Cops and Topplers

Police defend stand-down on the day of the event as prosecutions of participants persist

Long before the obelisk stones hit the ground, the Santa Fe Police Department was bound for the spotlight.

By now, it's well enough known: SFPD chased off people a night earlier who had chained themselves in protest. Then officers clashed briefly on Oct. 12 with people railing against a stone spike jutting up from the Santa Fe Plaza that, depending on who you ask, represents the Union victory in the Civil War and Hispanic heritage in the city, or stood for 150 years as a racist celebration of slaughtered Indigenous people and stolen land.

READ MORE >> Read the obelisk timeline

In short order on Indigenous Peoples Day, two people were in handcuffs, police higher-ups had issued an abrupt stand-down order, officers beat a path off the Plaza, and then protesters toppled the obelisk.

In the month since, Mayor Alan Webber and his police chief, Andrew Padilla, have defended their decision to place "human life over property," announced a citywide manhunt for anyone involved in the destruction, charged five more people and taken criticism from all corners.

READ MORE >> Read about the cultural conflicts and the CHART committee

Indigenous Peoples Day protesters say the cops were too heavy handed. Hispanic groups and even some city councilors say they didn't do enough to protect the historic monument. And the city insists it acted in everyone's interest.

Padilla has not indicated whether a minimal police presence marks a new philosophy for SFPD—Oct. 12 was quite a sea change from the department's previous tactics, which have included placing snipers on rooftops at other protests.

Another lingering question: whether demonstrators had planned all along to take the obelisk down. No group has taken credit for it, and most would not confirm their presence at the Plaza that day to SFR—though police say social media posts suggest there may have been a longstanding plan.

What's clear is that officers stuck to a clear directive to avoid the kinds of violent confrontations that have marked volatile protests against racial injustice around the nation—and that SFPD's actions since have been muddled.

SFR used eyewitness accounts, court records and five hours of body camera video from SFPD to conclude that the events described in criminal complaints filed against those arrested largely match up with police video.

In one video, an officer describes orders from leadership on how to handle the protesters: "not hands on, best way is talk and try to be like, 'Hey, you could be arrested for this and we don't want it to go that far.'"

A second video shows officers leaving the Plaza, tailed by screaming protesters, as SFPD leadership issues an order: Leave and regroup at Fire Station 1.

One officer can be heard saying, "Let 'em have it."

Not long after that, the obelisk came down in clouds of dust and cheers.

Other videos reviewed by SFR show the beginnings and most volatile points of the incident.

City workers had been instructed to put up a wooden blockade around the obelisk to protect it during the expected protest on Indigenous Peoples Day, but the work had been delayed.

So, the city spread out mobile metal fencing in a circle around the obelisk in an attempt to keep people back.

At first, it looked like a typical Plaza protest, with just eight officers mingling along the metal barrier. But the city's strategies failed, and the day quickly devolved into, for the most part, chaos.

Trouble started when several protesters laid down on wood pilings the city workers were trying to erect around the obelisk, the videos show. Police officers tried to pull them up by the arms, to no avail.

Then, Ryan Witt, one of the seven people currently charged in the incident, picked up a piece of metal fencing and threw it at the obelisk.

An officer attempted to arrest him. But several people grabbed onto Witt's arms and legs to stop the arrest. Protesters screamed—which police described in charging documents as a "distraction" technique—and the crowd pushed in on the small circle of officers.

Eventually, the officers uncuffed Witt but police, including 20 backup officers, followed orders from SFPD leadership to leave and regroup.

In the days since, Chief Padilla has changed his tone, vowing to "round up" those responsible and has since charged five more people on felony and misdemeanor charges. (Padilla tells SFR "the decision to choose life over property does not mean that we are choosing not to criminal law.")

All seven people have court dates set for mid-November, though only a few appear to have retained lawyers. None have been arrested except for Sean Sunderland and Dylan Wrobel, who quickly posted bail.

Padilla has taken criticism for his department's handling of the protest, but he insists that a detective had a watchful eye on the area through the surveillance camera and that officers could have been there immediately.

He has also said that had the department known in advance about plans to drag down the obelisk, he would have sent more officers in the first place.

During a tense meeting of the city's Public Safety Committee on Nov. 5, Councilor Chris Rivera questioned the chief on the decision.

"I understand the feelings and sentiments of the people of Santa Fe and the way it looks but people need to understand that no peoples' lives were injured, no officers were further injured," Padilla said.

The chief also blamed the city's construction delay of the protective barrier, saying that had it been completed on time, "we probably would not have been talking about this today."

READ MORE >> Read about the other obelisk

Who exactly—if anyone—organized the protest is also clouded in muddy waters. Representatives from The Red Nation, YUCCA, Tewa Women United and Three Sisters Collective all tell SFR they did not officially organize on the Plaza that day and had no part in the takedown of the obelisk—most would not confirm whether they had even been there.

Padilla has said publicly that when the obelisk came down, the protesters showed their "true intent" for the day. This belief that the destruction may have been planned plays out in a criminal complaint filed against Schweitzer in Magistrate Court. In the complaint, law enforcement alleges that a post made in a Facebook group by an account with Schweitzer's middle and last name read, "Let's follow through on the original ask." SFR was not able to find the post by publication.

Padilla declined to be interviewed for this story. In an email to SFR, Padilla says he’s not targeting any activist groups, but he does expect more arrests as the police investigation continues. The chief says SFPD’s actions on Oct. 12 “were in line with agency policy.”

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