Downtown Albuquerque more closely resembled a theater of operations on Sunday night as riot police released tear gas and shot rubber bullets at protesters and journalists following hours of peaceful protests.
The escalation marked the largest law enforcement mobilization and use of force against New Mexico citizens since the police murder of George Floyd last Monday.
Albuquerque residents marched earlier in the evening in response to the murder of Floyd, a Black man who asphyxiated after a police officer pinned him to the floor with his knee for just under nine minutes.
A large group of protesters met at Central Avenue and University Boulevard at 7 p.m. and marched downtown on Central, gathering at the roundabout next to Robinson Park. As attendees of an earlier vigil for Floyd at the Albuquerque Peace and Justice Center filtered in, the crowd grew to well over a thousand protesters.
After holding a moment of silence, they circled back up Central. As the sun went down, the crowd fractured, with some protesters continuing into Nob Hill while others remained in the University of New Mexico area.
Throughout the two-hour march, some protesters gave out food, water and PPE, and organizers tried to keep the crowd together.
"Don't give them (the police) a reason," one organizer said to the crowd, urging them to remain behind the truck organizers brought out for safety.
Over the last week, police in cities across the country have used force against peaceful protesters. Late Thursday night, after Albuquerque's first George Floyd protest, riot police tear-gassed a crowd of about two dozen protesters without provocation.
Police kept their distance during the evening demonstration, barricading cross streets so marchers could pass down Central peacefully. A photo of snipers on the rooftop of George Pearl Hall on the University of New Mexico campus caused outrage on Twitter, sparking a response in the form of a tweet from UNM President Garnett Stokes.
As of the publication of this article, UNM had not responded to a Daily Lobo request for comment on the photo, although on Twitter Monday morning, Stokes acknowledged that state and local law enforcement accessed campus facilities to "protect protesters."
By 10 p.m. organizers announced that the official Black Lives Matter march was over, although the crowd had splintered about an hour before. Many protesters went home, while others went back downtown.
Vandalizing started a little after midnight, as a crowd of about a hundred gathered at the intersection at Central and Third Street. A fire burned in the middle of the intersection as people broke the windows of several surrounding businesses, which some then looted, and graffitied messages on store fronts. A police helicopter circled overhead until the early hours of the morning.
Within half an hour, riot police arrived on the scene. Over the next three hours, police officers used batons, tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters, bystanders and journalists, often without warning or provocation.
Most of the crowd dispersed after the initial barrage of rubber bullets and tear gas, but a couple dozen remained until almost 4 a.m. A group of six young protesters engaged in peaceful protest by lying on the ground face down with their arms behind their back in front of a line of nearly 20 riot police in front of the New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum.
An APD press release reported that police were deployed "to stop people who are vandalizing property and causing violence against the police," and that shots were fired at officers on Central. Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller echoed APD's release in a press conference Monday morning.
Protesters on foot and in vehicles threw bottles and rocks at the officers — however, Daily Lobo reporters who were on the scene did not witness any protesters shooting at police, who arrived on the scene in full riot gear.
Additionally, at various points throughout the early morning, Daily Lobo reporters were threatened by police with arrest and tear gas, with five caught in the line of tear gas canister fire while documenting the unfolding events.
As previously reported by the Daily Lobo, New Mexico has some of the highest rates of fatal police shootings in the country. According to Washington Post police shooting data, New Mexico police have shot and killed 150 people since 2015, with four shootings in the past year. During that same period of time, six police officers have died in the line of duty statewide.
At Monday morning's press conference, Keller said that two arrests had been made in relation to the previous night's events.
When asked about the possibility of outside agitators having played a role in the violence, Keller said, "In terms of out-of-towners and outsiders — we do know this — this seems to be happening around the country."
Keller said that he was basing these hypotheses on "social media noise" and went on to add that "there certainly is noise on social media of regional, out-of-town groups organizing in Albuquerque and even getting paid to do so."
According to Just Security, an institute at the New York University School of Law, authorities across the country suspect that far right infiltrators and agitators may be responsible for escalating the vandalism associated with these protests and thus triggering the protocols that riot police are trained to respond to. Despite these concerns, a number of mayors have had to walk back claims of "every single person" they have arrested coming from out of town.
There are several additional protests planned in Albuquerque this week, including a Black Lives Matter protest scheduled for June 1 at 7 p.m.
"Just around the country, we're expecting many, many days of this, and I don’t think tonight's going to be any different," Keller said. "We will try and do the same approach — which is APD's protocol — which is to allow protesting, which is to protect protesters. It is to only intervene in the case of violence, and that means looting, burning of buildings, gunshots, et cetera, and so that again will be our policy this evening and going forward."
Sharon Chischilly, Liam DeBonis, Andrew Gunn and Joe Rull contributed reporting to this article.
Bella Davis is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bladvs