TEAR GAS IN ALBUQUERQUE: Police fired tear gas canisters in order to disperse a crowd after a protest became unruly Sunday in downtown Albuquerque. Photo by Roberto E. Rosales via Twitter.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
A near riot broke out Sunday night in Albuquerque when hundreds of protesters took over a large section of downtown as police fired tear gas into the more angry remnants of the crowd.
By Monday morning, police said at least six protesters had been arrested.
Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry said the demonstrations, which began relatively peacefully about noon, devolved into “mayhem” with the onset of night when officers in riot gear — some on horseback — called on the crowd to disperse. But a handful did not, gathering at Albuquerque Police Department headquarters as late as 11 p.m., protesting and chanting in anger over the shooting death of a homeless man back on March 16.
An estimated 300 people took part, shuttling between downtown Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico. Some shouted insults at police during the march:
There were reports of protesters surrounding a police substation and spray-painting obscenities on it:
And at one point a protester climbed a traffic signal:
Protesters also marched on Interstate 25, slowing down traffic on the 75 mph highway. By 9 p.m., reports came of officers firing more than a dozen tear gas canisters into the crowd near the UNM campus.
“We respected their rights to protest, obviously,” Berry said, “but what it appears we have at this time is individuals who weren’t connected necessarily with the original protest. They’ve taken it far beyond a normal protest.”
Berry said at least officer was injured but it did not appear to serious and said there was a report of protesters trying to break windows of a police cruiser with an officer inside.
What led to all this?
1. The shooting death of James Boyd
On March 16, the 38-year-old homeless man with a history of mental illness and violence was killed after an hours-long standoff with Albuquerque Police in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. Boyd had been camping in the area and a homeowner called police. In a video released a few days after the shooting, it appears as though Boyd had agreed to come down from his campsite but a flash-bang device is launched, a police dog is released, Boyd draws a knife in each hand and as Boyd turns his back, shots are fired at him. Boyd died the next day. Here’s the video:
The video caused a firestorm of protest as it went viral, eventually getting picked by the national and international news media.
2. The new police chief’s verbal blunder
Newly installed APD Chief Gordon Eden at first called the shooting “justified,” prompting howls of criticism. Mayor Richard Berry said of the shooting, “It’s horrific. It’s unsettling” and his judgment was shared by virtually every member of the City Council. “He (Eden) never should have said that when he said it,” Berry said. Eden later recanted, saying his comments were “premature.”
3. Previous shootings
Just days after Boyd’s death, another man was shot and killed by members of the Albuquerque Police Department. In the past three years, 23 people have been killed, one of the highest rates in the entire country.
Critics say the APD has become trigger-happy while defenders say the police are working in an increasingly dangerous environment.
4. Anonymous calls in
There was an earlier protest last Tuesday involving hundreds of marchers that was peaceful. But on Wednesday, the international ”hackivist” political group called Anonymous released a video calling the APD “militarized thugs” and called for a demonstration on Sunday.
“We are asking the citizens of Albuquerque to occupy the APD HQ and occupy other sites of the Albuquerque Police Department,” the robotic-voiced YouTube video declared. The group also called on its followers to “turn their cannons” on the APD website at 9 p.m. Sunday.
Early Sunday morning, APD confirmed a cyber attack. The site was down at least twice Sunday but by evening, it was back up and operational.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, Anonymous said that, rather than launch a “denial of service attack,” it wanted to wage an “information war” with mass-emails and phone calls to government officials.
A number of the protesters Sunday wore Guy Fawkes masks, popular with supporters of Anonymous, the Occupy Wall Street movement and other anti-government activists:
5. FBI and DOJ investigating
The protests come in the wake of two federal investigations. At the request of Gov. Susana Martinez, the New Mexico State Police is turning over recordings of the Boyd shooting directly to the FBI. The state police takes part in review teams for all Albuquerque police shootings.
Even before the Boyd shooting, the Department of Justice had launched an investigation into use of force by the APD. Announced in November 2012, the DOJ is focusing on allegations that “APD officers engage in use of excessive force, including use of unreasonable deadly force, in their encounters with civilians.”
DOJ officials met with a group of APD critics last week, some of whom urged a federal takeover the of the police department. DOJ officials demurred but did say they are “getting close to the point where they will issue findings” on their investigation.
Last Wednesday, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King announced his office has launched an investigation into both of the fatal shootings this month in order to produce ‘‘an objective unbiased external assessment.”
In the aftermath of Sunday’s demonstration, opinions were mixed on social media.
“There are ways to protest and I favor that — but violence is not one of them,” said one post on Facebook.
“APD simply choosing to show up right from the beginning of the protests in full riot gear was absolutely indicative of a department with no grasp of sensible reactions nor of what constitutes reasonable force,” another said.
“Half these kids don’t know how to protest correctly and the other half were looking to get into some trouble,” wrote another.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski