What began Saturday as a three-day “occupation” of the Santa Fe Plaza by Native activists and their supporters culminated on Indigenous Peoples Day with protesters toppling a controversial war monument.
About 50 people used a rope and chains to bring the obelisk down.
Santa Fe police officers monitoring the scene Monday made at least two arrests following earlier incidents but left before the obelisk’s collapse as protesters swarmed around it.
Late Monday, the city announced Dylan Wrobel, 27, had been arrested on suspicion of battery on a peace officer and resisting an officer. Also arrested was Sean Sunderland, 24, on suspicion of resisting an officer and criminal trespass.
“I think they did the right thing by leaving,” said Jim Trujillo, 59, a Native American who brought a hand drum to the rally. “I respected that the cops retreated because the situation was spiraling.”
Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber didn’t address the lack of police presence during a statement Monday evening broadcast live on Facebook, in which he condemned the destruction. In the late Monday news release, the city said two officers were attacked — six were on the Plaza at the time — and police made the decision to exit, then move forward to redeploy in the Plaza area.
But one city councilor criticized the decision to have officers leave the Plaza during the chaotic event.
“That was a failure on the city’s part,” Councilor Renee Villarreal said.
Capt. Matthew Champlin declined to comment on the decision.
Deputy Chief Ben Valdez and Chief Andrew Padilla did not return phone calls seeking comment. Padilla also declined to be interviewed Sunday night about the three-day demonstration.
Erected in 1866, the Plaza centerpiece, sometimes called the Soldiers Monument and constructed to honor to Civil War Union soldiers, has spurred several demonstrations in Santa Fe this year amid a nationwide call for racial justice.
Native activists and other protesters have long objected to a plaque on one side that said the obelisk was dedicated, in part, to “heroes” who died in battle with “savage Indians.”
The plaque has sustained damage. Decades ago, a man chiseled away the word “savage,” and in late June, part of the plaque was broken off during an act of vandalism.
Webber said just before a planned protest earlier in June that the monument’s removal from the public park was “long overdue.” Following a failed attempt by a state-contracted crew to take down the structure overnight on the eve of the protest, however, Webber had not moved forward to remove it.
Four months later, just before the holiday known as Indigenous Peoples Day in Santa Fe, across New Mexico and in a growing number of U.S. cities and states, Webber released a statement continuing to call for a community conversation about the obelisk’s future.
He said he did not believe he had the unilateral authority to remove it.
After two days of peaceful protests, activists took the matter into their own hands.
The three-day Plaza occupation began Saturday afternoon. Activists, who said the event was loosely organized by several groups, set up signs around the obelisk. Some said they would stay until Webber removed the obelisk. Two protesters used bike locks to chain themselves to its base.
Webber and about 20 police officers and firefighters negotiated a deal with protesters allowing them to camp at the base of the obelisk. On Sunday, police persuaded them to leave for the night.
As another rally got underway around noon Monday on the Plaza Community Stage, a crew contracted by the city started constructing an extended barrier around the obelisk. Drumbeats in celebration of the holiday were drowned out by the sounds of drills and hammers.
The bottom of the structure already was encased in plywood after vandals struck earlier this year. The new barrier was intended to keep people from sitting on top of the monument’s base. Some protesters began to lie down on building materials to disrupt construction, prompting Santa Fe police to try to forcefully remove people. This drew more demonstrators to obstruct the construction crew and tear down a metal barrier around the obelisk.
In the chaos, officers handcuffed one protester. A swarm of others surrounded them and shouted, “Let him go,” which the officers did.
A few yards away, an officer tackled a woman.
Another officer yelled, “Don’t touch my gun,” in the middle of the crowd.
Police then left the area, clearing the way for protesters to tear down the monument. Pulling in unison on a rope, they brought down the top two sections.
The small crowd on the Plaza erupted in cheers.
“It was a really emotional moment for me. For all that it represents, this type of monument shouldn’t exist,” Cipriana Jurado, 53, an Indigenous woman from Chihuahua, Mexico, said in Spanish.
“There is so much to celebrate here and in Latin America that existed before European culture,” she added.
But not everyone was in favor of removing the obelisk. Webber drew pushback this summer when he ordered the removal of a statue of Don Diego de Vargas from Cathedral Park and vowed he also would remove the Plaza obelisk and a second downtown obelisk built in honor of frontiersman Christopher “Kit” Carson, who led military campaigns against Native people.
Webber also said he would create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, composed of a broad cross section of people from Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico, to study the issue and make decisions on what to do about controversial public art and monuments.
No such commission has been formed. Last month, the mayor said in a statement there have been “numerous discussions and conversations.” But he declined to participate in an interview on the issue.
There have been questions about who owns the monument and whether the city had the authority to take it down. During an emergency City Council meeting Monday evening, Assistant City Attorney Marcos Martinez said, “It’s most likely that the city owns the obelisk.”
“The mayor shouldn’t have stalled,” said Trujillo, the rally-goer. “It’s tough to be a leader, but you have to act.
“At any other time, maybe that would have worked and this would have fizzled,” he added, “but we’re all stuck at home and on the freaking edge and sort of just tired of stuff like this.”