[News] Armed Vigilantes Antagonizing Protesters Have Received a Warm Reception From Police

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jun 19 14:56:38 EDT 2020

Vigilantes Antagonizing Protesters Have Received a Warm Reception From
Mara Hvistendahl - June 19, 2020

*A former* Albuquerque City Council candidate who ran on a tough-on-crime
platform shot a protester at an anti-police brutality demonstration on
Monday and was arrested alongside members of a right-wing militia group.
The shooting is an extreme example of a trend that has played out across
the country as armed vigilantes pledging to protect property have shown up
at protests — in many cases with encouragement or even explicit
collaboration from law enforcement.

The shooter, Steven Ray Baca
had been intimidating protesters planning to topple a statue of the
murderous Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate outside the Albuquerque
Museum. He was joined in this quest by members of the New Mexico Civil
Guard, a militia group that emerged in the wake of coronavirus-related

Baca, who was recently named
a board member of the Albuquerque Tea Party, claims to have family in law
enforcement and has led pro-police activism in the past. Amid protests over
a police killing in 2014, he created
<https://www.koat.com/article/support-apd-facebook-page/4445222> a Facebook
page in support of Albuquerque officers and told a reporter
that he had an uncle with the department. A profile
of Baca from his 2019 run for city council notes that he is the son of a
former Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy. In a tweet
<https://twitter.com/BCSDSheriff/status/1272949546193018882>, the sheriff’s
office said, “His father worked for the agency nearly twenty years ago, but
was no longer an employee of BCSO as of 2001.” But Baca behaved as if his
father still wielded influence, according to Nicholas Soto, a protester who
witnessed the shooting. After firing his weapon, Soto said, Baca asked law
enforcement to call his dad, whom he said was with the sheriff’s office.

Nearly 200 appearances by vigilantes and far-right extremists have been
counted at protests over the past few weeks.

Before Baca opened fire, protesters were pulling a chain looped around
Oñate’s neck, preparing to tear down a sculpture viewed as a symbol of
genocide and racism. Members of the New Mexico Civil Guard stood watch
carrying assault weapons, ostensibly to protect the monument. Suddenly, the
cheers gave way to shouts. Baca threw a woman
<https://twitter.com/HolidayRob/status/1272903279719129091?s=20> to the
ground, then strode away from the crowd. When protesters chased after him,
a scuffle broke out. “He’s going to fucking kill you!” a bystander screamed
<https://twitter.com/meganrabundis/status/1272735796949213184?s=20> before
four gunshots pierced the air. Several of the bullets hit protester Scott
Williams in the torso.

With Williams bleeding in the street, the New Mexico Civil Guard members
formed a protective circle around Baca, their weapons ready. When law
enforcement arrived, officers created a second ring around the militia,
according to a video provided by another witness. After detaining the
shooter and several militia members, officers fired tear gas and flash-bang
grenades at the distraught crowd.

“The police handled the New Mexico Civil Guard and the gentleman very
gingerly, with care, to make sure they didn’t get injured, while they were
on the opposite side trying to target Black and Indigenous people,” said
Soto. Williams, the victim, was in critical but stable condition
as of Wednesday night, according to the local news station KRQE

As the uprisings that followed the police killing of George Floyd in
Minneapolis spread across the country, far-right counterprotesters have
mobilized in large cities like Chicago, as well as small towns like Bethel,
Ohio. Some are members of groups like the Boogaloo
Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters. Others are local supporters of police.
The warm police reception they have received stands in stark contrast to
the violent treatment law enforcement has dealt Black Lives Matter
demonstrators. Two weeks before the shooting in Albuquerque, the city’s
police were caught on film encouraging
<https://twitter.com/TreeDrought/status/1267869493843365888?s=20> men in
tactical gear preparing to guard property against police brutality

The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which tracks
white supremacist and far-right groups, has counted nearly 200 appearances
by vigilantes and far-right extremists at protests in the United States
over the past few weeks. Alexander Reid Ross, a researcher at the Center
for Analysis of the Radical Right and author of “Against the Fascist
Creep,” separately counted scores of such appearances, 12 of which involved
police collaboration or support.

Many officials, including President Donald Trump, have repeatedly blamed
protest violence on the anti-fascist movement known as antifa and the
“radical left.” But the violence in Albuquerque isn’t the first instance of
right-wing vigilantes being criminally charged for actions during recent
protests. On June 2, federal prosecutors in Nevada charged
three members of the Boogaloo movement, which seeks to accelerate collapse
of the political system via civil unrest, with conspiracy to damage and
destroy by fire and explosives. An Army Reserve member and two military
veterans were allegedly
<https://apnews.com/6223153093f08fa910c4ab445771b773> headed to downtown
Las Vegas with gas canisters and Molotov cocktails. On Tuesday, federal
prosecutors in California charged
a U.S. Air Force sergeant linked to the Boogaloo with murder for killing a
federal security officer near a courthouse in Oakland. He was also charged
separately for killing a sheriff’s deputy in Santa Cruz County.

Trump’s racist statements and praise of white supremacists over the course
of his presidency have emboldened right-wing extremist groups, according to
organizations that track their rise. Nonetheless, experts have been shocked
at the number of vigilante incidents and reactionary counterprotests over
the past few weeks. “I expected a backlash,” Ross said, “but the extent is
A History of Collaboration

The United States has a long history of vigilantes working with police and
government officials to oppress Black and Indigenous people. As European
Americans violently settled Indigenous territories, the U.S. government
offered rewards
for the scalps of those they sought to displace. In the Jim Crow South,
violent mobs lynched thousands of Black Americans, often advertising the
killings in the newspaper ahead of time. Police sometimes attended, and
many of the victims were political activists.

“There’s a very close connection historically between the police and
vigilantes in the United States,” said Noël Cazenave, a sociologist at the
University of Connecticut and author of “Killing African Americans: Police
and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism.” Vigilante mobs tend
to flare up in reaction to a perceived increase in the power held by Black
people, he said. In the Jim Crow South, the trigger was abolition; today it
is the movement for Black lives. “Such violence is a way of keeping Black
people in ‘their place,’” Cazenave added.

That close relationship has endured. In the wake of President Barack
Obama’s election, militia and anti-government groups proliferated. One
prominent group, the Oath Keepers, is made up of current and former
military and law enforcement members who believe they have a duty to
protect citizens from tyrannical U.S. government actions, such as
confiscating guns. A 2017 investigation
by The Intercept revealed a classified FBI counterterrorism guide that
stated, “Domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists,
white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have
identified active links to law enforcement officers.”

An interactive map showing appearances by vigilantes and far-right
extremists at police brutality protests in the United States since the
killing of George Floyd. Map: Alexander Reid Ross

In April and May, with Trump’s encouragement, many groups began organizing
around the issue of reopening the economy amid lockdowns imposed to prevent
the spread of Covid-19. “The reopen protests became a recruiting ground for
these folks to start coming together and concocting more horrific plots,”
said Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and
Education on Human Rights. Burghart draws a direct line between Trump’s
rhetoric and the appearance of far-right groups and white vigilantes at
Black Lives Matter protests. “They are in many respects echoing the words
that they hear coming from the president,” he said.

After a police officer murdered Floyd on Memorial Day, protests broke out
across the U.S., some involving extensive property damage and looting. In
the early morning hours of May 29, Trump tweeted
“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” calling Minneapolis
protesters “THUGS.” As the protests endured, he blamed chaos on antifa and
the “radical left
<https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1266760009872007171>” and stated
that he would be designating antifa a “terrorist organization,” a dubious
considering that antifa is not an organization, and the U.S. government has
no mechanism to designate domestic groups as “terrorist organizations.”

Nevertheless, Attorney General William Barr chimed in
“Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to
pursue their own separate, violent, and extremist agenda,” he claimed. “The
violence instigated and carried out by antifa and other similar groups in
connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated

In the days that followed, rumors flourished
on social media that busloads of antifa actors were headed to small
communities across the U.S. The rumors were
<https://apnews.com/afs:Content:9001290169> repeatedly
to be false. Twitter suspended
an account that claimed to be run by antifa supporters but turned out to be
associated with the white supremacist group Identity Evropa

But the damage was already done. “Virtually everywhere major
counterprotests emerged over the last two weeks, they involved reaction to
rumors and speculation about antifa based on disinformation spread through
social media and other online platforms,” said Ross. In many communities,
police and public officials encouraged the pushback.
Special Treatment for White Vigilantes

A day after Trump’s tweet about looting and shooting, Constable John
Shirley of Hood County, Texas, posted a “Call to Action” in an Oath
Keepers Facebook
accessed by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.
Shirley called for adherents to provide protection at Dallas’s Salon à la
Mode, which had defied the governor’s order to shut down in response to the
pandemic, and encouraged current and former law enforcement to carry
pistols. “We are now in a Global War on Antifa,” Shirley declared in a
second Facebook post.

In communities in the Pacific Northwest, meanwhile, public officials
“local boys” who poured
into the streets to defend against rumored busloads of antifa. In
Snohomish, Washington, the mayor applauded
<https://www.snohomishwa.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1007> the armed men who
guarded the city’s downtown on May 31, some waving the Confederate flag.
Many drank alcohol as they stood watch, and the police chief characterized
the armed gathering as a celebratory night of tailgating. Following a
backlash from community members, the chief was demoted

The next day, June 1, a bystander filmed
an officer in Salem, Oregon, approaching armed white men to request that
they stay out of sight when curfew hit, so that police wouldn’t look bad
for not arresting them. “My command wanted me to come talk to you guys and
request that you guys discreetly stay inside the buildings or in your
vehicles, somewhere where it’s not a violation, so we don’t look like we’re
playing favorites,” the officer said. As in Dallas, the men were guarding a
salon that had become associated
with the reopen movement. (It also had support from the far-right Patriot
Prayer group.) In response to outcry
over the video, the Salem police chief released his own video message
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OwzCgC8b6g&feature=youtu.be> apologizing
for the perception of unequal treatment.

“My command wanted me to come talk to you guys and request that you guys
discreetly stay inside the buildings or in your vehicles, somewhere where
it’s not a violation, so we don’t look like we’re playing favorites.”

A similar example of police inaction came that same night in Philadelphia’s
Fishtown neighborhood. Jill St.Clair was out with her boyfriend walking her
dog when she encountered a mob of white men carrying bats, shovels, and
nightsticks. When St.Clair pulled out her phone to record, one of the men
lunged at her, wielding a bat, and spewed a string of profanities. “Pussy
ass bitch,” he yelled. Then he rejoined the others and ran down the street
toward Fishtown’s 26th Precinct.

Distraught, St.Clair called 911. According to a detailed account she posted
on Instagram immediately after the incident, the operator insisted that the
situation was not an emergency. When St.Clair pushed, the operator
transferred her to the 26th Precinct, where St.Clair said an officer told
her that she should be grateful that the men were protecting her
neighborhood. “He kept insisting that I was part of the problem,” she said.
Two other residents who called 911 that night reported similar reactions
from operators. The Philadelphia Police Department declined to swiftly
process a right-to-know request for 911 call records, citing closures
connected to Covid-19. A public information officer said that the
department’s internal affairs unit is investigating the events in Fishtown
and declined to comment further.

By the time the men dispersed, they had beaten at least three
bystanders <https://twitter.com/jwehrens/status/1267621976379740170>. A
video posted by a vigilante named Justin Haskell showed him talking to a
police officer, who gently asked
<https://twitter.com/jpegjoshua/status/1269012246811869186> Haskell’s group
to go home so they could arrest people across the street. Philadelphia
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw later said
<https://www.fox29.com/video/690597>, “We do not endorse or condone any
form of vigilante justice.” But a similar scene played out last weekend,
when a mob formed at a Christopher Columbus statue in the city. Police
stood by as vigilantes assaulted
Chris Schiano, a reporter with the video outfit Unicorn Riot. Police Capt.
Louis Campione then asked the injured Schiano to leave, accusing him of
inciting a riot. The department subsequently reassigned Campione. A
spokesperson said
that his reassignment was not related to the incident at the statue, but
vigilantes nonetheless staged a demonstration to protest the department’s

“We’ve seen some glaring examples” of police collaboration, said Burghart.
“Compare this to the way they’ve handled Black Lives Matter activists.
Peaceful Black Lives Matter activists have had the weapons of war on them.”

[image: Albuquerque police detain members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an
armed civilian group, following the shooting of a man during a protest over
a statue of Spanish conquerer Juan de Oñate on Monday, June 15, 2020, in
Albuquerque, N.M. A confrontation erupted between protesters and a group of
armed men who were trying to protect the statue before protesters wrapped a
chain around it and began tugging on it while chanting: “Tear it down.” One
protester repeatedly swung a pickax at the base of the statue. Moments
later a few gunshots could be heard down the street and people started
yelling that someone had been shot. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque
Journal via AP)]

Albuquerque police detain members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed
civilian group, following the shooting of a man during a protest on June
15, 2020,

Photo: Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal via AP

Constable Shirley of Texas wasn’t the only officer promoting the Oath
Keepers in the wake of Floyd’s murder. The day after vigilantes took over
Fishtown, a sheriff’s deputy policing a George Floyd protest in Costa Mesa,
California, was caught on camera
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5StptgwMVM> wearing a distinctive patch.
Attached to his tactical vest, the patch depicted the Three Percenters
symbol and read “Oath Keeper.” The anti-government
Three Percenter militia group’s name refers to the idea that it only took 3
percent of colonial settlers to overthrow the British during the
Revolutionary War. The sheriff denounced
the officer’s action and put him on leave while the department investigated
his behavior.

In Chicago on June 3, men carrying baseball bats and golf clubs guarded the
border between the historically white Bridgeport and historically black
Bronzeville neighborhoods. Police officers stood nearby, attempting to
control traffic as a protest took place in front of the Bronzeville police
precinct. Residents complained of confrontations with the men but then
spotted officers socializing
with the group. Police scanner recordings reviewed by a reporter with the South
Side Weekly
reportedly captured an officer saying the individuals were “neighborhood
people just trying to protect the neighborhood.” Bridgeport, like many
communities across the country, has a long history of white men violently
enforcing neighborhood boundaries to keep Black people out.

The trend continued into a third week of protests against police violence.
In Oklahoma last week, one sheriff put out a call
volunteers to join a “sheriff’s posse” to “aid in safeguarding lives and
property.” In Idaho, a former Shoshone County sheriff’s deputy used a
private Facebook group to promote
militia-style response to protests in the area. And at a protest in the
town of Bethel, Ohio, this past Sunday, hundreds of armed men rode in
motorcycles, wearing Confederate flags and Trump hats, to beat up
participants, as police reportedly stood by and watched. The Bethel police
chief later condemned
violence, adding that his department’s six officers were outnumbered.

Several militia groups have claimed to be collaborating directly with
police. The Facebook page of the Three Percenters – Original said
that its Utah chapter coordinated with the Salt Lake City police to set up
an emergency perimeter around a police command post at the request of
officers. A public information officer for the department told The
Intercept that there was no such collaboration. In Georgetown, Texas
and Palmer, Alaska
members of militia groups claimed that public officials approved of offers
to assist law enforcement. In both cases, the officials denied the claims.
“Armed Friendlies” in Albuquerque

In New Mexico, earlier appearances by the New Mexico Civil Guard sparked
little apparent concern among the authorities. On June 1, video emerged of
an Albuquerque police officer
<https://twitter.com/TreeDrought/status/1267869493843365888?s=20> offering
a pep talk to men in military garb ahead of a demonstration against police
brutality. The men were apparently working with Ultimate Fighting Champion
mixed martial artist Jon Jones to stop any attempts to damage buildings.
“If you guys see something, holler, but take care of each other and take
care of the people of Albuquerque,” the police officer told them. The New
Mexico Civil Guard, which describes its mission
<https://www.facebook.com/pg/NMCIVILGUARD/about/?ref=page_internal> as
providing “rapid local lawful response to emergency and dangerous
situations,” was among
the armed men spotted confronting demonstrators in the city that night.

Nick Estes <https://theintercept.com/staff/nick-estes/>, an American
studies professor at the University of New Mexico, was walking to a
community center with friends and activists when two armed men bolted
toward them. One reached in his pants. “I was like, ‘Hey, what the fuck are
you doing? Are you trying to pull a gun on us?’” Estes recalled. He noticed
a larger group of armed individuals gathered nearby.

The man apologized and explained that he thought they were breaking in.
Estes noted that he and his friends were “a big group of Natives” outside
the Larry Casuse Freedom Center, an organizing space for Albuquerque’s
Native community. The people inside the building, it turned out, had shut
off all the lights out of fear that the armed men would break in and shoot

Officers were overheard on a police scanner the next day describing “armed
friendlies” posted on rooftops near the protest, according to a report
by the local radio station KUNM. A member of the New Mexico Patriots
<https://www.facebook.com/groups/347924879154387/>, a group that pledges to
“uphold the Constitution,” told the station that they had coordinated with
police about monitoring the protests. “We’ve worked with APD for many years
now,” he said.

The Albuquerque Police Department denied any coordination with the Patriots
and issued a statement
disavowing the officer’s words of support, stating, “We also discourage the
presence of armed civilians at protests, which has the potential to
escalate violence, not prevent it.”

In the wake of Monday’s shooting, Albuquerque Police Chief Mike Geier said
in a statement, “We are receiving reports about vigilante groups possibly
instigating this violence. If this is true, we will be holding them
accountable to the fullest extent of the law, including federal hate group
designation and prosecution.”

The Bernalillo County prosecutor charged
Baca with felony aggravated battery for throwing the woman on the ground,
two misdemeanor counts of battery for striking two other individuals, and
unlawful carrying of a concealed gun. District Attorney Raul Torrez dropped
charges for the shooting, however, citing an incomplete investigation and
missteps by the Albuquerque Police Department, including their failure to
preserve the crime scene. “There were tactics that were used by the
Albuquerque Police Department that made it impossible for key witnesses to
the event to actually make statements,” he noted, referencing “actions to
restore order,” presumably the firing of tear gas and other crowd control
weapons, and the presence of an undercover officer in the crowd. He turned
the investigation over to the New Mexico State Police in hopes that members
of the public would be more comfortable speaking with an outside agency.

[image: Workers for the City of Albuquerque remove a sculpture of Spanish
conquistador Juan de Onate on June 16, 2020 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. - A
man was shot on June 15 as a heavily armed militia group attempted to
defend the statue from US protestors in New Mexico, officials and media
reports said. Albuquerque city protesters were demanding the removal of the
statue of the state's 16th-century governor, Spanish conquistador Juan de
Onate, according to local media. Pueblo and Chicano leaders have been
trying for decades to have the statue removed. (Photo by Paul Ratje / AFP)
(Photo by PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)]

Workers for the city of Albuquerque, N.M., remove a sculpture of Spanish
conquistador Juan de Oñate on June 16, 2020.

Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Torrez said he’d uncovered no links between Baca and the New Mexico Civil
Guard members, who were released. The group also said that he is not a
member, although they defended him as a “Hispanic victim
on their Facebook page, blaming <https://www.facebook.com/NMCIVILGUARD/> the
violence on antifa. Baca’s attorney indicated
he would claim self-defense.

Estes sees the presence of vigilantes at protests as a continuation of the
long history of violent racism in the U.S. Juan de Oñate became governor of
New Mexico in the 16th century after brutally subjugating the people native
to the area. When members of the Acoma Pueblo refused to pay a food tax and
killed Oñate’s nephew in an ensuing altercation, Oñate massacred hundreds,
cutting off the hands and feet of many survivors. The Spanish government
ultimately banished Oñate from New Mexico. But monuments to the disgraced
despot can still be found throughout the state.

“These New Mexico Civil Guard people, as well as these white militias
around the country, understand these histories, and they are willing to
shoot people to defend these histories,” Estes said. “The significance of
the statue is that it just shows that this colonial violence is ongoing and
that there’s a deep investment in the glory of conquest that led to the
settlement of this land.”

In the wake of the shooting, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller swiftly removed
the monument. He said that the city would “determine next steps,” adding,
“This sculpture has now become an urgent matter of public safety.”

Estes was unimpressed. The mayor should have acted much sooner, he said.
“There have been multiple reports in local news media by grassroots
organizers that these fascists are coming around and harassing people.
There have been calls to take down these Oñate statues for generations.”
Anti-police brutality organizers’ central demand remains significant
defunding of the Albuquerque Police Department, he added. Keller has not
to that.
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