By Benay Blend
“It looks like the West Bank,” said Samia Assed, local Palestinian-American social activist. Assed was referring to a recent event in Albuquerque, New Mexico that ended in a killing. On Monday, June 15, members of The Red Nation and supporters met to demand the removal of the monument to Don Juan De Oñate (1550-1627), a Spanish conquistador who was responsible for the rape, murder and sex trafficking of Pueblo people.
“Pueblo women and femmes put bloody handprints on the base of his nightmarish statue,” said Nick Estes in order “to remember that when the murderous patriarchs came, they left murderous patriarchs in their wake.”
Clearly this most recent protest was about more than just a statue. As Jonathon Cook observes, the issue of memorializing racists is not “about unconscious prejudice or social media tropes.” Instead, it addresses “openly celebrating racism in the public space,” a place that is also home to those who are the target of oppression.
The parallels with Palestine are clear. Ongoing Occupation by settler-colonial regimes but also continuous resistance mark both struggles. Recent events placed connections in even more stark relief. As people gathered at the Museum of Fine Arts in Albuquerque, New Mexico to celebrate the end of one monument while calling for the removal of another on museum grounds, the “Civic Guard” showed up, the same group of armed white nationalists who had disrupted the protest in Alcalde.
Composed of the Proud Boys and other similar groups, they are the same individuals who had targeted members of the Red Nation at a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest several weeks ago, and the same vigilantes hired by Gallup business owners to “protect” their property in that border town during a BLM protest there.
On June 15, they arrived at a peaceful protest bringing their own violence with them. Steve Baca, a former unsuccessful candidate for city council, shot into the crowd, leaving a young man with critical wounds. Though the Civic Guard disowned him, he clearly shared their ideas.
According to witnesses, the victim lay bleeding in the street, surrounded by SWAT and riot police and military vehicles who arrived long before the ambulance. The scene conjures up so many similar images in Palestine, including the August 2019 case of Abu Roumi, 16, who was denied medical attention after being shot by Israeli police.
When police finally arrived, they “peacefully” arrested the shooter, while doing nothing to disarm the Civic Guard. Indeed, much like Israeli police who do nothing to stop settler violence, there appeared to be a collusion between the police and the white nationalists.
Overheard in police chatter, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) referred to the NM Civil Guard Militia as “armed friendlies,” a military term used to describe friendly troops belonging to or on your side. In this case, Indigenous people their allies were treated as “hostiles,” deserving only tear gas and rubber bullets, both of which were used against the protesters. What unites both—Israel and the United States—is the ideology of settler colonialism that in the latter’s case goes back more than 500 years.
As Ramzy Baroud observes, the collaboration between the two countries extends to the training of thousands of American officers by the Israeli military, thus explaining why a highly militarized police force turned a peaceful protest into a war zone on Monday night. This increase in “violent military-like tactics,” Baroud concludes, “is only one link in a long chain of ‘deadly exchanges’” between the United States and Israel.
In mainstream media, readers are often led to assume that the victim is to blame. As expected, coverage of Monday night’s incident led to similar misperceptions and conclusions.
For example, New York Times reporter Simon Romero declared that despite covering street protests in Caracas and Rio, he never has felt so “threatened” as on March 15 in Albuquerque. At one point an armed militia member taunted him for working at the NYT, but no police were in sight to intervene. In his article for the Times, Romero cited the context in which the anger over the statue rests, specifically the colonial governor’s bloody reign in which he killed 800 Indigenous people in Acoma Pueblo and ordered his soldiers to cut off the foot of at least 24 more.
Although this was one of the better pieces, partly because it traced the history behind the conflict, something that reportage of Israel/Palestine seldom does, Maurus Chino (Acoma Pueblo) explained in a Facebook post that Romero, an Hispanic writer from New Mexico, “minimizes” the Indigenous struggle. “Calling a revolution a Revolt is minimizing,” he said, as is labeling the 1680 Revolt “a rebellion by Indian villagers.”
In an effort to give “both sides,” Romero included a from Ralph Arellanes Sr., the president of the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico. As Arelanes said in a Facebook post about the statue: “It is a sculpture of a group of people on their journey into New Mexico with their livestock…and depicts Oñate leading an expedition of settlers and soldiers.”
Similar to most stories of the Palestine/Israeli “conflict” which neglect any mention of the Nakba, Arrellanes’ statement neglects what Maurus Chino made very clear, that Indigenous people have a perfect right to feel anger over what really amounts to centuries-old colonization that cannot be glossed over with a pastoral statue.
Response from Ron Lovato, Governor of Ohkay Owingeh also showed divisions, but this time within the Pueblo community. “History is by definition the past,” Lovato said, “we should learn from it, not try to erase it or think vindication comes by removing statues.” He went on to document how for centuries “our communities have lived in harmony,” and look forward to doing so in the future.
Elena Ortiz (Ohkay Owingeh), Chair of The Red Nation-Santa Fe, agreed with my comment that this response is part of a problem that is similar to the Palestine Authority who depend on Israel for their existence. It goes back to the government dealing with only tribal “leadership,” and that happened before the 1936 Indian Reorganization Act that imposed a Western form of organization on many tribes. Ortiz added that there is the added problem of tribal governments being a colonial imposition first by the Spanish with their “canes of authority” and then by the Americans.
“Pueblos were not patriarchal prior to colonization,” Ortiz continued. “They were organized in a more gender neutral, balanced way. Colonization brought hierarchical, patriarchal structure. It was not welcome.”
Statues are more than stone and mortar. They are symbols of collective memory that can go either way, depending on whose recall is privileged. Colonial regimes in the United States and Israel understand this, and so have tried to erase the history of Indigenous peoples from their texts. That is why there is a national movement to topple statues that recall the worst of America’s past. “That is what is happening now,” explains Elena Ortiz.
“We are the new ancestors, and this is the new revolt. This is sweeping the nation, and we want to be a part of it. It’s time to reclaim Turtle Island from the colonizers. We stand with all people of color, our black relatives, and our trans relatives, and our LGBTQ relatives from the Global South all the way to Palestine. Revolution is here. Revolution is necessary. And if you’re not part of it, you’re gonna get swept aside.”
Indeed, it is an international movement, as Rima Najjar observes, that includes the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University that is due soon to come down. But when, she asks, will the statue of Theodor Herzl fall—in Israel and at Medium (the latter a social medium platform that has yet to recognize Zionism as racism)?
Justine Teba, a Red Nation activist from Santa Clara and Tesuque Pueblo, urges others to organize for not only indigenous liberation but also the abolishment of capitalism and colonialism. Accordingly,The Red Nation banner demands the celebration of resistance not conquest, a means to understand the past in order to move forward into the future.
“History is made today,” Teba says. “History is not something in the past. History is something that we make right here right now. And it’s always a question of what side of history will you be on?”
– Benay Blend received her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.