As the threat of another tense standoff at an Albuquerque City Council meeting brews, protesters angry over a series of police shootings are harkening back to the city’s long history of civil disturbance and modeling their demonstrations after those including a notorious 1960s citizen raid of a northern New Mexico courthouse.
In 1967, protesters contending the U.S. government stole millions of acres of land from Mexican-American residents stormed a courthouse to attempt a citizen’s arrest of the district attorney. During the raid, the group shot and wounded a state police officer and jailer, beat a deputy and took the sheriff and a reporter hostage.
Now, a leader of this week’s protest cited that episode as the motivation for the City Council demonstration in which protesters attempted a citizen’s arrest of the police chief.
«That’s where we got the idea for the citizen’s arrest,» said David Correia, a University of New Mexico American studies professor and a protest organizer. He wasn’t advocating violence, but a focus on civil disobedience, saying participants were willing to be arrested.
It’s an interesting turn of events in Albuquerque, where distrust of the Police Department is at an all-time high after an officer shot and killed an armed man following a weekend SWAT standoff. Police in the city of 550,000 people have been involved in 39 shootings since 2010 and are under tough scrutiny following a harsh report from the U.S. Justice Department over use of force.
On Monday, activists stormed the City Council chambers and forced city leaders to abruptly end the meeting, and they planned more unrest at a Thursday meeting.
The rowdy disruption of the City Council meeting, protesters say, also follows the tactics of another 1960s Mexican-American group — the Black Berets. Similar to the Black Panther Party, the Berets mounted community patrols, opened free clinics and protested police brutality in Albuquerque. To draw attention to their causes, they often attended meetings and events unannounced to force authorities to hear them out.
The latest protest also highlighted the dilemma facing Albuquerque police. Police Chief Gorden Eden was hired just three months ago to bring reform to the troubled department, which recently implemented changes such as lapel-mounted cameras on officers to lead to more transparency about police actions.
But video of recent shootings, especially one in March involving a knife-wielding homeless camper, has only inflamed tensions once the footage went viral. And police insist that the suspect in the weekend shooting was a threat because he was armed and putting his family and others in danger.
Deputy Chief Eric Garcia stressed that officers patiently negotiated with suspect Armand Martin and attempted to de-escalate the situation but had no other choice when he exited his home with handguns.
On Monday, protesters called for a citizen’s arrest of Eden, charging him with «harboring fugitives from justice at the Albuquerque Police Department» and for «crimes against humanity» in connection with recent police shootings. The police chief quickly left the City Council meeting after the citizen’s arrest was announced, and no protesters tried to apprehend him. Had anyone touched him, authorities said they could have faced charges of battery on a police officer.
Protesters also could have faced charges of disrupting a City Council meeting under a city ordinance. But no arrests were made.
A state Attorney General’s Office spokesman said it was likely illegal for citizens to arrest a police chief.
The 1967 courthouse protest inspiring demonstrators today also sparked the Chicano Movement, an aggressive civil rights push among Mexican-Americans that involved boycotts, school walkouts and a new political party, La Raza Unida.
The protest was in response to a land-grant disputes that date back centuries when what is now New Mexico was a Spanish colonial territory. Land grants were awarded to settlers by the Spanish government to encourage settlement in the empire’s northern territories.
A book by Correia outlines that Hispanic families later lost Spanish land grants to white land speculators through violence and the courts, and the families responded with violence.
Isabela Seong Leong Quintana, a history professor at New Mexico State University, said she sees a link between the current protests in Albuquerque to those from the 1960s in New Mexico.
«There are similarities how people are going about contesting domination,» she said. «But I don’t know if everyone involved is conscious of it.»
Nora Tachias-Anaya, one of the leaders of the protest, said demonstrators planned to attend the rescheduled council meeting Thursday when councilors are slated to debate possible reforms on how the Albuquerque hires a police chief.
«The move people learn, the more people get angry,» she said.