments after the shooting, the alleged gunman sat in the middle of a road as the New Mexico Civil Guard members formed a circle around him. One man carrying a semiautomatic rifle and wearing camouflage fatigues and a military-style helmet kicked a handgun away from the man and stood with his foot on the weapon.
Keller acknowledged concerns about the initial criminal complaint filed, saying that a supplemental filing will incorporate evidence suggesting Baca initiated the violence by “violently throwing a woman to the ground” before protesters pursued him. State police will be taking over the investigation, city officials said.
Burks said his group had earlier scuffled with demonstrators, but when they put a chain around the statue’s head, he decided his members should back off.
“I’m not going to fight with them if they want the statue that bad,” Burks said.
He said that as his group watched from the sidelines, derisively yelling at the protesters to “pull harder” as they tried to bring down the statue, there was a commotion and shots rang out. Burks said his group moved in, and he stood on top of the shooter’s gun with his foot as other members surrounded the shooter.
“We were trying to calm the situation that had just taken place because it was about to go up in an uproar,” Burks said.
Police responded to the scene with tear gas and rubber bullets to force the crowd back. Burks said all of the militia members were taken into custody. He said they spent about three hours at a police precinct – most of that time in squad cars – and were questioned by the FBI and local detectives. A police oversight board will also be reviewing officers’ tactics Monday night, after some accused officers of letting an armed group initially dominate the shooting response and criticized the police’s crowd-control measures.
Burks and other members of the group said that as far as they were aware, none of their members were charged with crimes. He said he and his members did not know Baca; officials said they could not speak to whether Baca was connected to the group.
The FBI’s Albuquerque Division confirmed in a statement that it was assisting the local investigation and that agents were “focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals who are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity in New Mexico.”
Baca did not appear to be injured in the video but was taken to a hospital and declined to speak to law enforcement, according to the criminal complaint.
Baca is a political conservative and a registered Republican, according to voter records. He last year ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Albuquerque City Council, telling the Albuquerque Journal at the time that “he felt compelled to seek his first elected office out of fear the community is becoming a ‘Third World country.’ “
On his campaign Facebook page, which no longer exists, Baca criticized local authorities as being “complete wimps when it comes to fighting crime,” the newspaper reported. He went on to receive less than 6 percent of the vote.
Baca told the Albuquerque Journal last year that he is the son of a former Bernalillo County sheriff. A spokesman for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday confirmed that Baca’s father had worked for the department, but said he had not been employed there since 2001.
Keller said the Oñate statue would now be speedily removed as an “urgent matter of public safety” until authorities determine a next step. Early Tuesday afternoon, the statue lay flat on the ground over a blue tarp, freed from ground earlier that morning, but yet to be taken away.
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The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett, Katie Mettler and Julie Tate in Washington; Will Ford in Albuquerque; and Shayna Jacobs in New York City contributed to this report.