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A Person Shot During The Protest To Remove Conquistador Statue In Albuquerque, N.M.


Shooting broke out at a protest in Albuquerque, N.M., last night. It happened as protesters and civilian militiamen began to clash at the site of a Spanish colonial statue. One man with a gunshot wound is in the hospital in stable condition, and another man is in police custody. NPR's John Burnett has been following events there, and he is on the phone with us now.

Hey, John.


CHANG: Hi. OK, so what do we know so far about what happened last night?

BURNETT: Well, it started out as a prayer service and a peaceful protest against the statue of the notorious conquistador Juan de Oñate. And things seemed to go fine until some protesters got a chain and put it around the bronze figure's neck and started trying to pull him down. Then another demonstrator got a pickax and started chopping at the base of the statue.

At that point, a group of armed vigilantes who call themselves the New Mexico Civil Guard stepped forward to try to protect the statue. Videos of the incident posted on Twitter - they show a husky man in a blue T-shirt arguing with protesters wanting to protect the statue. He shoves a woman violently to the pavement. Somebody swings a skateboard at him. He walks away. A few protesters chase him. One of them tackles him. They tussle on the ground. Then we hear four gunshots, and everybody screams and panics. We're not going to play the audio for you. It's really disturbing. The blue-shirted man is later shown handcuffed and being hustled into a police car.

CHANG: OK. So was the man the police arrested one of the militiamen?

BURNETT: Well, the militia tweeted today that he is not a member of their group. He was definitely not dressed like them - in camo clothing or tactical gear, shouldering assault-style rifles like all these others were. Albuquerque police say they've arrested 31-year-old Steven Ray Baca for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Several of the militiamen were also taken into custody. And the criminal complaint describes cellphone video of Baca holding a handgun and firing several shots at the protesters. After the shooting, the militiamen encircled Baca until police arrived.

CHANG: Have these militiamen been at other protests in New Mexico?

BURNETT: Yeah, they have, Ailsa. They've been showing up at Black Lives Matter protests in Albuquerque, saying they're there to protect property and deter violence. But their presence unquestionably heightened emotions and tension at this protest. New Mexico's Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the militiamen, quote, "were there for one reason - to menace protesters." She added, there's no place in New Mexico for a violent would-be militia seeking to terrorize her citizens.

CHANG: And after the shooting stopped, what happened to the statue?

BURNETT: The city says it's removing the statue for safekeeping to avoid provoking any more violent demonstrations. But the thing is, that's not the only Oñate statue that's been the focus of protests. There's an even larger one of the conquistador on horseback in northern New Mexico, just north of Espanola. And earlier Monday, authorities removed that statue with a forklift to cheers from onlookers, some of whom were from the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo reservation nearby.

CHANG: Wow. So tell us more about this conquistador. I understand he conquered New Mexico more than 400 years ago. Obviously, emotions about statues depicting him are still quite intense.

BURNETT: Exactly. And that's a great question. Some descendants of original Spanish families in New Mexico see Don Juan de Oñate as a nobleman who brought Catholicism and introduced sheep to New Mexico, which was then New Spain. But others have come to see him as a cruel, invading tyrant. In one infamous incident, he had his soldiers cut off the right feet of Pueblo Indian men to punish them for a rebellion against the Spanish occupiers. The Spanish crown actually banished Oñate from New Mexico and convicted him of using excessive force and cruelty against men of the Acoma Pueblo. So these Oñate statues have become really controversial, just like statues of Christopher Columbus elsewhere in the country.

Here's Kimberly Gauderman. She's a Latin American historian at the University of New Mexico.

KIMBERLY GAUDERMAN: Many people in New Mexico for decades have protested the honoring of conquest and exclusion of those who are not of Spanish background, who are Native Americans.

BURNETT: So on some level, the protests around the country against police brutality and racism emboldened New Mexicans to demonstrate their long-standing grievances over the legacy of Don Juan de Oñate.

CHANG: That is NPR's John Burnett.

Thank you, John.

BURNETT: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.