Santa Fe’s shattered obelisk is a towering issue in this November’s city election.

Mayor Alan Webber can’t avoid the topic, since he let a mob rip apart the 152-year-old Soldiers Monument.

Webber’s command staff removed all police officers from the Plaza so criminals could do as they pleased. Better to avoid injuries than to deter vandals from smashing the monument, Webber said.

The mayor abetted a criminal element that shared his political base’s distaste for the obelisk. Webber says he was angered by the mob violence, even though he enabled it.

Against this ugly and destructive record, Webber tries to portray himself as the one politician who did something about a monument that some people wanted to destroy.

The mayor wrote these lines in The New Mexican’s Sunday edition: “The obelisk is a proud symbol for some and a cause of tremendous pain for others with its racist description calling Native Americans ‘savage Indians.’ That’s why Santa Fe mayors have struggled with the obelisk for decades, dating to the 1970s when the City Council actually voted in favor of removing it the first time. But no one took action.”

Webber isn’t much of a researcher. His account doesn’t begin to tell the whole truth.

The City Council voted in July 1973 to remove the obelisk from the Plaza. But the councilors then reversed their decision in a unanimous vote.

They listened to historians who said removing the Soldiers Monument would hide the past, not illuminate it.

In addition, David King, the state planning officer in 1973, said removing the monument could jeopardize federal funds the city was in line to receive for restoration of the Plaza, a National Historic Landmark.

King favored putting an explanatory text next to the obelisk. The monument honored Union soldiers who stopped the Confederacy’s westward advance in New Mexico, and it also lauded a militia that fought “savage” Indians.

Some people didn’t like the state’s explanation that the monument was a reflection of its time. A vandal with a chisel erased the word “savage” from the monument in 1974, something Webber did not mention.

The mayor says he decided the obelisk had to be moved to keep the peace. He enacted his plan to extract the monument under cover of darkness. A crew with a crane tried to pull it away but stopped in fear of damaging the monument.

With a windy passage in his Sunday piece, Webber defended his decision and patted himself on the back: “Knowing there was a credible threat of violence and in the context of the summer of racial reckoning, I made the call that it was time to move the obelisk and the statue of Don Diego de Vargas to avoid a clash of violence that was brewing while we took time to have the hard conversations we need to have together about how to recognize our shared history in the city. After 50 years of city leaders talking about what to do with the obelisk, I made the tough — and I think, just — decision.”

Absent from his self-serving statement is the reality that Webber’s failed plan emboldened the criminals who later wrecked the obelisk. With ropes, chains and hot tempers, the mob threatened public safety with no resistance from police.

Had Webber studied the city’s history, he would have known that moving the obelisk had always been rejected after what he termed “hard conversations.”

  • Early 1960s — Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oliver La Farge joins a citywide discussion on the Soldiers Memorial. “It is altogether too easy to brush such simple things aside, brushing our predecessors aside along with them, in favor of a Madison Avenue version, chocolate-peppermint flavored for tourist consumption,” La Farge said. This was only one episode of vigorous but nonviolent debates about the monument that occurred decades before Webber moved from Boston to Santa Fe in 2003.
  • March 1981 — The Plaza Use Committee recommends that the City Council retain the obelisk. Thomas Merlan, the state historic preservation officer, said relocating the obelisk to make way for a gazebo and bandstand would destroy the historical integrity of the monument.

August 2000 — Peter Wirth, president of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation, enters another community discussion. “Proposals to remove the obelisk appear to be based on a desire to rewrite history, removing the more shameful portions. We can only learn from mistakes if we are familiar with our history,” Wirth said. A liberal Democrat, he is now majority leader of the state Senate.

Webber claims he listens to all with an open heart, that he tried to remove the obelisk only after discussions with many people.

As he campaigns for reelection, Webber says the city will begin a reconciliation process “later this summer” to have “a long-overdue conversation.”

He ignores that many who cared about Santa Fe initiated and held productive discussions long before he arrived.

Webber didn’t defuse the threat of violence. He ignited it. Now he has to live with that piece of history as he seeks a second term.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

(34) comments

Russell Scanlon

Aside from the usual invective against the mayor from the usual suspects, its a little humorous to hear people complain about “outsiders” in a place that has been a historic crossroads and confluence of several large trading routes for centuries. And besides—we know who the real “outsiders” are here, right?

Richard Reinders

In all this discussion I still have not heard where the head of the different Pueblos have been consulted or included and aren't they the offended ones? Webber had an agenda and no one even the Indigenous were to get in his way.

Stefanie Beninato

In Webber's op-ed piece about a week ago, he did say he consulted with pueblo leaders and I believe George Rivera from Pojoaque Pueblo has supported the CHART process recently.

Mike Johnson

Webber and Rivera.....right.....[thumbdown]

Richard Reinders

George is an ex governor for at least 5 plus years and has alternative reason, the city likes putting up his sculptures. At this point he doesn’t speak for the Pueblo and only brings an artist perspective to the table. I want to hear from active leadership from the Pueblo’s and I have only heard two things , Tesuque said they did not endorse the destruction of the obelisk and Gov Lavato from Ok Owingeh said this is his history and did not endorse the removal of Onate over by Acalde, Velarde. Stefanie I don’t want to argue with you over this subject, asking George to speak for Pojoaque is like asking Debbie Jaramillo to speak for Santa Fe. I have nothing against George I know him well and as an artist he has some background.

Heather Nordquist

Rivera hasn't been in Pueblo leadership in some time.

Diane Gonzales

It's apparent Webber felt he, and he alone, would make the final decision about the downtown monuments. For all the talk he pushed of dialogue and conversation, it feels that was only done to placate the community because his plans were already in place. Milan makes excellent points of how Webber disregarded conversations that had already taken place. There was already a starting point. Now he wants us to re-elect him because he "showed us the light" and educated us on how we should feel. I don't think so.

Stefanie Beninato

Yes, it would need to be marked. There are land grants and deeds on the eastside that use the obelisk at the zero point. I have seen and used them in historical research projects. And maybe a monument is needed for the battle at Glorieta--where it occurred which is not Santa Fe--oh, I forgot, the Pecos National Monument already incorporates parts of this historic battle field. PS Vince I would like to attend all three meetings so I can be part of the CHART process.

Khal Spencer

You have my endorsement, Stefanie. That and three bucks will get you a cup of coffee...

Katherine Martinez

All on point Milan. All we need now is for the voters to pay attention.

Christian Vanschayk

Webber attempted to take the middle path, recognizing that this emotionally charged issue had legitimate arguments on both sides. It is the author who is taking sides. Quoting near 50 year old discussions to bolster his side of the argument is 'a bit rich'. Throwing gasoline on the fire is no way to shine a light.

Vicente Roybal

regarding the vandalized Obelisk, the path to restore the dignity of the plaza is laid out. What the arts commission and the current city administration is failing to see is the profound history that we all can be intensely proud of and the spirit of what the original obelisk stood for. The battle of Glorieta Pass and Apache Canyon in 1862, the "Gettysburg of the West," where Union forces of New Mexico and Colorado Volunteers did an end run around the Confederate forces and destroyed their vital supply train of 64 wagons making it virtually impossible for the Texas Rangers to continue their campaign and the imagined Westward expansion of the Confederate states and forcing them to retreat to Santa Fe where they then beat a slow retreat back to Texas. This was the single decisive turning point in the American Civil War in the West. If they had been allowed to capture the gold fields of Colorado and California it would have protracted the war and possibly enabled a far different result of the American Civil War, allowing the politics and this manifesto to prevail, a far darker future for the American West would have unfolded with the accession of slavery and subjugation of all colored peoples across the entire geographic south and a larger, stronger, richer Confederate States of America. Surely no one could ever protest against a monument to that very real history that occurred right here in this very spot.

Mike Johnson

Indeed, our August 18th Society would like to see additional recognition displayed to memorialize the liberation of Santa Fe and NM by General Kearny.

David Romero

The Confederates, low on supplies anyway, were after the supplies at fort Union to continue their advance on to the silver mines in Colorado and the gold and sea ports in California. I'm pretty sure the Federals would have burned the stores at Fort Union rather than to let the rebels seize them. Plus there was a large Union force coming from California to meet them. The battle of Glorieta pass was a quick end to an operation that was doomed from the beginning.

Vicente Roybal

In the SF New Mexican articles “Group sues Mayor….” June 18th Phaydra Haywood and Milan Simonich article June 20 “Juneteenth shattered…” regarding the vandalized Obelisk, the path to restore the dignity of the plaza is laid out. It seems funny when I hear the Arts commission is ready to claim that space by putting up some public art in place of the obelisk, *yawn*. Really? There is something surely to appeal to locals and tourist alike, one that all can surely be intensely proud of, and that almost no one knows about.

What this commission and the current city administration is failing to see is the profound history that we all can be proud of and the spirit of what the original obelisk stood for. The battle of Glorieta Pass and Apache Canyon in 1862, the "Gettysburg of the West," where Union forces of New Mexico and Colorado Volunteers did an end run around the Confederate forces and destroyed their vital supply train of 64 wagons making it virtually impossible for the Texas Rangers to continue their campaign and the imagined Westward expansion of the Confederate states and forcing them to retreat to Santa Fe where they then beat a slow retreat back to Texas. This was the single decisive turning point in the American Civil War in the West. If they had been allowed to capture the gold fields of Colorado and California it would have protracted the war and possibly enabled a far different result of the American Civil War, allowing the politics and this manifesto to prevail, a far darker future for the American West would have unfolded with the accession of slavery and subjugation of all colored peoples across the entire geographic south and a larger, stronger, richer Confederate States of America. Surely no one could ever protest against a monument to that very real history that occurred right here in this very spot.

Khal Spencer

The people who tore down the obelisk were not much different than the people who tore down the statue of Hans Christian Heg, not knowing a whit about history other than the garbage they swallow on social media. In that way, they are not much different than the people who stormed the Capitol, i.e., they swallow lies and gross simplifications and then act out violently in the name of their own flavor of truth, justice, and the American way.

The problem with the Right and Left is they are quick to point the finger in condemnation at the other while doing pretty much the same thing for self-justified reasons.

Khal Spencer

My spouse is a person of color and has been particularly incensed at the cultural arrogance of a predominately White mob thinking it can somehow make amends for a very complex and at times unpleasant history with a single destructive act. Or as she says, its the pinnacle of white privilege to assert it can speak for, and decide how to solve these problems for others.

Go figure. I just think the mob was a bunch of A H's.

Mike Johnson

Well said Khal, and indeed the mob was as you describe, and more. As is their defacto leader in this crime, Webber. Thank you Milan for once again pointing out the kind of person who was elected Mayor. Hopefully, the people of Santa Fe have awakened from their ignorant and irrational slumber and are paying attention. If this person gets reelected, we will all know what kind of people vote in Santa Fe.

Vince Czarnowski

Thank you, Milan, for taking the time to untangle Webber's mountain of lies. This man is dangerous to Santa Fe. Let's hope everyone realizes it and votes this self-serving idiot out.

Khal Spencer

Thanks, Milan, for providing the more complete and complex history of Santa Fe and its Obelisk. I recall that Mr. Mayor left out that the "savage indians" words had been chiseled out long ago. I was somewhat aware of some of the past Council votes but this was a good piece that needed to be written as we go into election season.

David Brown

Just remember in 2009 Alan Webber wrote a book that praised Neil Goldschmidt (his political mentor) for all he did while Mayor of Portland and Governor of Oregon. Not a word about Goldschmidt being a child rapist five years running. Not a word. The book has been removed from the Kindle. Wonder why? Wonder too what Webber knew about the rape while it was happing. Maybe an election issue?

Stefanie Beninato

Milan---Come on, the paper has repeatedly failed to note that the word "savage" was removed in 1974 in many of the articles it has printed on the topic. Also you fail to mention, as many have, that the obelisk is the zero point for many private land grants within Santa Fe. Moving the obelisk could ignite even more problems with land boundaries. And taking out an offensive word neatly with a chisel is very different than toppling the monument itself. As a historian, I am more than disappointed that a "talking point" about our controversial history has been removed.

Khal Spencer

Stefanie, can you elaborate on the "zero point"? Even if the obelisk is moved, does the location need to be marked with a geodetic marker to define property boundaries or something like that?

Vicente Roybal

Real NM historians such as yourself, not arm chair ones, are the kinds of input I hope to see on said Reconciliation Commission

David Romero

Also there was a plaque at the oblique that stated that the words on the object reflected the times in which they were written. Anybody with brains the size of a marble would recognize the meaning of that. Get rid of webber and put the oblique back where it belongs.

David Romero

The best way to get rid of this idiot is to vote him out in the election.

Richard Reinders

It has taken 400 years to develop the history, culture and character of Santa Fe, how does a person from Boston or Portland thinks he knows better than all that came before him. Webber is a symptom of the problems plaquing this country today .

Barry Rabkin

I am a Boston native who only recently moved to Santa Fe. That however does not negate that you, sir, are 100% correct.

Khal Spencer

[beam] What part of Boston, Barry?

Mike Johnson

As an MIT alumni, I really liked Boston, and Cambridge, even though I am a 3rd generation New Mexican. Chicken lobsters, Legal Seafoods, and all the festivities around Patriot's Day, the Pats and the Sox. Nice place to live, and I miss it sometimes.

Khal Spencer

I spent a summer at BU taking a field geology class I needed to turn my BA into a BS back at the U of Rochester. Later, I had two close friends in grad school there, one at MIT and one at Brandeis. When I was in grad school on Long Island, I used to pack the motorcycle for a weekend trip, take it from Stony Brook out to the end of Long Island, hop the ferry from Orient Point to New London, and then ride up to Boston. Even survived the trips although Boston traffic is not for the faint of heart.

My wife asks me why the Albuquerque drivers don't terrify me. I say two things. Boston and New York City.

Richard Reinders

Barry, no disrespect meant for people from Boston I just mean not from this area and without knowledge.

Paul Davis

400 years eh? The people who lived here before the Spanish arrived would like a word, as would the cultural empire that reached from deep inside what is now Mexico up through Chaco Canyon and, at least as far as trade, north into Utah and Colorado.

There's only one constant in this world, and that's change. How does a person from Spain think they know better than all that came before them? They don't. How does someone arriving from the east think they know better than all that came before them? They don't. It's just a process of change, often violent, typically oppressive, and never-ending.

It's always funny for us johnny-come-lately old world interlopers to hear people here boasting about 400 years of history. Get over yourselves. 400 years might not get you entry to some men's clubs in the old world.

Khal Spencer

Well said, Paul. I still think it would have been better to add onto the obelisk rather than tear it down. But as one of those johnny-come-lately interlopers from the East Coast, its just my two cents, too.

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