The New Mexican’s lead headline Tuesday shrieked with a misguided point of view: “Activists topple obelisk,” it said.
A more accurate headline would have been: Police let mob destroy statue.
Lawbreakers on Monday entered the Plaza — a city park and a National Historic Landmark — and tore down the 152-year-old obelisk.
The hoodlums cheered for themselves and laughed at the weaklings who allowed them to commit crimes. They even paraded around the fallen obelisk for 15 or 20 minutes, said police Chief Andrew Padilla. Not a police officer was in sight to snap on the cuffs and haul the perpetrators to jail.
Padilla and Mayor Alan Webber gave a self-serving account Tuesday of their inept response. They said they had expected a peaceful demonstration.
Six police officers initially were on the Plaza — ample staffing, the chief said, or so he thought. Police early on arrested two people who tackled or shoved officers, Padilla said.
Backup arrived. But as trouble escalated, police ceded the Plaza to the criminals.
Padilla said he had reviewed a command officer’s decision to withdraw and agreed with it. Rest assured, Padilla said, police would have returned and “engaged” with the criminals had lives been in danger.
He and Webber maintained that, by police declining to wade into a lawless crowd, people were safer. They didn’t mention the criminals were safest of all.
It was a nauseating performance. Webber and Padilla are unworthy of command.
Padilla spun the cover story with all his might. Instead of calling in more officers to keep the peace, police permitted a mob to rule the day. Better to allow property losses and be thankful no one was injured, he said.
As for the criminals, police still hope to catch them, the chief said.
With the novel coronavirus raging, the lawbreakers wore masks. Police surrendered not only the day but their best chance to make arrests.
Webber is just as culpable as his police department. He opened the way for this disgrace.
The mayor in June ordered a city crew operating under cover of darkness to remove the statue of conquistador Don Diego de Vargas from Cathedral Park.
Webber completed his duplicitous act by signing an emergency proclamation more than seven hours later. It supposedly authorized him to do what he’d already done.
As for his rationale, Webber claimed the de Vargas statue, the obelisk and a statue of frontiersman Kit Carson that sits on federal property could attract protesters and ignite violence. He wanted all three taken down.
Worse still, Webber and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham conspired to remove the obelisk the same night the de Vargas statue was hauled from Cathedral Park.
State workers arrived on the Plaza with a crane and a plan to blindside the public. But they aborted their attempt to remove the obelisk, fearing they might damage it.
The governor and Webber didn’t stave off trouble. They emboldened vandals who damaged the obelisk in summertime and the mob that destroyed it Monday.
Stating the obvious, Webber called it a crime to rip down the obelisk. Talk is cheap, and the mayor specializes in it. Denouncing criminals after allowing them free rein is meaningless.
This time, police and the mayor sanctioned selective law enforcement.
If Cowboys for Trump, a group I dislike, had descended on the Plaza carrying chains, ropes and banners, would police have vanished? Would the cowboys have been characterized as activists, even if they broke no laws while assembling in a public space?
The most important job the mayor has is making sure his biggest and most expensive department serves and protects the public.
Santa Fe police did neither this time.
The fact that police vacated the Plaza while crimes occurred will be celebrated by some people. Those who consider the obelisk a monument to racism will applaud the police department’s negligence and Webber’s complicity in it.
The destruction of the obelisk, warts and all, is a loss for Santa Fe.
History can be complicated, sobering and shameful. The obelisk contained all those elements.
Most of the statue was a Civil War memorial. Three sides of the obelisk paid tribute to Union soldiers in New Mexico who stopped a westward advance of the Confederate government.
“If the Union hadn’t survived, we would have been a slave state,” said Santa Fe resident Diana Capshaw, whose great-great-grandfather Nazario Gonzales was a lieutenant colonel of the New Mexico Volunteers.
Across the country, statues of Confederate soldiers have been yanked down. The confederacy stood for racism, say those who claimed the statues venerated all that was wrong.
In contrast, the obelisk in Santa Fe in part celebrated Union soldiers who defeated the Confederacy. In doing so, 3 million Black people who were slaves were freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
That aspect of the obelisk was ignored by the criminals who tore it down.
They focused on its fourth panel, which paid homage to one of those shameful parts of history.
The same army that fought to preserve the union also committed atrocities. This was reflected in the panel that originally read: “To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico.”
That part of the obelisk has long been debated and denounced. It reflected the white supremacy of the time. A racist society was in place when the statue was erected in 1867.
Someone took a chisel in 1974 and erased the word “savage” from the controversial panel. Few opposed to the obelisk were assuaged.
They wanted the statue removed. Now they have their way. But smashing the obelisk didn’t change what happened. It only eliminated a signpost of history.
Padilla says the investigation is ongoing. Videos will be reviewed. Social media will be checked for leads. If his officers can identify those who wrecked the obelisk, police will arrest them.
The criminals wore masks. With the pandemic raging, people cover their faces.
Police have less to work with. That will give Webber and his police force an excuse if the perpetrators escape prosecution.
“Tearing down the obelisk is not how we act in Santa Fe,” Webber said Tuesday.
That’s nice revisionism for Webber and his police commanders.
Had they done their jobs, the violence wouldn’t have happened.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.