About fifty protesters — including families with children and moms in yellow vests — gathered downtown in front of Filling Philly’s, a cheesesteak shop on Central Avenue and Third Street, on Thursday afternoon to decry an incident that happened there Sunday night.
As a Black Lives Matter protest came to a close at around 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 2, Black New Mexico Movement organizer Te Barry walked a few protesters to their cars. They’d heard that the New Mexico Civil Guard (NMCG) — a local militia founded by Bryce Spangler Provance, a man who has a swastika tattoo and a documented leadership role in a neo-Confederate organization — was in the area but didn’t know precisely where.
According to multiple witnesses, when a group of protesters walked by Filling Philly’s, a militia member inside the shop pointed his gun at Barry. Barry then called the police and waited across the street with a small group of protesters for the police response. The police didn’t arrive for more than thirty minutes, despite there being dozens of police cars patrolling downtown throughout the protest, according to Barry.
“APD monitored the situation as it unfolded and had officers nearby to stop any violent interactions … Officers worked for several hours with people on both sides of the incident to document their allegations in the form of a police report with a detective, rather than escalating the stand-off,” an Albuquerque Police Department press release stated.
Barry said officers responded to the area half an hour after he made the call but stopped a block away from Filling Philly’s and talked to a few protesters, requesting that Barry walk over and talk to them. When Barry refused, the officers left.
Barry, a Black man, suggested that if he had pointed a gun at the militia members rather than the other way around, the police would have responded much differently.
“If I’d have walked past that building and flashed my gun at them, you guys (the police) would’ve been here,” Barry told the Daily Lobo. “They’d have swarmed me with guns and had me arrested.”
Barry said he was already home by the time he got a call from a detective, roughly two hours after the incident.
“It’s like if you’re Black and you need help, they don’t come out,” Barry said. “Not even if you’re Black — if you’re a person of color, a person of true belief, the police aren’t going to assist you.”
He added that the NMCG tried to frame the incident as if they were the ones being threatened.
“They wrote a sign on a box that said ‘Peace to BLM.’ So now basically what they’re trying to do is flip the story to say that we were holding them hostage,” Barry said.
The militia also contacted the police, according to the APD press release.
“Officers were contacted by protesters who alleged that a person within the restaurant had pointed a gun at them. Individuals inside the establishment also called the police claiming they were under threat,” the release states.
The district attorney’s office has opened an investigation into the NMCG’s conduct Sunday night “to determine whether a criminal violation occurred or seek a temporary restraining order if necessary,” KOB reported.
Journalist Nick Martin tweeted Wednesday that the Filling Philly’s employee who invited the NMCG to the business to “protect” it had been fired.
Jim Benvie — once a leader of an armed vigilante group that illegally patrolled the border and stopped immigrants they suspected were undocumented — was convicted earlier this year of impersonating a Border Patrol agent. He has yet to be sentenced.
Benvie has a criminal history dating back several years.
A year ago, Benvie was charged with fraud for pocketing money he raised for a child cancer survivor. The boy’s father Eric Cremeens said that for years, Benvie had been using his son’s photos and story to raise money, none of which ever made it to the family.
Marcy Sanner, co-owner of Filling Philly’s, told KOB that Benvie didn’t have permission to invite the militia.
“Jim has been represented as the owner, and he’s not the owner,” Sanner said. “He’s represented us as being racist and all this … We are so embarrassed to be represented like that.”
But several of Sanner’s Facebook posts contradict that statement.
On May 31, hours after a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest ended, a small group of people vandalized and looted several businesses downtown, including Filling Philly’s.
The following day, Sanner posted about the vandalism on Facebook.
“They got my restaurant!” Sanner wrote. “Black lives matter!??? Well, so does everyone else’s!”
Witnesses, video footage and other evidence confirm that none of the Black Lives Matter protest organizers were involved in any vandalism, and instead took to social media the night of May 31 to condemn the individuals responsible.
“Going from city to city looting, breaking windows, tagging buildings, setting fires is not justice for someone being killed,” Sanner went on. “It wasn’t just police brutality. Those two guys have known each other for years, in fact, worked together. There were underlying issues that sourced that incident.”
Sanner seems to be referencing the claim that George Floyd and Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed him, both worked security at the same Minneapolis nightclub. In early June, another employee of the club reported Floyd and Chauvin knew each other and had “bumped heads,” but that employee later walked back his claim, saying he had mistaken Floyd for someone else.
Floyd worked inside the club and Chauvin stood guard outside. A former owner of the club told the New York Times that she didn’t recall ever seeing them together.
Sanner ended with, “Now people are destroying thousands of people’s little bit of livelihood we have left in an already broken economy all for one man. Where is the justice in that!??? Fucking idiots!!!! This is the beginning of the end.”
Nearly a month later, on June 25, Sanner posted a photo of a march on Central, writing, “More fucking protests!!! I’m so over this shit already! Can life just go back to normal please!!!???”
An Instagram post Wednesday night announced Filling Philly’s Downtown location is closing permanently after struggling financially for months.
At the protest Thursday afternoon, Barry addressed the police response to the incident and denounced the NMCG, saying racism won’t be tolerated.
“We’re here because there’s no room for racism in the streets of Albuquerque,” Barry said.
Barry also criticized the way a local news outlet covered the incident, talking specifically about the KOB story published Monday night. He said KOB didn’t reach out to him for comment.
“The main reason why we wanted them (KOB) here is because the news put out a story, and the story they put out was one-sided,” Barry said.
The KOB story includes comments from Sanner, police spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos and the district attorney’s office. Missing are comments from Barry or other protesters.
The Daily Lobo reached out to the KOB reporter who covered the story but didn’t receive a comment as of the publication of this article.
When organizers weren’t talking into the mic at Thursday’s protest, music was playing and kids were creating chalk art on the sidewalk. The protest ended within two hours.
Bella Davis is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bladvs