In the year since the 33-foot-tall obelisk came crashing down on the Santa Fe Plaza, toppled by protesters at an Indigenous Peoples Day rally, the action has become one of the most divisive issues in the city.
Some groups decry it as evidence of an effort to erase local Hispanic culture and traditions, and many people oppose the judicial system’s lenient treatment of a half-dozen defendants charged in the historical monument’s destruction. They were offered a so-called restorative justice deal that requires community service in lieu of jail time.
The question of who was responsible for failing to prevent protesters from felling the obelisk, the Plaza’s centerpiece for 152 years, also has been a hot-button topic in an increasingly contentious mayoral race.
City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Copper, who is challenging Mayor Alan Webber for his job, has accused Webber of issuing the call for police to retreat from the Plaza amid a skirmish that erupted before protesters pulled down the monument. Webber has adamantly denied this.
Others blame police Chief Andrew Padilla, who recently announced he plans to retire in early December.
They’re all wrong, Capt. Matthew Champlin said in a recent interview: He’s the one who ordered officers to stand down Oct. 12.
If he were faced with the same circumstances, he’d do it again, he said. “That was my duty as the on-duty commander to make that hard decision.”
Later in the interview, Champlin said, “Nobody has spoken about what the officers went through. It was the first time for some of these officers to be surrounded by a group of people who want to hurt them … but they stood their ground for 19 minutes.”
Champlin acknowledged the decision to stand down has faced heavy criticism and has become a political fireball. “I’ve seen it alluded to that the mayor made the decision for police officers to fall back … but I don’t care about the mayor’s election,” he said. “It doesn’t affect me. What I do care about is the officers and their lives being at risk.”
His officers were outnumbered on the Plaza that Monday afternoon and were being assaulted by protesters, Champlin said; their well-being was his top concern.
Known as the Soldiers’ Monument and initially dedicated to Civil War Union soldiers, the obelisk long had been the center of controversy over one inscription paying tribute to “heroes who died in battle with savage Indians.” Native American activists and their allies had called for its removal in summer 2020. After the city took no action, protesters attending a three-day Indigenous Peoples Day demonstration brought it down with ropes and chains on the event’s final day.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to evaluate the cultural significance [of the obelisk],” Champlin said. “It was a literal split-second decision to say, ‘We have officers who are overrun and hurt. We need to fall back.’
“The obelisk could have been worth $10 million, and I still would have made the decision to have the officers fall back,” the captain said. “Because their lives were more important than that.”
A ‘fiercely constitutionally observing department’
Champlin — who has been a law enforcement officer for 17 years, 12 of them in Santa Fe — said the police force in New Mexico’s capital city had grown used to monitoring demonstrations of residents’ First Amendment rights and is a “fiercely constitutionally observing department.”
The Indigenous Peoples Day demonstration was one of dozens the department monitored in 2020.
A small group of peaceful protesters began gathering on the Plaza on Oct. 10, a Saturday, he said, and officers were negotiating with those who had chained themselves to the obelisk.
“At that point, there were no indications of threats or violence,” he said. “Our biggest concern was not 250 people showing up and damaging our Plaza or damaging our obelisk. Our biggest concern was them falling asleep and falling [because] they had these chains around their necks.”
The night of Oct. 11, Champlin said, the protesters agreed to come down off the obelisk, and officers and activists picked up trash around the monument together.
Things began to go awry the following morning.
Champlin said he started communicating with officers about activities on the Plaza by phone from his home in Rio Rancho. Knowing a peaceful assembly was planned for Indigenous Peoples Day, he said, the department had a few more officers than usual at the downtown site.
They were not anticipating the level of resistance they would face.
“The plan was the city was supposed to have a construction crew come in and encase the obelisk,” he said.
The project was supposed to be completed by 8 or 9 a.m., but around 10:30 a.m., a sergeant told Champlin the construction crew hadn’t even started.
“That was a big point of contention with me,” Champlin said, “because I knew that was going to cause an issue if we had the assembly show up.”
Apparently, the captain said, the city workers needed more material to construct the wooden barrier.
“I wanted them gone, or I wanted it completed,” he said. “Unfortunately, neither of those things happened.”
Around noon Oct. 12, he said, he started getting reports of people interfering with the construction crew. He forwarded his officers a city ordinance prohibiting interference with the work of public officials.
Champlin said officials in the police department were keenly aware of a national discussion on policing and mindful of the need to allow members of the public to air grievances without resorting to the use of force.
“It was very tough,” he said, “given the scrutiny we were under.”
The sergeant called again to tell him protesters were “lying down on the plywood,” and one had attempted to damage the obelisk by hurtling a metal barrier against it.
Champlin told the sergeant to have officers intervene.
“I advised no damage would be allowed to the obelisk,” he said. “They were to stay there, stop any damage to the obelisk and make arrests if necessary.”
Just before 1 p.m., he got a call from another sergeant.
“That was the first indication that things were not manageable,” he said. “I could hear yelling and screaming in the background, and they were overrun.”
Portable metal barriers set up the night before had been knocked down, he said, and protesters “were using them against us and to throw at the obelisk.” The rally crowd had grown to about 150 people, and some had begun attacking officers who were attempting to make arrests.
“The sergeant was clearly agitated and scared,” Champlin said, adding his officers “were being punched and kicked and choked.”
“And me alone, listening to this information in real time, that’s when I advised the sergeant to fall back to Fire Station 1.”
It became evident the protesters planned to take down the obelisk, he said, but he decided the lives of his officers and civilian bystanders were worth more than any monument.
Even if he had been able to send in reinforcements at that moment, Champlin said, he didn’t believe it would have been enough to regain control without resorting to the use of deadly force.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “we had to look at property versus life.”
Champlin met with his officers at the downtown fire station and saw the effect the encounter had on them. The stressed showed on their faces, he said. Some were emotional and seemed overwhelmed.
One sergeant was “very upset the obelisk had been damaged” but said he understood no one should die to protect it, Champlin said. “And that statement stuck with me.”
A more senior sergeant was second-guessing himself and his choices and was upset his officers had been attacked.
“From an individual I never saw be emotional, he was very, very emotional,” Champlin said. “Whether the city supported us or not, those officers were 100 percent courageous and professional and should be very proud of themselves for what they stood for and what they did.”
He added he was amazed after the incident that “no one’s constitutional rights were violated, no civilians were hurt, no buildings were damaged, nothing besides the obelisk. These officers were the ones who had to deal with it. But nobody really cared. They were the back burner; the forward burner was the obelisk.”
‘It’s easy to … Monday morning quarterback it’
Chief Padilla said in an interview last week — and had said in the days and weeks after the incident — he supports Champlin’s decision.
He wishes the department would have been better prepared, Padilla said, but he had no indication then what was coming.
“It’s easy to look back now and Monday morning quarterback it, and say, ‘I wish we had 20, 30 officers that day,’ ” he said. “But the community is our eyes and ears. They have to communicate with us. … There were people who knew what was gonna happen on that day. I wish the community would have relayed the information to us that day or before.”
Padilla said Thursday the police department would have an increased presence at “all high-profile statues and monuments” throughout the long holiday weekend, when a series of Native American dances are scheduled on the Plaza.
He hadn’t heard of any planned unrest. If anyone in the community knows otherwise, he said, they should contact the regional dispatch center.
“We don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Padilla said.
Critics have said, however, officials must have recognized the monument was a target at last year’s event.
“They had plenty of warning,” said Virgil Vigil president of Union Protectíva de Santa Fé, a Hispanic fraternal organization that has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to order Webber to restore the Plaza obelisk.
“They should have had the foresight and the vision to anticipate this, and if they don’t have this vision, they should get another job,” Vigil said.
Indigenous activists had been pressuring the city to remove the obelisk for months leading up to Indigenous Peoples Day.
Webber had announced in June, ahead of another protest, he would have it removed. But that didn’t happen.
The mayor received a more specific warning Oct. 11 — the day before the obelisk was toppled — in an email from Carrie Wood, a member of the Santa Fe-based Indigenous rights group Three Sisters Collective. Wood told Webber demonstrators were intent on removing the monument.
“All of the scenarios I can imagine happening will end in the obelisk being taken down, either by the city or ‘the people,’ ” she wrote. “I think people are tired of waiting and they will figure out a way to take it down, whether that be this weekend, or next weekend, or next month. They are not giving up.”
Though Wood’s email, obtained through a public records request, didn’t explicitly state demonstrators planned to pull the monument down, she advised the mayor to act fast.
Webber said Friday he didn’t consider the email a credible threat.
“I had been talking with Three Sisters before this weekend,” he said. “They had sent me a number of emails saying how frustrated they were the monument wasn’t moving. … That’s not somebody sending an email saying they are coming to tear down the obelisk on Indigenous Peoples Day.
“I did not share it with police,” he added. “It was part of an ongoing conversation with Three Sisters to get their assurance the weekend demonstrations would be peaceful.”
But Wood told Webber in the email she didn’t know exactly what would go on during the rallies because her group planned to be at another location that day.
Members of the Three Sisters Collective declined to comment for this story.
If he regrets anything, the mayor said, it is was not putting a process in motion sooner to decide the fate of the obelisk and other controversial monuments and public art.
“It took me too long to come up with a path forward so people could engage in a process for talking about moving the obelisk and getting to a better community-wide place about what we do with community and culture, and I do think CHART is the right way to go,” the mayor said, referring to the city’s new culture, history, art, reconciliation and truth project.
The monument’s base, still standing on the Plaza, is encased in an adobe-colored box and is surrounded with newly planted landscaping. A bronze plaque on one side, covered in plexiglass, contains the text of a city resolution passed in January acknowledging the obelisk’s destruction and calling for the CHART process.
Webber said Friday focusing on the destruction of the obelisk “misses the larger sweep of what the community and its different representatives are capable of doing.”
“Even though it was illegal, unlawful, violent and painful,” he said, “the aftermath can really be one of healing and reconciliation and bring out our better angels in our community.”