Victim remains hospitalized in critical condition, expected to survive

OLD TOWN — Albuquerque became a flash point in the roiling debate over statues commemorating racist historical figures on Monday evening after a shooting perpetrated by an armed vigilante left a man in critical condition.

The sequence of events was rapid, and the violence that erupted shocked the conscience of a state that has long grappled with a complex history of settler colonialism, European imperialism and genocide of Indigenous peoples.

The protest and ensuing conflict between unarmed protesters and paramilitary splinter groups came to a head after weeks of uprisings following the police murder of George Floyd and amidst a national reckoning on institutionalized white supremacy in the United States.

Below is an account of the evening's events and the ensuing reactions to a night of violence and unrest.

THE PROTEST
A peaceful protest outside the Albuquerque Museum turned violent after independent vigilantes and members of the New Mexico Civil Guard militia became aggressive with protesters who opposed the Juan de Oñate statue on display there. Men armed with handguns and rifles and dressed in military fatigues infiltrated a group that was advocating for the removal of the statue of Oñate on the afternoon of June 15.

The statue of Oñate was part of an installation on the museum's grounds called "La Jornada," which also features a priest and settlers situated on top of a hill. Protesters pointed out that the conquistador represents a history of oppression of Native Americans and urged that it be removed.

Oñate led a murderous campaign against Indigenous people in territorial New Mexico at the end of the 16th century, killing close to a thousand members of Acoma Pueblo and ordering the mutilation of all surviving men over the age of 25. He was later exiled from the territory and convicted by the Spanish government for "excessive force" against the Acoma people.

The militia group maintained a large and central presence as protesters climbed the statues and chanted. With some carrying assault rifles, the group stationed members in front of the statue and on the outskirts of the crowd.

As the area filled and became more crowded, tensions between protesters and militia members tautened. At about 8 p.m., an argument in front of the statue escalated to a shoving match, and dust filled the area as at least one militia member fell to the ground alongside multiple protesters. Another militia member reached for his sidearm and began to draw, sparking panic and anger in nearby protesters.

THE SHOOTING
Less than two minutes after the shoving match ended and as protesters began attempting to pull down the statue, shots erupted from the west, scattering protesters and sending those gathered there into chaos.

Independent vigilante and former City Council candidate Steven Baca — later identified as the shooter — was captured on video throwing a protester to the ground just before shots were fired.


KUNM producer and reporter Marisa Demarco witnessed Baca's assault.

"He came up behind her and pulled her down ... Protesters come, and they're trying to stabilize her head. She was really dazed and out of it," Demarco said. "At that point, I really thought that was going to be the violent thing that happened at this demonstration, the bad thing that happened."

The initial police report about the shooting and the circumstances that led up to it don't mention that Baca assaulted at least two protesters. Some time before violently throwing one woman to the ground, Baca was recorded pushing another woman.

The report states that after trying to "protect the statue from the protesters," Baca "backed away from them, utilizing pepper spray to douse the oncoming crowd."

It goes on to say that "the group appeared to maliciously pursue Steven."

According to the report, an undercover police detective witnessed the altercation. Some on social media have questioned why the police didn't intervene before the shooting. The Albuquerque Police Department released a statement on Tuesday clarifying that the report was preliminary and the department was still investigating in tandem with prosecutors.

The crowd of protesters responded to the assault with one of them chasing Baca and swinging at and hitting him with a skateboard. Video taken of the incident by KOB reporter Megan Abundis and another video posted on Facebook shows Baca spraying mace into the crowd. Protesters were under the impression that Baca was an undercover police officer, although the reason for that assumption is unclear at this time.


"Get the cop!" protesters were heard shouting in the video. "Get his license plate ... Follow him!"

In the video, the crowd followed Baca west on Mountain Road to 20th Street. The protester holding the skateboard then appeared to lunge toward Baca and fell to the ground, dragging Baca to the ground as well. The pair struggled briefly as a second protester in a white dress began to hit Baca with an unidentifiable object. As Baca began to stand up, he produced a handgun from his waistband and a third protester approached. The third protester picked up the skateboard that had fallen to the ground as Baca turned toward him.

Baca then fired four shots, with at least one of them striking the third protester as the videographer fled.

Baca is the son of a former Bernalillo County sheriff's deputy and had previously run for Albuquerque City Council on a platform promoting police crackdowns on homeless populations for minor offenses to prevent crime.

THE AFTERMATH
After the shooting stopped, a mass of protesters ran toward the scene. A group of five protesters and a man identifying as a medic — with red crosses taped to his skateboard helmet — surrounded the victim, who was lying in the middle of the street.

"There's no exit wound," the man with the red crosses on his helmet reported to the other protesters.

Exit wounds are areas where a bullet leaves the body. According to the American Red Cross, a lack of an exit wound is a strong indicator that a bullet is still present inside a victim's body.

Approximately five minutes later, Albuquerque riot police deployed from a ABQ Ride SunVan east of the intersection, pushing back protesters as they secured the area for emergency medical services. Members of the NMCG quickly moved to surround and protect Baca after the shooting.

Upon seeing APD, Baca and the members of the NMCG laid face down on the sidewalk with their arms and legs outstretched. APD SWAT units handcuffed them and led them back to their vehicles.

Albuquerque Fire Rescue and ambulance teams arrived after to tend to the victim and transported him to a nearby hospital.

"It was so preventable," Jonathan Juarez, a Fight For Our Lives organizer, told the Daily Lobo in a later interview. "We know that the Real Time Crime Center was watching live everything that was happening from the mobile surveillance unit right across the street ... They saw them (NMCG) assaulting people."

Multiple calls to APD were also placed by protesters regarding the presence of armed militia members in the area prior to the incident. Despite these calls, no police presence was visible until after the shooting.

After the ambulances left the scene, tensions between protesters and riot police increased. Officers pushed protesters further north on 20th Street as they raised their hands and shouted. Organizers urged protesters to regroup at the nearby Tiguex Park, but they instead regrouped on Mountain Road east of the riot police, cutting off their access to the SunVan and releasing air from the tires.

Riot police then advanced on the forming group, deploying tear gas without warning.

"It was a really high tension moment, and it was really antagonistic and felt super scary," Demarco said. "It continued for a couple of hours — tear gas and flash bangs, less lethal rounds, police with rifles with their lasers pointed at folks which was, I think, scary for everyone."

Protesters retreated to the corner of Mountain and 19th Street, near the Oñate statue. After a short advance, riot police stopped about one hundred feet from the intersection. Protesters continued to attempt to tear down the statue, using metal chains to tug at its head. Despite their effort, none of the statues fell. APD did not react or attempt to stop the protesters. Soon, many began urging each other to go home.

"I don't want to have to treat another bullet wound," the person who treated the shooting victim told the crowd, choking back tears. "I can't handle it, all right? That shit hurts my soul to see that."

Protesters dispersed soon after, while APD riot officers continued to hold the line around the scene of the shooting.

THE RESPONSE
The condemnation from local political leaders was swift and damning — with the notable exception of the state's Republican party, which released a statement denouncing the "senseless shooting" and advocating for "law and order" only to retract it an hour later.

City Councilors Pat Davis and Isaac Benton released statements on Tuesday addressing the protest, and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller expressed his condolences to the victim on Twitter while framing the shooting as "tragic, outrageous and unacceptable."

Davis said he has "real concerns" about the decisions that "allowed at least three different groups, including one armed militia, with three different agendas to converge and antagonize each other unimpeded."

While there were two distinct groups — protesters and counter-protesters, many of whom were armed and harassing protesters — it's unclear what third group Davis is referring to.

Benton drew a comparison between Monday's protest and the incident downtown several weeks ago.

"In each case, outside opportunists were able to take advantage of a thoughtful and peaceful protest to advance their own agendas that include mayhem and destruction, targeting public and private property and endangering innocent persons," Benton said.

It's unclear which group Benton is referring to.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham weighed in on Monday night as well.

"Let me (be) clear: There is absolutely no space in New Mexico for any violent would-be 'militia' seeking to terrorize New Mexicans; and there is no space for violence of any kind on our streets and in our our communities, or for any sort of escalation of reckless, violent rhetoric, no matter who strikes first," Lujan Grisham said in a statement. "The instigators this evening will be rooted out, they will be investigated and they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

Baca has been charged with a third degree felony of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and firearm enhancement. According to Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, the investigation is being handed over to the New Mexico State Police.

The statue of Oñate will be removed from its current location by the city until "the appropriate civic institutions can determine next steps," more than 400 years after the Acoma Massacre in 1599.

Bella Davis is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @bladvs.

Liam DeBonis is a freelance photographer and reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @LiamDebonis.

Andrew Gunn is a senior reporter and the copy editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at copychief@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @agunnwrites.