Armed Vigilantes Antagonizing Protesters Have Received a Warm Reception From Police

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.

Nearly 200 appearances by vigilantes and far-right extremists have been counted at protests over the past few weeks.

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.”

A History of Collaboration

The United States has a long history of vigilantes working with police and government officials to oppress Black and Indigenous people. As European Americans violently settled Indigenous territories, the U.S. government offered rewards for the scalps of those they sought to displace. In the Jim Crow South, violent mobs lynched thousands of Black Americans, often advertising the killings in the newspaper ahead of time. Police sometimes attended, and many of the victims were political activists.

“There’s a very close connection historically between the police and vigilantes in the United States,” said Noël Cazenave, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut and author of “Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism.” Vigilante mobs tend to flare up in reaction to a perceived increase in the power held by Black people, he said. In the Jim Crow South, the trigger was abolition; today it is the movement for Black lives. “Such violence is a way of keeping Black people in ‘their place,’” Cazenave added.

That close relationship has endured. In the wake of President Barack Obama’s election, militia and anti-government groups proliferated. One prominent group, the Oath Keepers, is made up of current and former military and law enforcement members who believe they have a duty to protect citizens from tyrannical U.S. government actions, such as confiscating guns. A 2017 investigation by The Intercept revealed a classified FBI counterterrorism guide that stated, “Domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.”

An interactive map showing appearances by vigilantes and far-right extremists at police brutality protests in the United States since the killing of George Floyd. Map: Alexander Reid Ross

In April and May, with Trump’s encouragement, many groups began organizing around the issue of reopening the economy amid lockdowns imposed to prevent the spread of Covid-19. “The reopen protests became a recruiting ground for these folks to start coming together and concocting more horrific plots,” said Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. Burghart draws a direct line between Trump’s rhetoric and the appearance of far-right groups and white vigilantes at Black Lives Matter protests. “They are in many respects echoing the words that they hear coming from the president,” he said.

After a police officer murdered Floyd on Memorial Day, protests broke out across the U.S., some involving extensive property damage and looting. In the early morning hours of May 29, Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” calling Minneapolis protesters “THUGS.” As the protests endured, he blamed chaos on antifa and the “radical left” and stated that he would be designating antifa a “terrorist organization,” a dubious claim considering that antifa is not an organization, and the U.S. government has no mechanism to designate domestic groups as “terrorist organizations.”

Nevertheless, Attorney General William Barr chimed in. “Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate, violent, and extremist agenda,” he claimed. “The violence instigated and carried out by antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”

In the days that followed, rumors flourished on social media that busloads of antifa actors were headed to small communities across the U.S. The rumors were repeatedly proven to be false. Twitter suspended an account that claimed to be run by antifa supporters but turned out to be associated with the white supremacist group Identity Evropa.

But the damage was already done. “Virtually everywhere major counterprotests emerged over the last two weeks, they involved reaction to rumors and speculation about antifa based on disinformation spread through social media and other online platforms,” said Ross. In many communities, police and public officials encouraged the pushback.

Special Treatment for White Vigilantes

A day after Trump’s tweet about looting and shooting, Constable John Shirley of Hood County, Texas, posted a “Call to Action” in an Oath Keepers Facebook group accessed by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. Shirley called for adherents to provide protection at Dallas’s Salon à la Mode, which had defied the governor’s order to shut down in response to the pandemic, and encouraged current and former law enforcement to carry pistols. “We are now in a Global War on Antifa,” Shirley declared in a second Facebook post.

In communities in the Pacific Northwest, meanwhile, public officials welcomed “local boys” who poured into the streets to defend against rumored busloads of antifa. In Snohomish, Washington, the mayor applauded the armed men who guarded the city’s downtown on May 31, some waving the Confederate flag. Many drank alcohol as they stood watch, and the police chief characterized the armed gathering as a celebratory night of tailgating. Following a backlash from community members, the chief was demoted.

The next day, June 1, a bystander filmed an officer in Salem, Oregon, approaching armed white men to request that they stay out of sight when curfew hit, so that police wouldn’t look bad for not arresting them. “My command wanted me to come talk to you guys and request that you guys discreetly stay inside the buildings or in your vehicles, somewhere where it’s not a violation, so we don’t look like we’re playing favorites,” the officer said. As in Dallas, the men were guarding a salon that had become associated with the reopen movement. (It also had support from the far-right Patriot Prayer group.) In response to outcry over the video, the Salem police chief released his own video message apologizing for the perception of unequal treatment.

“My command wanted me to come talk to you guys and request that you guys discreetly stay inside the buildings or in your vehicles, somewhere where it’s not a violation, so we don’t look like we’re playing favorites.”

A similar example of police inaction came that same night in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. Jill St.Clair was out with her boyfriend walking her dog when she encountered a mob of white men carrying bats, shovels, and nightsticks. When St.Clair pulled out her phone to record, one of the men lunged at her, wielding a bat, and spewed a string of profanities. “Pussy ass bitch,” he yelled. Then he rejoined the others and ran down the street toward Fishtown’s 26th Precinct.

Distraught, St.Clair called 911. According to a detailed account she posted on Instagram immediately after the incident, the operator insisted that the situation was not an emergency. When St.Clair pushed, the operator transferred her to the 26th Precinct, where St.Clair said an officer told her that she should be grateful that the men were protecting her neighborhood. “He kept insisting that I was part of the problem,” she said. Two other residents who called 911 that night reported similar reactions from operators. The Philadelphia Police Department declined to swiftly process a right-to-know request for 911 call records, citing closures connected to Covid-19. A public information officer said that the department’s internal affairs unit is investigating the events in Fishtown and declined to comment further.

By the time the men dispersed, they had beaten at least three bystanders. A video posted by a vigilante named Justin Haskell showed him talking to a police officer, who gently asked Haskell’s group to go home so they could arrest people across the street. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw later said, “We do not endorse or condone any form of vigilante justice.” But a similar scene played out last weekend, when a mob formed at a Christopher Columbus statue in the city. Police stood by as vigilantes assaulted Chris Schiano, a reporter with the video outfit Unicorn Riot. Police Capt. Louis Campione then asked the injured Schiano to leave, accusing him of inciting a riot. The department subsequently reassigned Campione. A spokesperson said that his reassignment was not related to the incident at the statue, but vigilantes nonetheless staged a demonstration to protest the department’s move.

“We’ve seen some glaring examples” of police collaboration, said Burghart. “Compare this to the way they’ve handled Black Lives Matter activists. Peaceful Black Lives Matter activists have had the weapons of war on them.”

Albuquerque police detain members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed civilian group, following the shooting of a man during a protest on June 15, 2020,

Photo: Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal via AP

Constable Shirley of Texas wasn’t the only officer promoting the Oath Keepers in the wake of Floyd’s murder. The day after vigilantes took over Fishtown, a sheriff’s deputy policing a George Floyd protest in Costa Mesa, California, was caught on camera wearing a distinctive patch. Attached to his tactical vest, the patch depicted the Three Percenters symbol and read “Oath Keeper.” The anti-government Three Percenter militia group’s name refers to the idea that it only took 3 percent of colonial settlers to overthrow the British during the Revolutionary War. The sheriff denounced the officer’s action and put him on leave while the department investigated his behavior.

In Chicago on June 3, men carrying baseball bats and golf clubs guarded the border between the historically white Bridgeport and historically black Bronzeville neighborhoods. Police officers stood nearby, attempting to control traffic as a protest took place in front of the Bronzeville police precinct. Residents complained of confrontations with the men but then spotted officers socializing with the group. Police scanner recordings reviewed by a reporter with the South Side Weekly reportedly captured an officer saying the individuals were “neighborhood people just trying to protect the neighborhood.” Bridgeport, like many communities across the country, has a long history of white men violently enforcing neighborhood boundaries to keep Black people out.

The trend continued into a third week of protests against police violence. In Oklahoma last week, one sheriff put out a call for volunteers to join a “sheriff’s posse” to “aid in safeguarding lives and property.” In Idaho, a former Shoshone County sheriff’s deputy used a private Facebook group to promote a militia-style response to protests in the area. And at a protest in the town of Bethel, Ohio, this past Sunday, hundreds of armed men rode in on motorcycles, wearing Confederate flags and Trump hats, to beat up participants, as police reportedly stood by and watched. The Bethel police chief later condemned the violence, adding that his department’s six officers were outnumbered.

Several militia groups have claimed to be collaborating directly with police. The Facebook page of the Three Percenters – Original said that its Utah chapter coordinated with the Salt Lake City police to set up an emergency perimeter around a police command post at the request of officers. A public information officer for the department told The Intercept that there was no such collaboration. In Georgetown, Texas, and Palmer, Alaska, members of militia groups claimed that public officials approved of offers to assist law enforcement. In both cases, the officials denied the claims.

“Armed Friendlies” in Albuquerque

In New Mexico, earlier appearances by the New Mexico Civil Guard sparked little apparent concern among the authorities. On June 1, video emerged of an Albuquerque police officer offering a pep talk to men in military garb ahead of a demonstration against police brutality. The men were apparently working with Ultimate Fighting Champion mixed martial artist Jon Jones to stop any attempts to damage buildings. “If you guys see something, holler, but take care of each other and take care of the people of Albuquerque,” the police officer told them. The New Mexico Civil Guard, which describes its mission as providing “rapid local lawful response to emergency and dangerous situations,” was among the armed men spotted confronting demonstrators in the city that night.

Nick Estes, an American studies professor at the University of New Mexico, was walking to a community center with friends and activists when two armed men bolted toward them. One reached in his pants. “I was like, ‘Hey, what the fuck are you doing? Are you trying to pull a gun on us?’” Estes recalled. He noticed a larger group of armed individuals gathered nearby.

The man apologized and explained that he thought they were breaking in. Estes noted that he and his friends were “a big group of Natives” outside the Larry Casuse Freedom Center, an organizing space for Albuquerque’s Native community. The people inside the building, it turned out, had shut off all the lights out of fear that the armed men would break in and shoot them.

Officers were overheard on a police scanner the next day describing “armed friendlies” posted on rooftops near the protest, according to a report by the local radio station KUNM. A member of the New Mexico Patriots, a group that pledges to “uphold the Constitution,” told the station that they had coordinated with police about monitoring the protests. “We’ve worked with APD for many years now,” he said.

The Albuquerque Police Department denied any coordination with the Patriots and issued a statement disavowing the officer’s words of support, stating, “We also discourage the presence of armed civilians at protests, which has the potential to escalate violence, not prevent it.”

In the wake of Monday’s shooting, Albuquerque Police Chief Mike Geier said in a statement, “We are receiving reports about vigilante groups possibly instigating this violence. If this is true, we will be holding them accountable to the fullest extent of the law, including federal hate group designation and prosecution.”

The Bernalillo County prosecutor charged Baca with felony aggravated battery for throwing the woman on the ground, two misdemeanor counts of battery for striking two other individuals, and unlawful carrying of a concealed gun. District Attorney Raul Torrez dropped charges for the shooting, however, citing an incomplete investigation and missteps by the Albuquerque Police Department, including their failure to preserve the crime scene. “There were tactics that were used by the Albuquerque Police Department that made it impossible for key witnesses to the event to actually make statements,” he noted, referencing “actions to restore order,” presumably the firing of tear gas and other crowd control weapons, and the presence of an undercover officer in the crowd. He turned the investigation over to the New Mexico State Police in hopes that members of the public would be more comfortable speaking with an outside agency.

Workers for the city of Albuquerque, N.M., remove a sculpture of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate on June 16, 2020.

Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Torrez said he’d uncovered no links between Baca and the New Mexico Civil Guard members, who were released. The group also said that he is not a member, although they defended him as a “Hispanic victim” on their Facebook page, blaming the violence on antifa. Baca’s attorney indicated that he would claim self-defense.

Estes sees the presence of vigilantes at protests as a continuation of the long history of violent racism in the U.S. Juan de Oñate became governor of New Mexico in the 16th century after brutally subjugating the people native to the area. When members of the Acoma Pueblo refused to pay a food tax and killed Oñate’s nephew in an ensuing altercation, Oñate massacred hundreds, cutting off the hands and feet of many survivors. The Spanish government ultimately banished Oñate from New Mexico. But monuments to the disgraced despot can still be found throughout the state.

“These New Mexico Civil Guard people, as well as these white militias around the country, understand these histories, and they are willing to shoot people to defend these histories,” Estes said. “The significance of the statue is that it just shows that this colonial violence is ongoing and that there’s a deep investment in the glory of conquest that led to the settlement of this land.”

In the wake of the shooting, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller swiftly removed the monument. He said that the city would “determine next steps,” adding, “This sculpture has now become an urgent matter of public safety.”

Estes was unimpressed. The mayor should have acted much sooner, he said. “There have been multiple reports in local news media by grassroots organizers that these fascists are coming around and harassing people. There have been calls to take down these Oñate statues for generations.” Anti-police brutality organizers’ central demand remains significant defunding of the Albuquerque Police Department, he added. Keller has not committed to that.

*story by The Intercept