More than two dozen cars circled the entrance to the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas on Thursday as guards looked on. Protesters were there demanding the release of Clifton White, who some have described as a political prisoner.
As the Daily Lobo previously reported, White, a 36-year-old Black man, was arrested on June 1 for allegedly violating parole. His wife Selinda Guerrero, a community organizer working on prisoners’ rights, has maintained that his arrest was retaliation for his work in the community.
The incident that led to White’s arrest happened on May 28, when Albuquerque saw its first George Floyd protest. The march and demonstration was organized by a handful of community organizations, including Millions for Prisoners NM and Fight For Our Lives.
Several hours after the demonstration ended, a small group of protesters who were still on the street got word that the police were arresting four teenagers on Mesilla Street off of Central Avenue for allegedly firing shots from their vehicle. The group has denied this accusation, and no weapons were recovered from the vehicle.
Albuquerque Police Department helicopter footage shows that 18-year-old Noah Tapia ran away after being pulled over by at least four police cars. Within five minutes, he returned to the scene with his hands up, where his brother and their two friends were lying on the ground. One of the teenagers can be seen moving slightly — Tapia told KUNM that the police ordered his brother to get up — and in response an officer violently knocked him back down.
In the same interview with KUNM, Tapia said that he, his brother and their friends were threatened and physically harmed by Albuquerque police officers before being released hours later without charges. Tapia said that when he was dropped off on the street at 2 a.m., he asked the officers for a ride home and they said it “wasn’t their problem” and “just joked around about it.”
When they heard that arrests were being made, the remaining protesters, including White and Guerrero, responded to Central and Mesilla where they found the police arresting the four teens. Guerrero began livestreaming the incident on Facebook.
After the arrests were made and the teens were taken away in an armored vehicle, a line of riot police stationed themselves on Mesilla in front of the protesters. A nearly half-hour standoff ensued, and before leaving, the police tear gassed the crowd.
As they tended to people — one woman suffered burn injuries from the tear gas according to Guerrero and other organizers, including Jonathon Juarez with Fight For Our Lives — White and Guerrero noticed that the officers had left Tapia’s car on the street with the keys on the hood. White got in the car with the intention of driving it home for safekeeping while Tapia was in police custody.
“We decided we were going to look for the kids anyway to make sure that they were safe, so we took possession of their property for them to protect it,” Guerrero said.
Tapia told KUNM that the group of protesters, of which Guerrero was a part, “came for our defense.”
White noticed the police helicopter following him after taking possession of the vehicle. As he pulled onto his street, he was surrounded by several police cars, according to APD helicopter footage. Guerrero arrived minutes later after dropping off another protester.
Guerrero said police pulled White out of the car, put him in handcuffs and told him he was being charged with conspiracy. Less than half an hour after he was detained, White was released — without his phone, which Guerrero said was brand new and taken by APD without documentation.
According to an APD press release, White was released because another crowd was gathering nearby.
“Because of the danger of the same crowd officers had encountered an hour before (when protesters were tear gassed), the decision was made to release White and drive the car to the substation to have it sealed pending a search warrant,” the press release reads.
In an email to the Daily Lobo, APD spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos said that while White refused to identify himself, an officer on scene recognized him from previous interactions and knew he was on parole. Gallegos said the officers were obligated to notify the Probation and Parole office, which later determined that White was in violation of his parole.
White was then arrested by APD on June 1 as another Black Lives Matter protest was getting underway.
White’s arrest warrant — which was signed by office supervisor Edmund Vigil but not by his parole officer Elijah Langston — lists a number of parole violations that seem to stem from the incident on May 28, like being “verbally combative” with officers and “failing to identify himself,” as well as being “a suspect in an auto theft.”
Guerrero said that in between the incident on May 28 and White’s arrest on June 1, the couple didn’t hear anything from the Probation and Parole office. However, she said that the day before the protest, White had a positive interaction with his parole officer.
“His PO told him he was doing a great job. He said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. I’ve moving you off of intensive supervision because you’re doing such a great job.’ It was all praise, not any indication that he was doing anything wrong,” Guerrero said.
The warrant also states that White failed to report to his parole officer before curfew, but Guerrero said that he had a night job and never actually had a curfew.
“The very first allegation, the thing that APD keeps digging in on, is that this was a curfew violation. Well, curfew is a standard that they usually put into everybody’s conditions, but what they (APD) did not know — and this is how we know they didn’t talk to his parole officer — is Clifton has never had a curfew,” Guerrero said.
“When he came home from prison in September, he got a job working at World Market overnight, so he’s never even had a curfew. So that’s a lie,” she said.
The Daily Lobo did not receive a comment from Langston or Vigil.
After providing a copy of the arrest warrant, Gallegos sent an email to the Daily Lobo reading, “You are characterizing him as a leader of the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement. You should be aware of the reason he was on probation,” followed by a list of the charges against White from 2002.
White has been funneled through the criminal justice system for nearly two decades.
In May 2002, White — who was 18 at the time — was indicted on charges including armed robbery, possession with intent to distribute and aggravated assault. After a number of counsel changes and trial extensions, White pled guilty in February 2004.
“I’ll be very honest — and I don’t think he would mind because this story needs to be told — but he was illiterate, he didn’t know how to read when they took him into these hearings and they were threatening him with a life sentence,” Guerrero said. “He didn’t understand what he was signing, and there was nobody there advocating for him.”
White was sentenced to serve 25 years, of which 19 were suspended, resulting in an actual term of five years followed by six years of supervised probation.
For the past ten years, White has been incarcerated multiple times for probation violations, the details of which are not noted in his case history in the New Mexico Court Case Lookup system.
After he was arrested on June 1, White was taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in downtown Albuquerque, joining the 6,363 people incarcerated in New Mexico as of June 12, according to the New Mexico Corrections Department. He was transferred to the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas last week.
Guerrero said that when White was first booked at MDC, the clerk didn’t know why he was there and couldn’t find anything in the system. The arresting officers then hand-wrote a warrant for curfew violation on May 28. Daily Lobo reporters also searched for a warrant in the Secured Odyssey Public Access database the day after his arrest and couldn’t find one listed.
When asked about this allegation, Gallegos said, “I sent you the arrest order issued by the state’s Probation and Parole Division. You need to direct your questions to the state.”
Given the recent spike of COVID-19 cases among the state’s prison population, Guerrero said she is worried about White’s health.
On May 9, 19 cases were reported in the Otero County Processing Center, which is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility. These were the first reported cases of COVID-19 in any prison or detention center in the state.
As of the publication of this article, there were a total of 679 cases at nine facilities throughout the state.
On Thursday, as protesters demonstrated in front of the correctional facility, White’s preliminary hearing was privately happening on the inside — parole board hearings are closed in New Mexico. That night, Guerrero posted an update on Facebook saying White would not be released and that a full revocation hearing will happen soon.
The Daily Lobo did not receive a comment from the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility.
“They don’t want to admit they were wrong, I guess,” Guerrero said. “I don’t understand it, but state violence is real for our families. There’s a gigantic, bright spotlight on it thanks to this super dope, amazing community who’s standing strong together.”
“We’re going to keep on fighting until everybody is free,” Guerrero said.
Liam DeBonis 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