With Rittenhouse acquittal, activists hear echo close to home

By: - November 20, 2021 6:05 am

An empty space remains in the middle of the sculpture “La Jornada” where the statue of genocidal conquistador Juan de Oñate once stood in Albuquerque. Local activists say the recent acquittal of homicide defendant Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin has eerie similarities to a shooting that occurred in front of the statue here last summer. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans / Source NM)

Activist Lisa Christopherson said that the day news first broke of a fatal shooting in Kenosha, Wisc., she couldn’t help but see the similarities.

Since then, she’s followed the arrest, trial and, as of Friday, acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse as a potential template for what might happen here in the case of Steven Ray Baca. Baca was arrested and is facing trial after shooting a man at a protest in front of the Juan de Oñate statue in Albuquerque last summer.

“From the moment that it happened in Wisconsin, the similarities were not lost on me,” she said. “So I’ve been following the case.”

Rittenhouse, 18, was found not guilty Friday of multiple homicide counts after shooting and killing two men with and injuring a third with an AR-15-style rifle during racial justice protests in Kenosha last August. Rittenhouse’s defense team successfully argued that he acted in self-defense.

Jury finds Rittenhouse not guilty on all counts

Rittenhouse testified that he traveled from Illinois to Kenosha to protect a car shop amid protests and riots in response to a police shooting. Rittenouse testified he needed to shoot and kill the men in self-defense after one, Joseph Rosenbaum, followed him into a parking lot and tried to grab his weapon and another, Anthony Huber, struck him with a skateboard.

His acquittal set off a wave of outrage across the country. In Albuquerque, about 40 people gathered outside the Center for Peace and Justice on Friday evening to rail against the ruling and a legal system that would let someone like Rittenhouse free. Baca’s name was mentioned at least a dozen times by several speakers.

Christopherson, of the New Mexico Stronger Together Coalition, was one of the attendees and speakers. Her coalition includes activist groups fighting for the environment, Indigenous rights, workers’ rights and for equality, she said.

She said Rittenhouse’s acquittal emboldens vigilantes to show up armed to peaceful protests. And she fears what Rittenhouse’s acquittal foreshadows for Baca.

Two months before the Kenosha shooting, protesters arrived at a statue of conquistador Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque, and some promised to tear the statue down. They were met by members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed militia group that took it upon itself to protect the statue.

Baca, who has no apparent ties to the militia, also arrived armed at the protest. In the minutes leading up to the shooting, video shows Baca push a woman from behind, causing her to fall to the ground and injure her legs. It also shows him moments later trying to push past another woman to get near the statue, and while she had her arms out and her back turned, he grabbed her shoulder and slammed her into a concrete sidewalk where she hit her head.

At that point, a group of protesters including Scott Williams chased Baca away from the monument, according to court records. As Baca ran away, he sprayed them with mace. One protester attempted to hit Baca in the head with a longboard, but dropped it. Williams attempted to use the longboard to knock the gun out of Baca’s hands, but Baca shot Williams. Williams was badly injured but survived.

Prosecutors clear hurdle in suit against New Mexico Civil Guard

 

Christopherson witnessed the shooting that day near the statue, she said. Here are what she said are similarities between the Baca case and Rittenhouse’s:

  • Two men sympathetic to or supported by law enforcement arrive armed at a racial justice protest concerned about property damage.
  • Both are threatened by unarmed protesters or attendees and escalate the situation into one that they used to justify the use of deadly force. 
  • Both were treated deferentially by police following their shootings.
  • And both then argue in court that they acted in self-defense. 

“It looks unfair. It feels unfair,” she said. “And I really am afraid that that’s what’s gonna happen here with the Steven Baca case.”

Lisa Christopherson speaks to a crowd of about 40 attendees at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, as director Jim Harvey looks on. The protesters gathered in response to Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal. (Patrick Lohmann | Source NM)

She fears the Rittenhouse verdict will even directly impact the Baca case. She worries that potential jurors in Bernalillo County will come away thinking Rittenhouse’s acquittal was a just outcome that should be replicated here.

“Whoever’s picked for that jury may or may not want to be similar to the jury that gave that (not guilty) verdict. I certainly know that’s going to be the topic of conversation,” she said. “At least it was at my workplace today.”

Christopherson was one of several speakers motivated to speak out against the verdict today,  nearly 1,400 miles from Kenosha.

Jim Harvey, director of the Center for Peace and Justice, told attendees that the verdict is another example as to why it’s necessary to stay vigilant and be discerning in who voters select each election cycle. He also criticized the judicial system for allowing a judge to “put his thumb on the scales,” he said, to ensure Rittenhouse walked away a free man.

He, too, brought up the Baca case when he described what he fears the acquittal could portend.

“That was nearly 18 months ago. To date, no trial, no other movement on that case that we can hear about and my fear is that Steven Baca’s case is going to end up like Kyle Rittenhouse,” he said. “Be vigilant.”

Note: Editor-in-Chief Marisa Demarco recused herself from editing these stories out of a conflict-of-interest concern. Instead, this story was edited by Austin Fisher, a Source New Mexico reporter.

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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