Although the Albuquerque police department seems to have been caught largely unprepared, it’s hard to see why a violent confrontation at and over the statue of the Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate came as such a surprise.
For three years prior to the Albuquerque fracas, similar controversies about monuments to so-called “heroes” of the Civil War Confederacy had produced pitched battles between anti-racist and White Supremist demonstrators. In Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, a White Nationalist had struck and killed an anti-racist marcher with his car. And in cities from New Orleans to Richmond larger-than-life-size replicas of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were facing ignominious removal from their pedestals in public squares and circles.
In New Mexico, the targets and the adversaries were different, but the angry arguments sounded very much the same. For many in New Mexico who call themselves Hispanic and trace their families past their stopover in Mexico back to Spain, Juan de Onate was almost a family friend. He was the protector of their ancestors, European pioneers. a founding father of Spanish-American culture.
But for Native Americans, Onate was not only the leader of a foreign invasion that led to their dispossession from lands and liberty, he was the personal summation of colonial cruelty. Onate declared war on the Natives of Acoma Pueblo. He not only killed many men, women and children, but – as an exemplary punishment – he ordered his men to hack off a foot from captured Acoma warriors.
Just the day before the Albuquerque demonstration, another statue of Onate had been taken down in the northern New Mexico town of Velarde. It was widely believed protesters in Albuquerque wanted their Onate facsimile to meet the same fate, and it was expected that counter-protesters would try to prevent that.
Backers of both sides did show up in front of the statue. Many came with signs, but some counter-protesters came armed, including a group of men dressed in military camouflage, carrying weapons and calling themselves the New Mexico Civil Guard.
Their presence and their weapons didn’t seem to disturb the relatively small contingent of Albuquerque Police Officers monitoring the scene and when dueling insults escalated to pushing and shoving, no officers intervened. When one man pushed a woman to the pavement, and another man defended her with a skateboard, police looked on. When the first man, the one who apparently started the fighting, pulled a gun and shot the man with the skateboard and civilians called 911, the APD essentially mopped up the scene, arresting the shooter and taking him into custody.
Steven Baca, the shooter, was not a member of the New Mexico Civil Guard, although he, like the then-leader of the Civil Guard gave the same explanation as to why they’d come to the statue and why they brought firearms. “We were there,” they claimed, “to protect private property.”
That’s the proverbial dog both Steven Baca and Bryce Provance of the Civil Guard say they had in this fight, defending the sacred, if abstract, right to private property. It is probably significant that both were prepared to sic their metaphoric dogs and brandish their very real guns to support White people against People of Color.
Baca seems to have been a genuine “lone wolf,” unaffiliated with the New Mexico Civil Guard or any other militia movement, while Provance – who often describes himself as a free agent, a law and order guy who is not a racist – has had a long career as a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi. That these two different fellows should wind up literally in the same place, at the same time, carrying similar weapons and ideologies and a similar willingness to use them against the same targets seems to me the really significant aspect to the story.
Stan Alcorn is a reporter and producer for Reveal. His radio work at Reveal has won awards including a Peabody Award, several Online Journalism Awards, an NABJ Salute to Excellence Award, and a Best of the West Award, as well as making him a finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists. He previously was a reporter for Marketplace, covering business and economic news – from debit card fees levied on the formerly incarcerated to the economic impact of Beyoncé’s hair. He has helped launch new shows at Marketplace, Slate, and WNYC; contributed research to books by journalists at Time and CNBC; and reported for outlets including NPR, PRI’s The World, 99% Invisible, WNYC, FiveThirtyEight, Fast Company, High Country News, Narratively, and Digg. He is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California office.