Protesters, police clash along Central as tensions escalate
As police on Sunday night deployed tear gas during repeated, heated confrontations with protesters, UNM students got caught up in the furor.
“I feel like I just got beat with a stick,” said Ruben Holly, a UNM student affected by the gas. “Every single mucus membrane on my face just let loose. I couldn’t see. I was about to throw up. It sucked straight-up.”
Holly was watching from the sidewalk with friends as the conflict between protesters and riot police unfolded.
Hundreds took to the streets Sunday after hacker group Anonymous posted a video press release on YouTube Wednesday urging residents to protest police violence in the city.
This is the second protest against APD since the department released a helmet-camera video of the March 16 killing of James Boyd. Boyd, a homeless man, was caught illegally camping in the Sandia Foothills, and can be seen in the video turning away from APD officers as they open fire.
Twenty-three men have been shot dead by APD since 2010.
The protest began yesterday morning at the APD headquarters, at which relatives of men shot dead by APD officers expressed their complaints against police, and was followed by a march. At first, protesters urged each other to keep to the sidewalks, claiming that “this is a peaceful protest.” But as the march progressed, they started gathering amid cars on the street.
Police continually met protesters along Central Avenue, and at least five armed officers awaited protesters at Central and Yale who screamed in their faces. The confrontation escalated outside the UNM Bookstore, where at least 20 police officers lined up and blockaded protesters, who continued to shout chants such as “jail killer cops” and “don’t shoot us.”
The first standoff occurred at the intersection of Roma Avenue and Fifth Street near the APD headquarters, where, at about 6 p.m., police threatened to shoot tear gas at protesters. Initially, some protesters distributed rags with vinegar and advised each other to wear them in case police used tear gas. Over a megaphone, police announced that protesters were involved in “unlawful gathering” and ordered them to move southbound on Fifth Street.
After more than an hour, though police did not deploy tear gas, the protest moved away from the area.
The two sides met again at about 7 p.m. at the intersection of Central and Girard, where protesters continued to confront police. Law enforcement arrived in the form of a SWAT team, riot police on horses, an armored vehicle and prisoner transfer vans. Officers continued to threaten to shoot tear gas at the protesters.
After an hour, a mass of protesters left the standoff and marched back downtown.
Conflicts peaked at about 9:20 p.m., when officers first deployed tear gas on about 100 people near the intersection of Central and Columbia.
Griffin Harper, a freshman studying nursing that was watching the protest, said protesters provoked the police to spray tear gas.
“I guess there were a lot of protesters getting in their face,” he said. “I guess they got mad and tear gassed us.”
Police encircled protesters as the face-off intensified. Riot police on horses stood firmly on the east side of the intersection as the SWAT team approached from the west. Officers then threw tear gas grenades at groups of protesters.
Isaac Torres, a freshman studying engineering, said the police’s use of force near the UNM residential area was unmerited. Torres was watching from the sidewalk and was caught in the gas cloud. “I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “Most of the people here are students. I live here. This is where I park my car. I don’t feel like they should be shooting tear gas at me just for being at my house.”
But Holly said although the police should not have used force near a student residential community, protesters provoked them.
“I think the protesters got a little too far,” he said. “They got away from the issue to just hating police. That’s not a constructive way to voice a criticism … They’re just looking to incite conflict like this.”
At about 10:30 p.m., protesters gathered outside APD headquarters when a van labeled “Paintball Field Service” drove in to join the group.
The driver of the van hopped out and walked around to the side of his vehicle facing the crowd. He pulled out a bag, opened it and withdrew what looked like a rifle. The man claimed it was an AK-47.
Several people fled, while others gathered around the driver of the van to convince him to put the gun away. Eventually, the man consented.
The man, whose name is Devon Bay, said he brought the gun thinking he would need it during the APD protest.
“The rationale for my AK is that if these guys want to swing lead, let’s swing lead,” he said. “They’ve been killing us all day. What’s one guy?”
When asked if he was afraid the police would shoot him upon seeing his gun, Bay said he didn’t care. He said in order to get their country back, the protesters would need to follow suit and be well-armed. “If you yo-yos don’t want to fix your country, then I feel bad for you,” he said. “I’ve got all the shit I need. You need body armor. You need firearms.”
Protesters at the scene insisted Bay’s actions were not representative of the group.
At about 11 p.m., APD released canisters of tear gas on protesters at the intersection of Roma and Fifth.
The protesters moved out from in front of the entrance to the APD headquarters when police approached the intersection from the north and west.
People stood at the corners along Roma on the south side of the intersection. A few people sat in the middle of the intersection, while others paced in front of the police.
APD gave multiple warnings to the group, saying they understood the crowd was upset, but that they were blocking the roads. They told the crowd to peacefully disperse. When the crowd refused to move, the police launched tear gas grenades.
Charlie Sedillo, 22, said he was in the front of the crowd at the corner of the intersection when the canisters were released. Sedillo said he had been with the group since the beginning of the day’s protest. He said that when the canisters came at him, he kicked them back, but then started running east down Lomas.
“I don’t really know what to say,” he said. “It sucked.”
Students at protest
Several UNM students attended the twelve-hour protest.
Felipe Cook, a senior attending UNM, said he came out to protest APD because of the shooting of James Boyd and Alfred Redwine.
“I think it’s mind blowing how far the police force has gone in terms of being militarized and holding military-grade weapons against someone who was mentally disabled,” he said. “It blew my mind that it had gone that far. Then to know that after the protest that was held on Tuesday, there was another killing that went on in a home where a man was talking on a cell phone, and he was shot by APD.”
Redwine was shot Tuesday night walking out of his apartment complex with a gun pointed to his own head, according to the Albuquerque Journal. Police said Redwine fired at least a round at them, but neighbors who witnessed the event said Redwine never pointed the gun at police, according to the article. The shooting came hours after an event protesting Boyd’s death Tuesday evening.
Cook said he hoped the protest would raise awareness and send a message to APD.
“We’re here to raise awareness of what’s going on not just in New Mexico, but in the United States: the grand militarization of our police force,” he said. “Hopefully, we will gain more attention in the national media and with the Department of Justice. They would see that we are also fed up with APD’s (being) allowed to be the judge, jury and executioner of every situation that they’re called into.”
Brent Robare, another UNM student, said he saw the protest headed towards downtown and decided to join because he thought the force used against Boyd was excessive.
“They didn’t have to kill him,” he said. “They had other tools they could have used, like Tasers and tear gas.”
Holly said he agrees that APD employs excessive police violence. But he said protesters should not express their grievances in a manner as extreme as they did.
“Coming from a different part of the country, APD is a very, very aggressive police force,” he said. “But at the same time, there’s a better way to handle complaints with the force than how it was handled tonight. When you become a mocking, violent, degenerative force, you’re not going to get your message across. I feel like they just killed their own protest.”
At about 9:02 p.m., UNM issued an alert urging “campus residents (to) shelter in place due to protests and police activity at Central and Girard.”
UNM Director of Communication Dianne Anderson said that although APD was the main body that monitored the protest, UNM activated its Emergency Operations Center.
“We activate our Emergency Operations Center when there is an emergency that impacts the campus, and, basically, that means we brought in the people who staff that,” she said. “We did have officers at the scene. We did have emergency centers set up in case there were impacts to students.”
Anderson said that although UNMPD officers were at the scene to monitor the protests, the department did not assist APD with controlling protesters.
UNMPD public information officer Tim Stump said his department did not arrest anybody during the protest. He declined to give further comment because “it’s not ours to comment on.”
Anderson said UNM also received reports from students that tear gas deployed near the A Lot in the residential area penetrated air vents of nearby dorms. She said the University immediately advised residents to turn off air conditioning in their rooms to prevent gas from entering the buildings.
Jordan Dautenhahn, resident of Coronado Hall, said the gas entered his room.
“I was getting word that the gas was getting inside the dorms,” he said. “I ran back to my room to close the window. There was no smell, and nothing really happened, but I got a little headache right when we got in. I shut my window and I left because I didn’t want to stay there.”
Dautenhahn said that although police might have had to use tear gas on campus, they should never have done so at UNM.
“I don’t think it’s justified to use tear gas on campus,” he said. “I feel like it’s justified to use it off of campus to stop whatever is going on.”
Anderson said that, prior to press time, UNM has not received any report of damages to campus property. She said University staff will survey the campus today to look for any damage.