Man shot in Albuquerque, N.M., during protest over Spanish conqueror’s statue

A man was shot Monday night as protesters in New Mexico’s largest city tried to tear down a bronze statue of a Spanish conquistador outside the Albuquerque Museum, prompting the city to announce that the statue would be removed until officials determine the next steps.

The man was taken to a hospital and was listed in critical but stable condition late Monday, said Albuquerque police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos. 

A confrontation erupted between protesters and a group of armed men who were trying to protect the statue of Juan de Onate 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.

Gallegos said police used tear gas and flash bangs to protect the officers who intervened and detained those involved in the shooting. He said they were disarmed and taken into custody for questioning as police worked to secure the scene. He said detectives were investigating with the help of the FBI but he did not immediately release any other information. 

“The shooting tonight was a tragic, outrageous and unacceptable act of violence and it has no place in our city,” Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement.

“Our diverse community will not be deterred by acts meant to divide or silence us. Our hearts go out the victim, his family and witnesses whose lives were needlessly threatened tonight. This sculpture has now become an urgent matter of public safety.”

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. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal via The Associated Press)

Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement in which she took aim at the armed individuals, saying they were there to menace protesters. She said no matter who strikes first, there would be no room in New Mexico for any sort of escalation of what she called “reckless, violent rhetoric.”

“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,” she said.

The violence came just hours after activists in northern New Mexico celebrated the removal of another likeness of Onate that was on public display at a cultural centre in the community of Alcalde. Rio Arriba County officials removed it to safeguard it from possible damage and to avoid civil unrest ahead of a scheduled protest.

A forklift pried the massive bronze statue of Onate on horseback from a concrete pedestal. Cheers erupted among bystanders who saw the memorial as an affront to Indigenous people and an obstacle to greater racial harmony, though several people also arrived to defend the tribute to Onate.

County Manager Tomas Campos said the statue was placed in storage for its own protection. He expects the three-member county commission to solicit public comment on what to do next with the public works project commissioned by the state in the early 1990s.

Admired and reviled

The Onate statues have been a source of criticism for decades.

Onate, who arrived in present-day New Mexico in 1598, is celebrated as a cultural father figure in communities along the Upper Rio Grande that trace their ancestry to Spanish settlers. But he’s also reviled for his brutality.

To Native Americans, Onate is known for having ordered the right feet cut off of 24 captive tribal warriors that was precipitated by the killing of Onate’s nephew. In 1998, someone sawed the right foot off the statue — an incident that weighed in the decision to stash away the statue.

Monuments to European conquerors and colonists around the world are being pulled down amid an intense re-examination of racial injustices in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police.

Albuquerque city officials have promised to convene a council of community leaders and artists to consider the concerns about the public art piece as they look for “creative solutions.”

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