"An ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal."
Shortly after the presidential election, Bineh Ndefru saw that thought in a New Yorker commentary by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It resonated with her then. After a week in which the leaders of an upstart populist group, Santa Fe Power, posted racist memes and poems on Facebook, it resonates with her now.
“Santa Fe Power may seem like this fringe group … but they come to these council meetings and they make their voices heard,” she told a group of about 40 people gathered outside City Hall Wednesday evening. “There’s room for differing viewpoints about ways to spend money, about taxes, whatever. And many of us may even agree with Santa Fe Power on certain issues. But we’re here to challenge them boldly. To say it’s not normal to spew racist vitriol and then accuse those who call you out of race-baiting.”
Rising on the strength of a resounding defeat of a proposed sugary-drink tax in a May special election, Santa Fe Power is pushing hard to push out many of the councilors who sent the proposed tax to the voters who rejected it. The group counted City Council District 3 candidate Jim Williamson as a member, as well as Roger Rael, a Santa Fe native who recently moved back to the city from Raton, has openly considered a council run in District 1, where Councilor Signe Lindell this week announced she would seek re-election.
The group appeared to be gaining momentum until one of its founders, longtime community activist Gloria Mendoza, shared a meme on social media comparing Congresswoman Maxine Waters to an ape. Despite no longer living in city limits, Mendoza has remained a vocal presence at council meetings. After Nicole Castellano, another leader, posted a racist poem on the Facebook page of a Santa Fe New Mexican reporter this week, Williamson broke with Santa Fe Power.
As the City Council moved through its less-controversial matters Wednesday night, Ndefru was part of a new group called Shoulder 2 Shoulder that held a small rally outside to provide a counterpoint.
“We’re here to denounce the racism, bigotry and hate,” Quintan Wikswo told SFR. The Shoulder 2 Shoulder effort is spearheaded by an activist group called the Spiderflower Collective.
“The models we’re seeing used by Santa Fe Power are familiar organizing models from the far right,” she said. “This is how it begins.”
While Shoulder 2 Shoulder continued its rally, Roger Rael made his way into the council chambers. He had a Taurus 9mm handgun in a shoulder holster. Heads turned.
“We have a right to protect ourselves. And walking in here tonight with all this talk about racism and race-baiting, I’m not going to take a chance,” Rael told SFR at the meeting. He also had a copy of the US Constitution poking out of his breast pocket.
Rael, who hasn’t decided on a run for office, said he’s upset about what he feels are high-handed City Council maneuvers like a recent $250,000 economic development award to the Meow Wolf arts collective. He says Meow Wolf’s well-connected founder, Vince Kadlubek, has an inside track on access to public money.
“I’m upset with the way that the city is continuously overlooking the fact that we have constitutional rights,” Rael said. “I feel like the city of Santa Fe, they don’t give a shit. I have friends who are artists, they don’t get money from the city.”
While the City Council met in a scheduled closed-door session, Santa Fe police officers arrived. A city spokesman said Rael had contacted the city earlier in the day to ask about carrying a gun at City Hall. It’s legal to carry a gun openly in New Mexico. Like the state Capitol, City Hall is one of the places it’s allowed.
When Rael rose to speak during the council’s time for public comment, he turned his back on the body and spoke to the crowd. As Mayor Javier Gonzales asked him to address the City Council, Rael said, “I’m not addressing the council. I’m addressing the people that matter.”
Earlier in the evening, Rael defended to SFR Mendoza’s right to share the racist meme.
“One thing I’m not is racist at all,” Rael said. “The way [Rep. Maxine Waters] acts, people call her an animal. People call me an animal, too. … It was a comparison of two objects.”
When he spoke to the crowd, though, he denounced the meme and poem.
“There is no excuse for it. There is none. It was appalling when people told me they thought that I had brought that meme to them. I’m an artist. I would not do something like that,” he said.
While Rael has spoken against the Meow Wolf grant before, he did not address it Wednesday night, instead using the remainder of his two-minute allotment to apologize for not having spoken out against the meme when it began spreading on social media.
Councilors and the mayor declined to comment on Rael’s comments or his choice to carry a weapon into City Hall.
Wikswo and others with Shoulder 2 Shoulder delivered a statement to the council before Rael spoke. She said she spoke briefly with Rael after the meeting ended, and that members of Shoulder 2 Shoulder felt his choice to bring a gun to the meeting was a threatening gesture.