New York Times reporter Simon Romero was taunted and threatened by a man armed with a military-style rifle while covering protests in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on June 15, 2020.
The protest was organized to demand the removal of a statue of Juan de Oñate, a 16th- and 17th-century conquistador and colonial governor in New Mexico at the center of long-standing tension between Pueblo Native Americans and Hispanic people in the state. It was one in a surge of demonstrations across the country this summer calling for a reckoning with the country’s history of racial injustice, sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.
Romero told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that no Albuquerque Police Department officers were present when he arrived at the Albuquerque Museum in Old Town at around 5 p.m.
Armed members of a right-wing group called the New Mexico Civil Guard had stationed themselves around the statue. When he approached them the men told him explicitly that they were there to protect the statue and to keep it from coming down.
“The guys who were managing the protest were the militia,” Romero said.
Romero said he attempted to interview some of the men, and spoke briefly with one who gave Romero his name.
By around 6 p.m., about 300 people had gathered at Tiguex Park across the street for a prayer and speeches from indigenous activists and small-business owners, the Albuquerque Journal reported. They then crossed the street to the statue being guarded by the militia members.
Tensions escalated when some demonstrators climbed onto the statue, covered Oñate’s head with a cloth and someone brought out a pickaxe to aid in bringing the statue down.
“I was in the thick of the protest as it turned to mayhem and started to get very violent, and there were still no police while this was happening,” Romero said.
Romero told the Tracker that a militia member carrying a military-style rifle approached him and began taunting him.
“He said, ‘So you work for the Times, huh? Do you guys print anything that’s not lies?’ He started on this whole ‘fake news’ thing,” Romero said. “That in itself, facing that type of taunting from an armed, extremist, right-wing militia figure at a protest without any police presence is in my view extremely threatening.”
When the man let up, Romero said he approached the militia member who had spoken with him before and told him, “Listen, you better take care of your boy because this is unacceptable.” Romero said the man only responded with a smirk.
Shortly after, a member of the militia group got into a fight with the people attempting to pull down the statue. The group pushed the militia member into the street and followed after, the Journal reported. The man then pepper sprayed the group, pulled out a gun and fired around five shots, wounding one person.
The police arrived at the scene a few minutes after, using tear gas and flash bangs to disperse the protesters and detain individuals involved in the shooting. The man who had taunted Romero was among those militia members detained that night, Romero said.
Romero told the Tracker that the scene was too chaotic that night, so he didn’t give a statement to the police. The Albuquerque Police Department didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Journal reported that the crowd dispersed at around 9:30 p.m.
Romero said that despite years of covering paramilitary groups, ideological militias and violent street protests across Latin America, he had never felt more threatened than he did in Albuquerque that day.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in more than two decades of journalism up and down the Americas,” Romero said. “I take something like this extremely seriously and I think every journalist should, especially now that they’re being attacked and singled out at protests around the country.”
To read similar incidents from other days of national protests in this category, go here. A full accounting of incidents in which members of the press were assaulted, arrested or had their equipment damaged while covering these protests can be found here. To learn more about how the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents and categorizes violations of press freedom, visit pressfreedomtracker.us.