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Armed vigilantes antagonizing protesters have received a warm reception from police

by Mara Hvistendahl, Alleen Brown

Part 1

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 shutdowns.

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 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, 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.

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 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 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 men in tactical gear preparing to guard property against police brutality protesters.

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 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 mind-boggling.

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