It started as an attempt to remove a statue of New Mexico’s 16th-century colonial governor, Juan de Oñate, a despotic conquistador.
It ended with members of an armed vigilante group handcuffed and face down on the road, a protester in critical condition with multiple gunshot wounds, and a one-time candidate for city council in custody.
Steven Ray Baca Jr., 31, was charged on Tuesday with intentionally firing a gun at a person—a third-degree felony—after the small protest in Albuquerque turned chaotic and violent on Monday night.
A criminal complaint says that bystander videos showed Baca, wearing black shorts and a blue T-shirt, trying to protect the statue from the protesters and “interacting with the crowd” in the area around the statue. “His specific type of interaction with the crowd is unknown at this time,” the complaint says.
An undercover detective, who was there to observe the protest, then saw Baca being pursued by several protesters, the complaint says. He “utilized pepper spray to douse the oncoming crowd” and tried to retreat, however the group appeared to “maliciously pursue Steven, with several of the crowd’s individuals physically striking Steven’s body with their hands and legs.”
One man then allegedly hit Baca with a skateboard and tackled him to the ground. A second man, dressed in a black hoodie, then picked up the skateboard and swung it at Steven’s head and upper body, the complaint says, citing cellphone videos taken by bystanders.
Baca then allegedly fired four shots, striking the man in the black hoodie in his torso.
The criminal complaint offers no details on why the crowd suddenly turned on Baca, but multiple videos posted to social media appear to show him grabbing protesters as they tried to mount the statue, shoving protesters, and violently pushing at least one female protester to the ground.
One video showed Baca—in a blue-shirt, black cap, and brown scarf—standing near the top of the statue, pushing away people who tried to get close to it. Another showed him holding a can of pepper spray as he pushed a woman to the ground.
After the shooting, Baca, who once ran for City Council because he thought his community was turning into a “third world country,” was filmed putting his black semi-automatic firearm on the ground, sitting down, and making a phone call. A few feet away, protesters tended to the victim, who lay motionless on the ground.
Armed men, apparently belonging to a local militia group called the New Mexico Civil Guard, surrounded Baca to protect him from furious protesters who screamed “murderer.”
When the New Mexico National Guard arrived, they detained Baca and at least four other vigilantes, some of whom were dressed in army fatigues.
The victim remained in critical but stable condition on Tuesday and was unable to be interviewed by investigators. Baca declined to be interviewed, the complaint says. In an article on the council election last year, Baca said his father was a former Bernalillo County sheriff and he thought local elected officials were “complete wimps when it comes to fighting crime.”
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she was “horrified and disgusted beyond words” by the turn of events, and said the armed vigilantes were only there to “menace protesters, to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force.”
“To menace the people of New Mexico with weaponry—with an implicit threat of violence—is on its face unacceptable; that violence did indeed occur is unspeakable,” she said in a statement.
Hours after the incident, Mayor Tim Keller announced that the Oñate statue would be removed until “the appropriate civic institutions” could determine how to move forward.
Armed vigilante groups have become an increasing presence at nationwide demonstrations against racism and police brutality. In several cities and towns, armed residents have turned out to guard statues or to “protect” their communities after unsubstantiated rumors spread on social media that busloads of antifa rioters were en route.
Officials in these cities have begged vigilante groups to stay away, saying it has endangered residents and heightened tensions during what would otherwise be peaceful protests.
“Their presence did not contribute positively in any way to the protest,” angry city officials in Spokane said last week after armed groups turned out to purportedly protect local businesses during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. “In fact, their presence made the situation more tense and our city more dangerous for all involved.”