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Armed militias have become a feature of the social unrest that's roiling many American cities. They lead protests against coronavirus shutdowns. They protect monuments that protesters want to tear down. They show up at marches against police brutality. And following a shooting in Albuquerque, the community accuses one armed militia of disturbing the peace, not keeping it. NPR's John Burnett reports from New Mexico.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: What's now called the Old Town melee happened last month in Albuquerque's historic section. Videos show men with guns in military garb and tactical gear standing around the bronze statue of Juan de Onate, the controversial Spanish conquistador. They're surrounded by enraged protesters.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hands off.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Get your hands off.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Get your hands off of them.
BURNETT: Demonstrators try to topple the statue with a chain and pick axe as the police watches from afar. Minutes later, four shots ring out and the crowd panics.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Shots fired. Shots fired. Shots fired.
BURNETT: A protester is hit and seriously injured. A man in a blue shirt who appeared to be trying to protect the statue drops a handgun. The militia surrounds him for his own safety, they say, until the cops arrive. The man was Stephen Baca, a conservative one-time city council candidate. He's charged with three counts of battery for assaulting three female protesters and unlawfully carrying a concealed handgun. The militia said Baca is not one of them. Police did, however, detain them and confiscate 13 guns and 34 ammunition magazines. They were released without charges. Now an angry community is asking why the police didn't intervene and why a ragtag group of gun lovers who call themselves the New Mexico Civil Guard was there in the first place.
JOHN BURKS: Our reason for being down there with guns was to, one, be a visual deterrent. Two, it's our Second Amendment right to open carry in this state. And, three, we just want to prevent any violence from spilling out from that protest. That's all.
BURNETT: That's the militia's local commander John Burks. He's 33, wears a military cap and says he works private security. In hindsight, Burks says their seven guys were not prepared for 300 angry protesters.
BURKS: We did underestimate what we were going out into.
BURNETT: Rather than act as a deterrent to violence, observers say the presence of the militia with their guns escalated the mayhem. Moises Gonzales is a professor at the University of New Mexico and a native rights activist who helped organize the gathering.
MOISES GONZALES: When I saw the armed militia there, I knew immediately that somebody was going to get hurt.
BURNETT: New Mexican Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has accused the New Mexico Civil Guard of menacing and terrorizing her citizens. And Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller has asked them to stay away.
TIM KELLER: We're just trying to send a clear signal that we never want vigilantes in our town. We never want firearms at protests.
BURNETT: Four members of the group agreed to an interview in a public park south of Albuquerque where the sun slants through the cottonwoods and runners huff past. Because of the fallout over the violent statue protest, Burks says the group is considering changing tactics, carrying pepper spray instead of weapons.
BURKS: When it comes to a protest, what we're going to be doing is we're going to be going out and trying to provide a lesser threatening posture.
BURNETT: The New Mexico Civil Guard says it has more than 100 members throughout the state. Its Facebook page describes its mission to provide rapid, local, lawful response to emergency and dangerous situations. But the mayor has called on the FBI to investigate the militia as a hate group. The members insist they're not haters. As proof, they introduce the newest militia man, a private prison guard named Walter Rodriguez from Grants, N.M.
WALTER RODRIGUEZ: I wanted to serve in the military, but due to the fact of certain health issues, there was no way that I can get involved. So when I seen this come up, I thought this is the closest as I'm going to get.
BURNETT: The group's co-founder and chaplain is a 30-year-old framing carpenter with a red beard and tattoos named Bryce Provance. Critics accuse him of being a white supremacist. They posted on the Internet photos of him dressed as a rebel soldier posing in front of a Confederate battle flag. And he is listed as a state commander on the website of the New Confederate States of America, to which Provance responds...
BRYCE PROVANCE: No, I'm not a white nationalist, but I did like their slogan of, heritage not hate.
BURNETT: Unlike the rest of the squad, Provance does not bring loaded weapons to demonstrations. He can't. He's a convicted felon with a long criminal record in Washington state that includes burglary and armed robbery and prison time. Provance says he had a turbulent childhood. He was a drug addict at 13. He regrets a lot of decisions he made, and he sees forming the militia as a kind of restitution to society.
PROVANCE: I tried to make this so that we could do something good. This is what I do to pay for the things I did to my community.
BURNETT: New Mexico leaders say if the militia truly wants to help its community, then it should stop coming to public gatherings armed to the teeth.
John Burnett, NPR News, Albuquerque.
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