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ALBUQUERQUE–Anti-quarantine protesters gathered twice last week at Civic Plaza—first on Thursday, July 16 and again on Sunday, July 19. They objected to closures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 and a state public health order that mandates masks be worn at all times in public.
Both protests raised questions about enforcement of the mask mandate and the city’s recent firearms ban.
JULY 16: ANTI-QUARANTINE PROTEST INCLUDED RACIST MILITIA
A few hundred people, almost all of them maskless, filled the plaza Thursday evening. Some protesters carried American flags, while others carried signs with the racist phrase “Wuhan Lujan.”
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a new public health order on July 9 that requires people to wear masks while exercising and prohibits indoor dining, which had been permitted at a limited capacity since June 1. Organizers of Thursday’s protest named it a “Protest for Freedom.”
The protest was attended by many well-known conservatives in the state. Speakers included Republican State Senator Greg Baca and Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin who founded Cowboys for Trump and gained notoriety in May for his statement in May that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.”
Speaking to the crowd on Thursday, Griffin said, “Black Lives Matter is not about race. It’s about politics.”
Echoing a popular anti-quarantine sentiment, Legacy Church pastor Steve Smothermon — who introduced Trump at a 2016 rally in Albuquerque — said, “They’re using a virus to take away our civil liberties.” Smothermon then compared the anti-quarantine protesters to Martin Luther King Jr.
Legacy Church recently filed a request to be allowed to operate at 50% capacity indoors rather than 25%. A federal judge struck that down.
Taking the stage, attorney David Chavez said, “What happened to my body, my choice?” He was met with applause.
Also in attendance were members of the New Mexico Civil Guard (NMCG), a far-right militia with white supremacist affiliations. One of the group’s organizers Bryce Leroy Spangler Provance has a swastika tattoo and, as recently as December 2019, was the regional director of a local chapter of the New Confederate States of America which touts the slogan “heritage not hate.”
Another NMCG member, Craig Fitzgerald is–or at least was at one point–also a member of the National Anarchist Tribal Alliance. National Anarchism is basically neo-Nazism but you pretend to be an anarchist too. Fitzgerald, like Provance, is also a neo-Confederate. In 2017, Fitzgerald flew a confederate flag in Old Town Albuquerque after some confederate monuments were removed. Police issued him a criminal trespass order, meaning he can’t come back to the Old Town Plaza.
Provance was sentenced to 60 months on a felony conviction in Washington state in 2012, according to the Washington Courts Odyssey Portal. Although state law dictates felons don’t get their right to bear arms back until ten years after their sentence, Provance was photographed carrying a firearm at an anti-quarantine protest in Santa Fe, the state capital, in May.
The Civil Guard claims to require that its members be legally allowed to possess firearms– otherwise they must take “support” or “administrative” roles and use an air rifle in training, per the group’s website.
Several members wore official New Mexico Civil Guard t-shirts at Thursday’s protest. The shirts feature a numeral referencing the Three Percenters paramilitary movement, the widely-appropriated sacred sun symbol of the Zia Pueblo and a conquistador helmet.
The conquistador helmet seems to be a callback to their presence at a June 15 protest at a Juan de Oñate statue that ended with far-right counter-protester Steven Baca shooting and injuring Scott Williams. Several members of the New Mexico Civil Guard intimidated protesters prior to the shooting and protected Baca after he shot Williams.
On Thursday, a member of the group announced his plans to run for sheriff of Bernalillo County, home to Albuquerque, at an undetermined date. He said the New Mexico Civil Guard now has roughly 200 members.
“As sergeant major of the NMCG, I already do the enforcement thing for free. Protection and peace is our mission,” he said.
The group’s Facebook page was created on March 12, 2020. When protests first began throughout the country in late May, the group started claiming their goal was to protect property and citizens–distinguishing ‘citizens’ from protesters.
“NMCG be on alert, these are no longer protesters protesting Floyd’s death this is a Global move for Anarchy,” the group posted on May 31. “If you are a member be ready to be called up any day at anytime to defend your neighbors.”
A day later, they showed up armed to a Black Lives Matter protest and intimidated protesters, including Indigenous activist Nick Estes, who tweeted that Civil Guard members accused him and the group he was with of breaking into their own building and physically threatened them. Estes was initially under the impression the militiamen were from out of town, but the community’s since learned they’re local.
Two Republican candidates for the New Mexico House of Representatives, Scott Chandler — who made a failed bid four years ago — and Dinah Vargas, also spoke at Thursday’s protest.
Vargas had a campaign rally on June 17–two days after the Oñate protest shooting–that listed the New Mexico Civil Guard as guests. They ultimately didn’t attend the rally, but Vargas doubled down on her connection to the group.
When told that the New Mexico Civil Guard has been called a white supremacist group, Vargas responded, “Well, yeah, I think a lot of people call a lot of people a bunch of names.” She added that the group has helped her “clean up” the district she’s running to represent.
New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce attended the June 17 rally. When asked why Pearce chose to make an appearance at a rally that listed a group with white supremacist ties as guests, a party spokesperson said the Civil Guard wasn’t in attendance.
“The group in question has decided not to attend the event, so the Chairman will not be speaking at an event before this group,” wrote spokesperson Mike Curtis in an email.
This came two days after the party released a statement condemning the shooting at the Oñate protest and then quickly retracted it.
The party’s initial statement read in part, “This senseless shooting must be condemned, and we must adhere to law and order in our communities.”
The retraction was one sentence long: “Pending the investigation, the Republican Party of New Mexico retracts its earlier statement regarding tonight’s shooting during a protest in Old Town.”
The Albuquerque Journal reported that Pearce addressed the retraction during the June 17 rally.
“It was not condoning the shooting. It was, wait, there was more here than we initially understood,” Pearce said. He suggested Baca may have acted in self defense, despite video evidence that Baca assaulted multiple women before shooting Williams.
During a press conference on July 13, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez said Baca can’t claim self defense because he was the first aggressor. Torrez said Baca’s victim Scott Williams was “acting in response to his violent provocation.”
Despite protesters being gathered in direct defiance of the public health order, the Albuquerque Police Department had a nearly nonexistent presence at the protest.
No fines were issued for mask noncompliance according to an APD spokesperson, who advised that Albuquerque Fire Rescue be contacted, as they’re tasked with the city’s overall enforcement of the order.
A spokesperson for AFR said the department is “continuing to educate and when necessary issue notices of violation to individuals and businesses that are found to be in violation of the state public health order.”
In a follow-up email, I asked for clarification on why fines weren’t issued on June 16th, given that most if not all of the protesters seemed to already be educated on the order. Some carried signs with messages of defiance and many of the speakers — none of whom were wearing masks — talked about how they disagreed with the mask mandate.
AFR did not respond to that follow-up email.
Toward the end of the rally, a lone protester — who had tried to remove Black Lives Matter art graffitied on the ground of the plaza earlier in the day — verbally harassed three TV news reporters, calling them “fake news.”
“They need to be called what they are,” the protester said as several other protesters tried to de-escalate, eventually escorting him away. “These are the real fucking Nazis right here…Wait until you see the story.”
One of the reporters drew criticism on Twitter for a post that reads, “We often, as media, get harassed/spoken rudely to at protests of all kinds. Everyone here has been nice and pleasant today and has allowed us to roam freely to take video.”
During the incident with the protester, the reporter tweeted, “Alright, since I tweeted about being treated well, an organizer of this protest has refused to talk to me or tell me their name, and this guy (the protester) is shouting at us. Granted he’s in the minority.”
The protest ended shortly after that incident.
July 19: BLM SQUARES OFF WITH RACIST ANTI-QUARANTINE PROTESTERS
Far-right blogger and organizer Rebekah Stevens chose to name Sunday’s maskless anti-quarantine protest “We Can’t Breathe.” Stevens runs the blog Political Fireball, where she recently encouraged readers to donate to shooter Steven Baca’s legal defense fund, writing he “needs support that will help him be freed as he rightly should be.”
In 2014, Steve Pearce, then a state representative, hired her as his press secretary. She was soon forced to resign after it came to light that she was behind the blog and Twitter account ‘PolitixFireball’ which she used to anonymously attack reporters, progressives, and Republicans alike and go on racist tirades.
In advance of the protest, Stevens was interviewed by Michelle Malkin, another far-right blogger with ties to white nationalism. The conservative group Young Americans for Freedom cut ties with Malkin late last year after she praised alt-right commentator Nick Fuentes and his “groyper army” followers. “Groyper” is a copyright-free bastardization of the alt-right-appropriated mascot Pepe the Frog. Fuentes is a known white nationalist and anti-Semite.
During her interview on Malkin’s YouTube live stream on July 17, Stevens —with a smile — said, “We’re going to have a mask protest on Sunday and we have chosen to call it ‘We can’t breathe’ because that’s a comment I hear every single day…I think it’s time that we take back some of the messaging the left is using because the truth is we can’t breathe. The truth is all lives matter.”
Black Lives Matter supporters arrived at the plaza Sunday morning ahead of the anti-quarantine protest to counter-protest it. They said they were there because they asked Stevens to change the name of the protest days before and she refused.
Shortly after their arrival, two Black men — Frankie Grady and Te Barry — who were part of the counter protest were briefly detained by APD for having firearms and allegedly refusing to disarm. This raised questions of uneven enforcement of a firearms ban put in place by Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller after the Oñate protest.
Under the order, firearms and other deadly weapons are prohibited in city parks, which includes Civic Plaza.
But at least a dozen anti-quarantine protesters — including members of the New Mexico Civil Guard — were open carrying at Thursday’s protest and were allowed to disarm rather than being detained. An APD spokesperson said the police had posted copies of the order at the plaza on Thursday that someone tore down.
“We decided to educate people and hand out copies of the ban, in case they were not aware,” spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos wrote in an email. “We gave them an opportunity to comply.”
It seems unlikely that the armed members of the Civil Guard were unaware of the ban, as it was issued in large part because of their presence on June 15. After the shooting that day, the militia members were briefly detained before being released hours later without charges. APD recovered dozens of firearms.
“With the Albuquerque Police Department recovering a large number of firearms and ammunition, that incident had the potential to be much more violent than it was,” the order reads. “The City of Albuquerque has the police power to protect its inhabitants and preserve peace and order … and desires to exercise this authority to prevent future incidents like the shooting on June 15, 2020.”
When Grady and Barry were released, they returned to the protest and said they weren’t given the same opportunity to disarm, which APD denied.
A few dozen anti-quarantine protesters — led by Rebekah Stevens — arrived at the plaza shortly after. Stevens carried a misspelled sign that read “We can’t breath.”
“Those are someone’s last words, ma’am,” one counter-protester said to Stevens. “That’s someone that died. You are sick.”
As the two groups of protesters confronted each other, APD officers got in the middle but largely focused their attention on the Black Lives Matter counter protesters.
Black Lives Matter organizer Te Barry — one of the men who was detained for open carrying earlier in the day — told officers, “We’ve been here since 9 o’clock in the morning, before them. We have a right to be here. If you’re going to make someone leave, make them leave.”
Within 40 minutes of their arrival, most of the anti-quarantine protesters including Stevens were driven off.
A few anti-quarantine protesters remained, most of whom stuck to the outskirts of the plaza. One male anti-quarantine protester, wielding a rolled up American flag, got in a confrontation with counter-protesters that quickly escalated.
Some counter-protesters said the man assaulted one of them. The group pursued him and one counter-protester shoved him to the ground.
Police officers, who had been monitoring the situation from across the street, stepped in — essentially forming a human shield in front of the anti-quarantine protester — and indiscriminately pepper sprayed counter-protesters.
Riot police were deployed and held the line for less than fifteen minutes before retreating as counter-protesters chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!”
The counter-protesters held space at the plaza well past the scheduled end of the anti-quarantine protest at noon. After confronting anti-quarantine protesters and being attacked by the police, they ended their demonstration by dancing and eating pizza that one of the counter-protesters bought for everyone.