A Shift in the Tide

Ahead of planned protests, Santa Fe Mayor announces his support of removing racist monuments from city property

In the lull between two protests calling for the removal of monuments that glorify the Spanish conquest of Indigenous peoples, Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber’s city government has abruptly changed positions and joined a growing call to bring down the monuments.

At the first protest, 70 miles down the road in Old Town Albuquerque, demonstrators pushed to rip down a statue of the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate on Monday. Armed militiamen menaced protesters, and a former GOP City Council candidate and son of a sheriff's department official shot one of the demonstrators four times, critically wounding him.

The second protest, organized by Santa Fe Indigenous advocacy group Three Sisters Collective, is planned for Thursday at 5 pm at the Santa Fe Plaza to demand the removal of an obelisk that bears a racist inscription on one side.

As recently as Tuesday, Santa Fe officials told the Albuquerque Journal they had no intention of removing any "historic monuments." That same day, a story that appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican raised concerns among organizers that the militia could show up and spark a confrontation in Santa Fe as well.

On Wednesday morning Three Sisters Collective sent an open letter to city government inviting officials to attend a "peaceful gathering" and join in the call to take the monuments down.

Following a private meeting with organizers and Councilor Renee Villarreal members to discuss the group's demands, Webber hosted a broadcast on Facebook late Wednesday, throwing measured support behind the movement to remove the monuments and denouncing the militias.

"The time has come, I believe, to step into the moment and take decisive action. My intention is to call for the obelisk located in the Santa Fe Plaza to come down, to call for the Kit Carson obelisk located in front of the Santa Fe Courthouse to come down and to remove the Don Diego statue and put it, perhaps, in a safe place, while we look for its proper home," the mayor told the public, adding, "We need to look at all of those statues, those monuments, those works of art and evaluate them… Do they tell an honest version of history, or only the victors'?"

In interviews with SFR, some city councilors echoed the mayor's words. Others took a more cautious approach, calling for review panels to study the issue before deciding which monuments to take down.

"I support the removal of the obelisk on the Plaza," says Councilor Signe Lindell, telling SFR she believes the statues and monuments should be reinstalled in a museum. "Recent events have reminded us that our public spaces belong to everyone and we should erect monuments and statues that bring out the best in all of us and that aren't symbols of division and subjugation."

"It's overdue," she continues, "and we should act now."

The mayor did not, however, offer details about when and how the public can expect the statues to be taken down, and organizers tell SFR his remarks did not sway their intention to demonstrate on Thursday.

"Despite the announcement that Mayor Webber made and his intentions to remove these statues, we want to show up in community and celebrate this moment, but also give historical context and provide the community with the awareness and education they've been deprived of, of why these statues need to come down," says Jade Begay (Diné and Tesuque Pueblo), who is a member of the Three Sisters Collective.

She notes that the call to remove the obelisk is "no new demand. This demand has been alive ever since I can remember, since I was a child. It's taken too long, we need to acknowledge that. Mayors in the past, city councils in the past have not done enough."

The Plaza obelisk was erected in 1868 with an inscription that originally read, "to the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico."

The word "savage" was later chiseled away by anonymous protestors and the words "courageous" and "resilient" have, in turn, been painted in its place.

In 1973, the Santa Fe city council passed a resolution to take down the monument after Indigenous activists sent a letter to then-Gov. Bruce King. However, the resolution was quickly rescinded.

In 2017, then-Mayor Javier Gonzalez asked the city manager to compile an inventory of all historic monuments in the city and present a report with analysis of monuments that should be removed.

The list was compiled and is publicly available on the city website, but city spokeswoman Lilia Chacon confirms that the city has no record that any further analysis was conducted.

This is one of the main sticking points with Councilor Joanne Vigil Coppler, who tells SFR, "I know that those results have never been presented officially, if they exist. I would like to have that research done to find out what each statue represents."

Christina Castro (Jemez, Taos Puebloa and Chicana), a founding member of Three Sisters Collective, tells SFR why the Plaza obelisk needs to be the first to come down.

"It's obviously what people see when they come into this town. … I attend a lot of events on the Plaza, I have conversations with my 6-year-old daughter about the obelisk, and we want to create a safe space for our community," she says.

She would like to see it replaced with a statue of a female Indigenous matriarch "to restore the energetic balance. That could be part of the beginning of the healing process the mayor seems to want to push forward in his future initiatives."

In his Facebook address, Webber said he plans to attend the protest and invited all other Santa Fe residents to join, but said militia are unwelcome.

"The one group I do not invite to be there are highly armed vigilante groups. That group is not welcome in Santa Fe. That group should not bring the violence and confrontational mindset," the mayor said, and then directly addressed members of these groups.

"We don't want you here, we don't want you on the Plaza. Please respect our wishes," he said.

A confrontation between protesters and militia in Albuquerque has drawn criticism of the Albuquerque Police Department because officers on the scene did not step in until after Steve Baca allegedly shot a protester.

The Santa Fe Police Department did not answer direct questions from SFR about whether there would be an undercover police presence at the event, as there was at the protest that turned violent in Albuquerque, how much distance uniformed officers would keep from the protesters, or whether officers with long guns would be stationed to the roofs of buildings surrounding the Santa Fe Plaza as they were during a protest of Fiestas in 2017.

In a statement emailed to SFR, Santa Fe Deputy Police Chief Paul Joye suggested that SFPD plans to maintain a more involved presence at Thursday's protest than police used in Albuquerque.

"The Santa Fe Police Department will have police resources committed to maintaining a safe environment for everyone in attendance, and ensuring that everyone's constitutional rights are respected," he wrote. "We do have a policy in place for Patrol Response to First Amendment Assemblies. This policy applies to all individuals engaging in First Amendment assemblies, regardless of their affiliation or reason for assembly."

In response to a question about whether police will make arrests if protesters attempt to take the obelisk down themselves and how the department plans to deal specifically with members of armed militia groups, Joye said, "An individual who is threatening people or committing criminal damage, are potentially subject to criminal charges, depending upon the nature of the threats and/or damage in question."

Alex De Vore contributed reporting.  Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Three Sisters Collective members met with the mayor and a single city councilor rather than several.

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