Protesters in Albuquerque wrapped a chain around the neck of a bronze statue and began tugging and chanting, “Tear it down,” shortly before sunset on Monday. Their efforts to pull down a monument of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate suddenly stopped as four shots rang out.

Most people instinctively turned toward the noise, videos from the scene show. A few screamed. Just yards away, a group of militia men sporting militarylike garb and carrying semiautomatic rifles formed a protective circle around the gunman.

The gunshots, which left one man in critical but stable condition, have set off a cascade of public outcry denouncing the unregulated militia’s presence and the shooting. On Tuesday morning, the Albuquerque Police Department announced that detectives had arrested Stephen Ray Baca, 31, in connection with the shooting.

Baca was booked into the Metro Detention Center on a charge of aggravated battery, police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos Jr. said in a statement.

The victim has not been identified. Authorities said the investigation is ongoing.

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Albuquerque police detain members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed civilian group, following the shooting of a man during a protest over a statue of Spanish conquerer Juan de Oñate on Monday, June 15. Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal via AP

“The heavily armed individuals who flaunted themselves at the protest, calling themselves a ‘civil guard,’ were there for one reason: To menace protesters, to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force,” New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “To menace the people of New Mexico with weaponry – with an implicit threat of violence – is on its face unacceptable; that violence did indeed occur is unspeakable.”

Albuquerque Democratic Mayor Tim Keller said the statue would now be speedily removed as an “urgent matter of public safety” until authorities determine a next step.

“The shooting tonight was a tragic, outrageous and unacceptable act of violence and it has no place in our city,” Keller said in a statement. “Our diverse community will not be deterred by acts meant to divide or silence us. Our hearts go out [to] the victim, his family and witnesses whose lives were needlessly threatened tonight.”

Recent protests against Oñate statues in New Mexico mirror similar calls to tear down Confederate monuments amid a rise in Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd, who died as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

In the hours leading up to the violence on Monday, protesters faced off with members of an armed militia that calls itself the New Mexico Civil Guard and counterprotesters toting “All lives matter” signs.

One group sought to tear down a monument to Oñate, a 16th-century despot who massacred indigenous people. The other set out as self-designated protectors of the statue, creating a heavily armed presence at the park in Albuquerque’s historic Old Town. Aside from a few small scuffles over signs near the monument, the protest had largely been peaceful, although tense at times.

Then, a white man in a blue T-shirt appeared to rile the crowd, according to video obtained by KOB4. People erupted in shouts, and the man took a few steps back. A masked protester swung a skateboard and struck him in the shoulder. The man backpedaled out of the crowd but continued to exchange shouts with protesters.

Someone in the video encouraged people to follow the man and get his license plate number. Several people followed him, and one tackled him to the ground. As he tried to stand back up and three people tried to hit him again, the man in blue pulled a gun and fired four shots, striking one man and scattering the crowd.

In a second video that captured the moments following the shooting, the gunman sat in the middle of a road as the New Mexico Civil Guard militia members formed a circle around him. One man carrying a semiautomatic rifle, and wearing camouflage fatigues and a military-style helmet, kicked the handgun away from the man and stood with his foot on top of the weapon.

Police responded to the scene with tear gas and stun grenades to force the crowd back. Officers detained several members of the militia group, according to reporters and witnesses at the scene. Video showed officers placing the apparent gunman into a cruiser.

Police have not released any information about the suspected shooter or said whether they think he has any connection to the armed militia.

The militia, which identified itself to a New York Times reporter covering the protest Monday, has a controversial history. The right-wing group has repeatedly shown up at Black Lives Matter protests in recent weeks with guns and military-like garb.

On Facebook, the group has shared materials encouraging people to arm themselves, promoted military training on infantry tactics and “ambushing,” and shared multiple posts opposing the leveling of monuments to Confederate figures in the South and Oñate in New Mexico. Members of the group recently told the Eastern New Mexico News that their aim was to protect businesses from damage during protests. They said they had been in contact with police and were following guidance given to them by officials.

Militias like the New Mexico Civil Guard and other armed far-right counterprotesters have been a controversial presence at Black Lives Matter protests across the United States. At an Albuquerque protest earlier this month, video of police talking to an armed militia group spurred allegations that officers were coordinating with the group in an official capacity, although police denied the claim.

At least one New Mexico lawmaker viewed the militia’s consistent presence at protests as suspicious enough to warrant further inquiry. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., called on the Justice Department to investigate the shooting Monday night.

“This is not the first report of heavily armed civilian militias appearing at protests around New Mexico in recent weeks. These extremists cannot be allowed to silence peaceful protests or inflict violence,” Heinrich said on Twitter on Monday night

Some critics have drawn contrasts between police response to largely peaceful and unarmed Black Lives Matter protests and the heavily armed, militia-led demonstrations against coronavirus restrictions in April and May. Monday’s shooting also led some critics to note that the armed militia members and alleged shooter were taken into custody by police without incident, but the Black Lives Matter protests are responding to incidents in which police have fatally shot unarmed black men.

“Notice how calmly they’re all being detained,” former housing secretary Julián Castro tweeted Monday night. “Don’t tell me George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks and Eric Garner – who did not harm anybody – couldn’t be treated differently.”

Meanwhile, Albuquerque Police Chief Michael Geier vowed to investigate any group that sought to stoke violence at the protest.

“We are receiving reports about vigilante groups possibly instigating this violence,” Geier said in a statement. “If this is true [we] will be holding them accountable to the fullest extent of the law, including federal hate group designation and prosecution.”


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