Pistols, guns and even assault rifles were a common sight at New Mexico protests last week following the death of George Floyd.
The guns weren’t held by cops or protesters but by armed civilians who say their intention is to protect the public from riots and looting. They appeared at at least three peaceful demonstrations across the state in recent days.
Police and protesters across the state and in Santa Fe have mixed reactions to the presence of militias or other armed groups at events where demonstrators speak out against police violence in the black community, though many say their arrival is a threatening and unwelcome trend.
Nikki Archuleta, who helped organize a Monday protest in Albuquerque, said the presence of such groups can amplify feelings of fear and suppression.
“We are having a peaceful interaction with our community. There is no need for these types of groups to come out. On top of that, not even defending human life but defending property,” Archuleta wrote on Twitter.
Keiran Freeman, who also helped organize Monday’s protest in Albuquerque, said “people are going to be intimidated by people showing up to peaceful protests with M-16s and AR-15 guns.” But he added everyone has a right to be there.
Armed civilians’ attendance is still “American and constitutional and they’re doing what they want. … As long as no one is getting shot — that’s all I can hope for.”
The Albuquerque Police Department faced criticism after a video showed interactions between police and an armed group, leading to speculation they were working together.
In the video, posted Monday on Facebook, an Albuquerque police officer spoke with Mixed Martial Arts champion Jon “Bones” Jones in front of the Jackson Wink MMA Academy on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, alongside men with Jackson Wink shirts and others in camouflage fatigues.
Many in the group of men, including Jones, were wearing tactical vests. Some were armed.
Jackson Wink MMA Academy and the police department released statements saying they were not coordinating.
In a video Jones shared on Instagram, he called on people in Albuquerque to prevent spray-painting and breaking windows. “Tonight, we’re going to try and stop as many of you guys as we can. We come in peace,” Jones said, surrounded by about 25 others. “We’re going to use our voices, our numbers and we’re going to be the difference.”
Freeman said he didn’t “think [police were] officially collaborating with people from Jackson Wink” and said he felt Jones’ intentions were “to protect the peace.”
In the video of Jones and others speaking with Albuquerque police, one officer said, “Some of these guys are dummies. If they see crime of opportunity, I’m sure you guys can de-escalate just by talking to them.”
Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Gilbert Gallegos declined to identify the officer and said the department was investigating the interaction between officers and the group from Jackson Wink. He called the exchange an “unplanned, unsanctioned conversation.”
“We want to discourage groups from attempting to engage in a public safety role during protests and large gatherings. They are not trained, and they are more likely to escalate tensions if they are carrying firearms and dressed like military or law enforcement officers,” Gallegos said in a statement.
Gallegos said the officer in the video has not faced disciplinary action over the incident.
Any findings would be sent to the agency’s board for review, and any recommendation for discipline would be forwarded to Albuquerque police Chief Mike Geier, who has the final say.
Michael Lyubimov, general manager of Jackson Wink, said many members of the gym are former members of the military or police officers who wanted to prevent looting and rioting, which he said were a threat to downtown Albuquerque businesses, including his gym.
He said he was inside the gym during the exchange between Jones and the Albuquerque officers but has seen the video. “Of course we’re not against peaceful protests,” he said, “but most of the protests that start peaceful end up very violently in the end. “Police cannot be everywhere, right?” Lyubimov added. “I mean, if people are breaking our businesses and causing chaos in our neighborhoods, who’s supposed to protect us if police cannot be here?”
After Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said dozens of fires were set and windows were broken late Sunday night and early Monday morning, Lyubimov said he and others were concerned things could get out of hand.
“Fortunately, it was way more peaceful” Monday night, Lyubimov said, when hundreds of protesters marched down Central Avenue and neighborhoods surrounding the University of New Mexico.
But Albuquerque isn’t the only place where quasi-militia groups have been seen at protests.
Wednesday night in Santa Fe, members of the New Mexico Civil Guard — a self-described “Second Amendment citizen militia group” — stood outside a building near Rio Chama Steakhouse, holding long guns, as people marched by.
John Burks of the New Mexico Civil Guard declined to be interviewed Friday.
A protester who attended the Santa Fe protest but declined to be identified said she was “deeply unsettled” to see armed people identifying themselves as the New Mexico Civil Guard. Although the group was not overtly threatening anyone, she and another woman placed themselves between protesters leaving the event and the armed people by the Roundhouse.
“I felt fear, but it just felt like the right thing to do,” she said.
Santa Fe police Deputy Chief Ben Valdez said in an email the department supports peaceful assemblies but does not “tolerate anyone who engages in menacing conduct threatening the use of violence, whether armed or unarmed.”
The department, he added, encourages people “to leave firearms and other weapons at home.”
Though there were no reports of violence at Wednesday’s protest, a threatening social media post by a Santa Fe man named Leroy Trujillo drew the attention of New Mexico State Police. In the post, Trujillo claimed billionaire George Soros is paying protesters to riot.
State police spokesman Dusty Francisco said the agency conducted a threat assessment “and it is believed his comments were in general and he just wanted to express his rights to open carry.”
Meanwhile, the Navajo Times reported a group “dressed like an outside militia” also attended a peaceful protest Wednesday in downtown Gallup.
Among them was a man standing outside a martial arts gym holding a semi-automatic rifle.
Gallup Mayor Louie Bonaguidi said there were rumors on Facebook that a large group of people were headed to the city to protect businesses there. “I didn’t want any white supremacy coming in here,” Bonaguidi said. “That would send the wrong message to the protest group.”
He said while he respected business owners’ rights to protect property, outsiders shouldn’t be the ones doing it.
Bonaguidi said the protests in town drew about 150 people and were peaceful.
Gallup police Capt. Erin Toadlena-Pablo said officers spoke with an armed member of the True Patriot Foundation on Thursday. When questioned, the man — who lives in Gallup — told police he did not have information on how many people were thought to be coming to the Wednesday protest and that businesses had asked the group to protect their property.
Having to see people with long guns outside of businesses or at a protest can increase tensions and take away from the intent” of the protest, Toadlena-Pablo said, adding the department asked individuals to go into the business they were protecting and not stand on the street.