One person was shot and seriously wounded in Albuquerque, N.M., as protesters sought to topple a statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate.
The protest, held near the city’s Tiguex Park, called for the removal of the statue that stands outside the Albuquerque Museum.
Neither the shooter nor the victim — said by police to be in critical but stable condition and undergoing treatment at a local hospital – was immediately identified. However, some protesters blamed the far-right New Mexico Civil Guard, whose members were carrying firearms as they tried to protect the statue, for the shooting.
“We are receiving reports about vigilante groups possibly instigating this violence,” Police Chief Michael Geier was quoted in a department tweet as saying. “If this is true will be holding them accountable to the fullest extent of the law, including federal hate group designation and prosecution.”
As protesters surrounding the statue chanted “Tear it down!” and one of them swung a pickax at the statue’s base in an effort to bring it down, a confrontation erupted between the demonstrators and a group of armed men.
The Albuquerque Journal reports that the shooting occurred as a man in a blue shirt was pushed onto the street and protesters began advancing toward him. First, he pulled a can of pepper spray from his pocket and sprayed it and then appeared to pull a gun and fired five shots, the newspaper said. “The man who was shot appeared to have been one of the individuals advancing on the man in the blue shirt,” the paper said.
Police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said police used tear gas and flash bangs to protect officers who intervened to detain those suspected in the shooting. He said the APD was investigating with the help of the FBI.
“The individuals were disarmed and taken into custody,” the police said in a tweet.
In a statement, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller called the shooting “a tragic, outrageous and unacceptable act of violence and it has no place in our city.”
“Our diverse community will not be deterred by acts meant to divide or silence us,” he said.
The sculpture, which was left intact after the protesters dispersed, would be taken down, the mayor said.
“This sculpture has now become an urgent matter of public safety. In order to contain the public safety risk, the City will be removing the statue until the appropriate civic institutions can determine next steps,” Keller said.
In another statement, New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham acknowledged that “we are still learning more about the situation,” but said “the heavily armed individuals who flaunted themselves at the protest, calling themselves a ‘civil guard,’ were there for one reason: To menace protesters, to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force.”
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, called for a Justice Department probe into the shooting.
The violence in Albuquerque came hours after protesters in northern New Mexico celebrated the removal of another likeness of Oñate that was on public display at a cultural center in the community of Alcalde, The Associated Press reported. Ahead of a scheduled protest in Rio Arriba County, officials had the statue removed and put in storage to avoid any effort to tear it down.
Oñate, who arrived in what is now New Mexico in 1598, is lauded as a cultural father figure by some who trace their ancestry to Spanish settlers, but he is reviled by others for his brutality toward Native Americans.