A photograph of two New Mexico State Police officers climbing atop the University of New Mexico's George Pearl Hall carrying what appeared to be sniper rifles on Sunday evening has circulated widely on social media, drawing condemnation from the campus community in all directions.
All directions, that is, except from UNM President Garnett Stokes.
"I really cannot condemn police for actively trying to protect people," Stokes told the Daily Lobo.
The two NMSP officers were seen on the roof of George Pearl Hall at the same time as a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration was taking place in the Nob Hill area.
While she said she thought the image was disturbing, Stokes said she believed that the motive behind the NMSP's decision to position gunmen on the rooftop was "to watch out for the crowd and to keep them safe."
"Looking at the many horrific incidents that have happened in our country, incidents of violence, I think that police have come to be prepared for all sorts of scenarios," Stokes said.
Many UNM students don't feel the same way.
Suha Musa, a Black UNM student and ASUNM senator, was one of many who were frustrated by the idea that sharpshooters and an increase in police presence on campus in general could make protesters feel protected.
"It's hard to buy that," Musa said. "In the end, it just doesn't make sense to me that, in a movement that is in the very least trying to reform police, the police are coming in and saying that they're the ones trying to protect students, that they're the ones trying to support the movement. It simply doesn't make sense."
Mark Soriano, a spokesperson for the New Mexico State Police, echoed Stokes' assertion that the tactical officers — armed with bolt action .308 caliber rifles — were deployed by the NMSP's special operations commander to "provide overall safety to the peaceful protesters" in an emailed statement to the Daily Lobo.
"It is not uncommon that these types of events can lure in agitator violence or an active shooter threat," Soriano wrote. "In our case, during this demonstration turned riot, officers were shot at while attempting to control the riot."
Soriano's characterization of the demonstration in the Nob Hill area as a "riot" conflicted with the realities on the ground, where protesters marched without incident throughout the evening.
The UNM/Nob Hill area has been a regular site for peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the past week. Protesters have marched in solidarity with fellow activists around the globe following the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, at the hands of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
The uprisings have led to some universities and public school systems around the country cutting longstanding ties with local police departments, in several cases in sweeping fashion.
On June 3, University of Minnesota President Joan Gable announced that her institution would no longer contract with the Minneapolis Police Department for support of large events and specialized services like K-9 explosive detection units. Additionally, Clark University President David Angel said in a statement that the Massachusetts school would no longer contract with off-duty Worcester police officers after some responded to local protests with riot gear and pepper sprayed students.
Protesters said that the snipers positioned on UNM rooftops were not the only evidence of increased police presence at UNM this week.
Participants in a separate peaceful BLM protest which started at the UNM Bookstore on Monday evening pointed out officers both following the crowd as it made its way through UNM's campus and staging in or near Popejoy Hall.
"We saw a van of people dressed in all black with black duffle bags getting out by the loading dock at Popejoy, then walking around the corner and disappearing from there as if they went inside Popejoy," said Emma Hotz, an ASUNM senator who participated in the demonstration. "During the protest, we saw another group show up in another van doing the same."
Hotz said she and her friends believed the bags contained riot control gear and that the police presence on campus detracted from the protest.
"At the protest, I couldn't stop looking around (for police) ... I was looking behind me, I couldn't stop looking to the rooftops (for snipers)," Hotz said. "I feel like it distracted from the protest, which was completely peaceful."
"I feel like they wanted to make their presence known," Hotz said.
In response to the near-daily protests taking place in the University area, UNM Police Department Chief Kevin McCabe released a statement Thursday which provided safety guidelines for onlookers who aren't participating in the demonstrations. Among other things, the statement warned concerned observers to "stay calm and do not engage in verbal or physical confrontations" with protesters and report any concerns of "destructive behavior or vandalism" by protesters to UNMPD.
As of the time of this article's publication, no instances of vandalism, violence or property destruction within UNMPD's jurisdiction have been linked to the BLM demonstrations.
UNMPD's implication that protesters were a safety threat didn't sit well with Musa, who said that the statement felt counterintuitive to the protests themselves.
"For me, as a Black student on campus, I don't feel heard ... To suggest that peaceful protesters are the ones making people feel unsafe ignores, I think, so much of the rhetoric behind the BLM movement," Musa said. "It disparages it (and) leaves no room for us to feel like we have the opportunity to have that conversation."
Musa, who grew up about 20 minutes outside of Minneapolis, has seen firsthand the epicenter of the national uprising against police brutality in a way few Lobos have.
"Not only am I a Black student at UNM, I'm also from Minnesota, I'm from the Twin Cities. (Chauvin) lived 15 minutes away from me, one of the other cops (in the video) lives down the road less than five minutes away from me and the cop who has a second-degree charge went to a high school in my district," Musa said. "It's all very personal."
Having identified with the Black Lives Matter movement from its very beginnings in 2013, Musa expressed frustration and disappointment in the UNM administration's response to the peaceful protests.
"The first message we got from them — before we even saw the snipers, before we saw the riot police and everything — was a statement from UNMPD," Musa said. "I think right off the bat that shows an immediate disconnect between understanding that the issue right now is a distrust in our police forces, so to put out a message straight from them before addressing it in its full capacity makes it feel like a very watered-down response."
"Then, for us to see snipers, to see riot police, that's a bold message to send to our students," Musa said. "To see that felt like history in the making, but in the wrong way."
In response to the rooftop incident, Stokes noted that she "wishes she could take that picture back" and "would expect police to be much more careful in the ways in which they display their guns to the community."
While it's generally par for the course for authorities to use UNM's campus as a staging ground for large events, the particular nature of the BLM demonstrations against police brutality raised concerns regarding police presence on campus during potential future protests.
"I don't know who has asked to be on our campus, who specifically has been on our campus," said Stokes when asked about UNM's status as a staging ground for law enforcement monitoring of BLM protests.
As students across the nation are urging schools to reconsider their ties with local police departments, Stokes remained firm in UNM's plan to continue working with local and state police.
"As a University, we will continue to work with the city and sheriff's department and the state police," Stokes told the Daily Lobo. "Those cooperative relationships are very important for the safety of the University and its surrounding community."
Stokes later released a video statement on Saturday that publicly addressed — briefly — for the first time the image of the State Police sniper unit, saying she had heard from many in the community who were "frightened or distressed" and emphasizing education of law enforcement on how the show of force stoked fear in the community.
The message lacked any concrete or actionable mention of loosening affiliations with local police departments, echoing the trend of most university administrators around the country demurring on systemic change.
"In the coming weeks and months, as we embark on discussions with our community about what they are looking for in police department leadership, we can and will be working with the greater UNM community to ensure a meaningful discussion on public safety and police enforcement both in and around our Albuquerque campus," Stokes said.
Musa said she was reassured to see the rooftop incident addressed but expressed doubt that there will be movement in addressing the underlying issue of a militarized police presence on campus.
"After watching President Stokes' statement about Black Lives Matter, I can't really say I feel much has changed," Musa said. "I appreciate her touching on the photo and video that circulated on social media, but nothing of substance was really said on those topics or the idea that riot police and armed individuals may be on our campus."
"Beyond that, many of the action points sounded too broad to really understand what that may look like, and I feel as if they'll take a really long time to discuss, let alone implement," she continued. "It's reassuring, for lack of a better term, to see President Stokes address the situation, but the action taken in the next few weeks at the University level will really be the judge of the legitimacy of her statement."
For now, the gulf in attitudes between the UNM administration and students like Musa and Hotz remains wide on the issue of police presence on UNM's main campus.
"We see pictures of the people we're protesting against on our rooftops, in our performance halls," Musa said. "How can we feel safe on a campus that feels like it's actively against us?"
Andrew Gunn contributed reporting to this article.
Joe Rull is the data editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rulljoe