Vandalism is not OK, even against Oñate

The incident of violence in Albuquerque last week in which a protester was shot brought the wrong kind of attention to New Mexico. It detracted from our generally good record of peaceful demonstrations and our superior performance in reducing coronavirus, compared to the frightening spikes in neighboring states.

The incident came less than 12 hours after Albuquerque’s mayor announced an innovative change in law enforcement. The proposal deserves public attention. It’s a shame that attention got diverted.

As announced by Mayor Tim Keller, a new department called Community Safety will become a third alternative for first responders, alongside the police and fire departments. It is to be staffed by social workers and others, unarmed, qualified to deal with mental illness, the homeless, and other noncriminal issues.

The intention is that these professionals will be able to defuse situations that police are not trained for, preventing police from making dangerous mistakes and allowing police to focus on criminal situations.

Mental health problems have long been an issue for law enforcement in New Mexico.  Most of our perenially cash-strapped local governments are unequipped to deal with unruly mentally ill individuals. Mental illness is a major reason for solitary confinement in county jails.  The New Mexico Association of Counties identified behavioral health services as a top priority for 2020 legislation.

Albuquerque’s new initiative could be a model for other local jurisdictions as we watch this experiment unfold.

Regarding the incident, the analysts are still sorting out who did what  to whom.  The violence was apparently sparked by an attempt to pull down the statue of Juan de Oñate outside the Albuquerque Museum, complicated by heavily armed vigilantes who have appointed themselves the New Mexico Civil Guard.

Pulling down statues is vandalism and well-meaning protesters should not do it. Some national news media have been much too casual in reporting on the destruction of Confederate memorials, suggesting to the suggestible that destroying public property is acceptable if you do it for the right reasons. It’s not.

Nevertheless, getting his statue defaced couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy. I have expected for years that statues of Oñate would someday become targets of protest.

Oñate, by historical accounts, was a brutal overlord.  He is best known for the 1599 Acoma Massacre, in which Acoma Pueblo was destroyed and hundreds killed. Afterward he ordered that 20 or more survivors have a foot cut off, though there’s been some question whether that’s true.

The other statue of Oñate was, until a few days ago, in the plaza behind a public building north of Espanola, used as an office but also a rest stop on the way to Taos.

That statue was mutilated once when someone sawed off a foot. Now it has prudently been removed by county government, to protect it from vandalism. The Wikipedia page describing the statue was updated to report the removal within two days, I noticed.

The statue was the legacy of Rio Arriba political boss Emilio Naranjo, a controversial figure himself.  My late husband, who was in the Senate at the same time as Naranjo, told me Naranjo spent an entire legislative session saying nothing, contributing nothing to committee discussions, voting always with the Democratic leadership, and introduced only one bill, the one that funded this monument. Recently Rio Arriba County named a building in Espanola after Naranjo, potentially giving protesters a future project.

Considering the national response to the George Floyd killing and the universal nervousness generated by the coronavirus shutdown, New Mexico has done well in holding mostly nonviolent peaceful protest. If protests continue, as they probably will, I can only hope the vigilantes will stay home and that nobody will bring guns to what should be a word fight.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2020




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