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Police War on the Poor

The Return of the Albuquerque Death Squads

by DAVID CORREIA

Albuquerque.

On November 13 of this year the Albuquerque police oversight commission cleared one of its own for the fatal shooting in September of 2010 of 19-year old Chandler Barr. The officer, a bicycle cop on her first day on the job, shot the mentally ill Barr twice in the chest after he threatened her with a butter knife. Barr is one of 20 young men shot by Albuquerque police in the last two years, and one of 14 dead from their injuries. The long list of young men—mostly Hispanic and many of them mentally ill or drug users—incudes also Dominic Robert Smith shot and killed on October 1, 2009 by an officer that, according to Margaret Ann Saiz, Robert’s mother, “said that my soon looked like he was mentally retarded.” Smith was behaving erratically and shoving pills in his mouth when an Albuquerque Police officer, using his favorite hunting rifle, fired a round into the unarmed man’s chest.

In May of this year Mark Gomez found his brother Alan high on drugs and “acting crazy.” Not knowing how to intervene and scared that his brother would hurt himself, he called 911. Alan Gomez became another statistic when an APD officer shot him in the back. Gomez was armed at the time with a plastic spoon.

On February 9, 2011, APD officer Trey Economidy pulled over Jacob Mitschelen on a traffic violation. Economidy claimed Mitschelen ran from the scene with a weapon in his hand. Mitschelen’s mother asked “They had him down with the first shot, why did they have to go up and pump two more shots in him?”

One answer to the question, both the specific question regarding any one of the 14 deaths and the more general question about the spike in Police shootings, may be that APD officers are violent by nature, self-selected to the force because of the opportunity to kill with impunity. The numbers seems to suggest as much. Police killings in Albuquerque are three-times what is found in comparably sized cities and is similar to New York, which has 14-times the population and a police force 34-times larger than APD.

And there’s ample evidence of a frightening blood lust among some APD officers. Trey Economidy, the police shooter in the Mitschelen death, posted his job description on Facebook as “human waste disposal.” He was suspended for four days. Detective Jim Dwyer listed his occupation as “oxygen thief removal technician” on his MySpace page, a page that included alarming posts like “Some people are only alive because killing them is illegal.” Police Chief Ray Schultz called some of his posts “concerning” and “very clearly inappropriate,” but refused to discipline Dwyer.

There exists, however, another possibility. The refusal by APD leadership to discipline officers (none of the officers involved in any of the shootings has been removed from the force), and the refusal of Mayor Richard Berry to seek an independent, outside investigation by the Department of Justice (The Albuquerque City Council voted in August to request the investigation but Berry remains intransigent in his support for the troops), suggests that what’s developing in Albuquerque is a frightening return to the extrajudicial police shootings that turned 1970s Albuquerque into a killing field. Endemic violence in New Mexico against Native Americans and racialized policing patterns focused on young, Chicano men began to shift in the early 1970s in reaction to the rise of Red Power and Chicano Movement groups into efforts to target and kill Chicano and Indigenous activists by the dozens.

In 1969 a Vista volunteer named Bobby Garcia disappeared and was later found in an arroyo with a bullet in the back of his head. The killing marked the moment when activists throughout the state began to see a pattern in the violence. A series of police shootings and the deaths of almost a dozen Chicano activists from Taos to Albuquerque, some unarmed and shot in the back, produced rumors of death squads operating within the Albuquerque Police Department and the New Mexico State Police.

And the evidence began piling up along with the bodies. On February 28, 1972 Rito Canales and Antonio Cordova were killed in a barrage of gunfire while the two were reportedly trying to steal dynamite from a roadside construction bunker. Both men were members of a group known as the Black Berets, a multi-ethnic, community-based social movement organization modeled on the Black Panthers and inspired by Che Guevara. Canales and Cordova were outspoken and prominent community activists, particularly on issues of police brutality, New Mexico prison conditions and the institutional racism facing Chicano communities in New Mexico. Their organization operated a free community health clinic (named in honor of Bobby Garcia), established cultural schools for Chicano preschoolers, organized film nights and offered tutoring sessions for local teenagers, among other things. Members traveled to Cuba on Venceremos Brigades, brought Vietnamese students to Albuquerque to talk about the war in Vietnam, and provided childcare for local union members during strikes.

Their killing came the day before both were scheduled to hold a news conference on an investigation into prison violence and police brutality. Police had been harassing the Black Berets for years before the Canales and Cordova shootings. As one former Black Beret leaders recalls it “[The police] would pull out their guns while their vehicle was driving and say ‘Bang, Bang’.” The Berets, it seems, uncovered evidence of a secret interagency group called the Metro Squad, made up of officers from APD and the New Mexico State Police along with Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Deputies and involvement from federal agents. The Metro Squad worked with the John Birch Society, the Minutemen, and other reactionary groups who opposed civil rights.

The killings of Chicano activists should also be understood as part of a much larger pattern of violence that included, and made possible, police violence.

John Harvey and Herrman Benally were murdered on April 21, 1974. After being stripped of their clothes, they were beaten with rocks, castrated with burning sticks and set on fire. The men were found in a ditch along a dusty stretch of highway outside the Navajo nation in Northwest New Mexico. Less than a week later, a third Navajo man was found in a ditch. Like Harvey and Benally, David Ignacio was beaten savagely. His attackers left him to die from suffocation after caving in his chest with rocks.

The April deaths came during a bloody spring as ten violent deaths rocked the Navajo nation and turned the initial horror into an almost weekly event. In the days following the discovery of Ignacio, 60 people called the funeral home wondering if he were a missing relative. When three white Farmington, New Mexico high school students confessed to the murders, stories of constant racial violence in the area came to light. The murders, it turns out, were a consequence of a blood sport among Farmington high school students who for years had made robbing, beating, and mutilating inebriated men outside the scores of liquor stores that ringed the Navajo nation into a weekly Saturday night event. Some white students at Farmington, it seems, displayed the cut-off fingers of their Navajo victims in their lockers. Until the tortures and murders were revealed the cause of death for the dozens of Navajo men found dead in the ditches along lonely highways was said to be “exposure” from passing out following drinking bouts. Meanwhile the police, some remarked at the time, continued to recruit at the local high school for new cadets.

In Albuquerque the Berets went public with their claims of police brutality at a rally that turned into a pitched street battle with police and Anglo provocateurs. In Farmington, young Navajo activists of the Coalition for Navajo Liberation marched in the streets against violence until the Sheriff’s posse showed up. The ensuing melee sent dozens of marchers to the hospital and the rest to jail.

The violence and police killings of the 1970s have returned. But there are differences between the violence of the 1970s and the eruption of this new pattern of police violence. The killings in the 1970s should be placed in the context of liberation movement activism around civil rights issues by groups like the Black Berets and the Coalition for Navajo Liberation. The killings today find another context, namely three decades of a bulldozing neoliberal restructuring that has ground its way through poor communities amid the parallel expansion of a violent and dehumanizing drug economy.

There are, however, similarities. Police violence against civil rights activists in the 1970s was a function of the way in which race and class became a proxy for subversion by the agents of social control such as the police. In the strange logic of the Albuquerque Police Department, poor, urban Chicanos became targets of police violence because of the social chaos that racism and poverty had created. Likewise today, APD is at war with the poor because it has come to equate any expression of poverty or drug addiction not as an effect of structural inequality, but rather as another opportunity to dispose of what its officers call “human waste.” Like elsewhere being poor, suffering from a mentally illness or battling a drug addiction is a crime. Dwyer was wrong, detectives like Enconomidy and Dwyer have thrived at APD because for the Albuquerque Police Department, killing is not an illegal act.

David Correia is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He was inspired to write about Police violence in Albuquerque by the work of an anonymous graffiti artist whose art can be found along the railroad tracks in Albuquerque. He can be reached at dcorreia(at)unm.edu