The New Rebellion of Albuquerque

It’s unlikely there has ever been an Albuquerque City Council meeting like the one of Monday, April 7, 2014. With the council chambers jammed to the brim, strictly-by-the-book fire marshals forced people into an “overflow room” on the 9th floor of City Hall, where live video of the action below was transmitted. Outside, meanwhile, dozens of other citizens sat on the edge of Civic Plaza watching the gripping events on large screens.

The big draw? Public anger with not only the Albuquerque Police Department (APD), but local and state elected officials accused of covering up police violence and misdeeds as well.

In what could go down as a seminal moment in New Mexico political history, hundreds of people listened for hours as speaker after speaker told emotionally-charged stories of loved ones shot to death by APD officers, alleged beatings and taserings by the police, exiles from Duke City to escape the boys and girls in blue, unresponsive public officials, and millions in taxpayer monies expended on excessive force and wrongful death lawsuits.

Social and economic troubles, red-baiting, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the specter of Egypt, and a militarized police force were interspersed into the mix. A circled image of Mayor Richard Berry, who was noticeably absent from the event, was displayed on video screens with a big “no” slash across his face. Calls for the sacking of Berry and new Police Chief Gorden Eden resonated with much of the audience.

Flashes of a large city on the verge of a political implosion teased the long night, as did glimpses of a possible renewal.

One thing is for certain: Politics in Albuquerque, and increasingly New Mexico as a whole, is not the same after March 16, the fateful day when APD officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez gunned down homeless camper James Boyd in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains.

Sparking protests in Albuquerque and beyond, the police video of the shooting has turned Boyd into an internationally-known symbol who now even has a song composed in his name.

With a large photo of her late brother Alfred at her side, Tammy Redwine recalled the last words of her sibling before he was killed by APD bullets on March 25, less than two weeks after Boyd’s killing and ironically on the same evening a large protest was conducted in front of APD headquarters precisely against the Boyd and previous shootings.

The officers who shot Alfred Redwine, his sister demanded, “need to be tried like any other murderer.”

The city council session took place as the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) was preparing to release its findings of a 17-month investigation of civil rights violations and excessive force allegedly committed by APD officers. In an announcement just prior to the meeting, the DOJ said it will publicly release the findings on Thursday, April 10.

All eyes are on the DOJ, as an imminent possibility exists that a federal monitor will be named to run the APD. Many who turned out on April 8 endorse such a move.

Ken Ellis II, for instance, backs federal intervention. “The police can’t police themselves, so I’m hoping for an outside entity,” Ellis told FNS. “I think a DOJ take-over is warranted.”

Ellis’ son, Iraq war veteran Ken Ellis III, was shot to death by an APD officer during a 2010 encounter in which the younger Ellis, who suffered from PTSD, held a gun to his own head. The Ellis family recently won a multi-million judgment in a civil lawsuit against the City of Albuquerque.

In remarks to city councilors and the public, Ralph Arellanes, state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens and chair of the Hispanic Roundtable, set much of the tone and framed the issues aired at the meeting.

Arellanes told how his son was “brutally beaten” by APD officers in a September 2007 incident, when the young man was shackled, “hog-tied” and tasered 18 times above the waist.

As the case progressed, police officers attempted to intimidate the family, Arellanes charged, by pulling patrol cars into the family driveway every few weeks or parking for longer periods across the street.

“Who do you call when it’s the police department doing it?” Arellanes asked. Eventually, two officers were caught lying to a grand jury and fired, and his son found innocent of any charges, he said.

“I even met with President Barack Obama in the White House about the injustices of the Albuquerque Police Department, and this meeting took place in December 2011.” Arellanes added for the record.

Voicing proposals supported by other activists, Arellanes demanded that DOJ “completely take-over” the operations of the APD, that officers be required to tape interactions with the citizenry, and that the city council adopt a set of recommendations formulated by the Police Oversight Task Force (POTF) that are aimed at reducing violence and increasing officer accountability.

For the Latino community leader, reforms are urgently needed.”There is no question we live in a police state, where people live in fear of the police more than anything else,” he said. “We have become the embarrassment of the nation if not the world.”

Vietnam War vet Robert Anderson contended that the matter at hand boiled down to “establishment violence or state terrorism” laden with class overtones.

“You don’t see cops going to the (upscale) Northeast Heights shooting white-collar criminals,” Anderson declared.

The often heated but ultimately controlled discussion at the April 7 meeting extended beyond the immediate controversy of police violence to the crises in homelessness and mental health care treatment, budget cuts to affordable housing and the phantom of PTSD stalking the streets- in and out of uniform. Many of the 23 men shot to death by APD officers since 2010 suffered from mental health problems.

A few of the presenters defended the police force. “People who support APD oppose any (POTF) demands, “ said a woman to a round of boos. A representative of a new group, Veteran Support for APD, said he wasn’t supporting James Boyd’s shooting but as a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan he knew what it was like to don a uniform and wonder if you will ever see your family again.

As solutions to the law enforcement crisis, he advcocated sending seasoned officers to patrol high crime areas, ordering two-officer patrols and implementing more training on mental health issues.

Stephanie Lopez, Albuquerque Police Officers Association president, said it was “easy to point fingers at the police department,” but evidence should first be presented of wrongdoing. Urging a change in mental health care laws, Lopez called on the city to pull together. “This should not divide the city,” the police union leader said.

While last month’s shooting of James Boyd aroused public opinion and catapulted the issue of police violence into the political center, many of the attendees reiterated that families and advocacy organizations have pressed public officials in all branches of state and local government to take action, mostly to no avail.

Dr. Nicole Moreland-Torres, sister-in-law of a man shot to death by APD in 2011, worked with a group that submitted a 300-page report on the police department to the DOJ.

In one of numerous cases against the City of Albuquerque and APD, Christopher Torres’ family sued for wrongful death. The civil lawsuit concluded in a state court a few weeks ago, without the testimony of officers implicated in Torres’ shooting; the verdict is expected this month, Moreland-Torres later told FNS.

According to Daniel Torres, his brother was playing with a dog in his backyard when APD officers burst in supposedly looking for a suspect in a road rage incident. Torres charged that two officers held his brother down on his stomach and fired three shots into his back. A police officer’s gun that was allegedly grabbed by Christopher Torres showed no fingerprints from the dead man, his brother said.

Daniel Torres acknowledged that Christopher suffered from schizophrenia but was a “success story” in good humor who was faring well on his medication. “When he was first diagnosed,” Torres remembered, he said, ‘It could be worse. I could have diabetes.’”

Moreland-Torres added that the citizen report delivered to DOJ documented a broad pattern of law-breaking by members of APD, including “anything from raping children to auto burglary to bank robberies.”

The FBI now has the same information, according to the research psychologist.

Although cases like Christopher Torres’ have lingered in the courts and media for years, a dramatically different degree of public involvement was triggered by the Boyd shooting.

Albuquerque has not witnessed such an intense and sustained level of street protests since the late 1960s and early 1970s, replete with multiple demonstrations and counter-protests, packed public meetings and a major showdown on March 30, when the police rolled out their military-style, anti-riot hardware and tear-gassed protesters near the University of New Mexico and downtown.

Many if not most of the protesters are very young, and in the long view they perhaps could be sowing the seeds of a new political culture in which civil society is a bigger player.

In a blast from the past, Mike Chavez reminded the April 7 city council meeting of a chapter of local history that is largely omitted from the official record: the June 1971 Albuquerque Rebellion. And he pronounced a name that spells out a lesson: Roosevelt Park.

The graying veterano of other turbulent times recounted how he was accused of hitting an officer’s car with a frisbee at the park one day almost 43 years ago, summarily tossed into a patrol car and forced to witness a female companion physically brutalized by the police.

Heaped on top of years of racism and widespread allegations of police brutality, the police action that day proved to be the spark that lit fuse of the youthful crowd in Roosevelt Park.

In the following days stores were looted and torched on Central Avenue, arrests made and the National Guard sent into the city.

“I think if the officer had said to me in a nice way, ‘Did you throw a frisbee at my car?’ We could have prevented American Furniture from being burned down,” Chavez ventured.

Adding to the currently-charged atmosphere, an unknown person or persons splashed red paint on four APD substations sometime early on the morning of April 8, according to media reports. At mid-day on April 8, city workers were seen cleaning the exterior of the Nob Hill substation near the University of New Mexico, while yellow tape was strung around the premises.

Today’s activists don’t want to the see the city in flames, and many are busy drafting proposals for not only reforming the police department, but also improving mental health care, providing more homeless services and expanding affordable housing.

Growing out of an overflowing March 31 meeting at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, activists have drafted an expanded list of nearly 40 demands that propose greater citizen involvement in the management and oversight of the police force, increased funding for substance abuse treatment, innovative housing solutions for the homeless, fully funded schools, and “end to the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Distributing the expanded list of demands outside City Hall, Ilse Biehle said Immigration and Customs Enforcement activities and racial profiling are among other issues at stake.

Biehl agreed with other observers that the Boyd shooting was a “turning point,” but stressed it was important not to “forget the other victims,” especially the men of color whose deaths preceded Boyd’s.

Expressing skepticism with the DOJ, Biehle said (Un) Occupy Albuquerque and other activist groups would keep organizing and mobilizing the community.

“Do we have faith the DOJ will solve everything? No.,” fellow activist Sue Schuurman said in an interview after the April 7 meeting. As a member of the Albuquerque 11, a group of anti-war activists that sued APD in 2003 for excessive force in breaking up a demonstration against the Iraq war but lost the case in federal court 7 years later, Schuurman has personal experience with the justice system.

Even while the city council gets set to consider the proposed POTF reforms at its April 21 meeting, and the DOJ’s findings reverberate in the halls of local and state government, more meetings and marches are in the offing in the days ahead.

Also reportedly in the works is a class action lawsuit against police abuse of mental health patients, as well as separate one against APD and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office over alleged constitutional rights violations related to the police suppression of the March 30 protest.

“This is not going to go away,” Schuurman predicted. “I really believe that the James Boyd video ignited a local movement that’s going to be in it for the long haul.”

The coordinator of the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, Schuurman said her organization met with Mayor Berry just hours before April 7’s city council meeting.

In a statement, the Center said differences over the city’s non-release of police videos, in addition to police brutality and funding for mental health and homelessness services were discussed.

“We especially want to establish institution to institution relations with the City and APD so that officers can learn Nonviolent Communication techniques to deescalate potential volatile situations in their interactions with the public,” the Center said.

Will change come to the Duke City? “We all have a unique opportunity to set a precedent, not only for our city but the country,” maintained Ken Ellis.

Kent Paterson writes for Frontera NorteSur, where this article originally appeared. 

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Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.