Brutal response to peaceful protest

Photo: Velizar Ivanov, Unsplash.

On Sept. 28, Jacob Johns was shot while attending a peaceful vigil in the northern New Mexico town of Española, the homeland of the Tewa people — my people. 

An artist and activist, Johns was protesting the reinstatement of a -statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate after its removal from a public space in 2020.  

Johns joined community members and activists from multiple backgrounds, including from diverse Indigenous traditions, who gathered peacefully and prayerfully at the protest vigil. Families and children were present. Johns stepped in front of women and children and was shot in the abdomen when an assailant charged the vigil’s altar.

The historical figure commemorated by the statue, Juan de Oñate, established the colony of New Mexico over 400 years ago. He is famous for perpetuating genocide against the Acoma Pueblo, where 800 to 1,000 Indigenous women, men and children were massacred in 1599 after a skirmish with Spanish troops. Those who survived the massacre were sold as slaves. 

The statue of Oñate was removed from public space in 2020 in response to protests that the statue glorified a brutal colonial story. After a three-year hiatus, county commissioners decided to reinstall it.

The shooting in September is a human tragedy: A father and his family have been traumatized. As of Oct. 9, Johns was hospitalized, facing a third surgery after the removal of his spleen and parts of his liver, stomach and pancreas. The entire community is wounded by violence in a peaceful public space.

This brutal response to a peaceful protest demonstrates a legacy of settler colonialism that is ongoing. Settler colonialism describes an occupying force coming to a land with the intent to destroy the societies already there and build a new country on top of what already exists. 

A colonial system reflects the presumed supremacy of the occupying society. The values, norms and culture of the occupying society transmit, affirm and reinforce this supremacy. 

The statue of Juan de Oñate is an example of supremacy affirmed.

The shooting — a violent reaction to a gentle, prayerful gathering — demonstrates an entitlement to dominate. In the town of Española, public officials had agreed to rededicate the statue; there was no substantial threat to the legitimacy of the colonial narrative. Yet the shooting indicates intolerance of any resistance to the legitimacy of domination.   

The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery is committed to decolonization. We call on our community to identify and challenge assumptions, ideas, values, systems and practices of colonialism and domination.

In a statement of solidarity, Albuquerque Mennonite Church’s Faith in Action team wrote: “We are saddened and alarmed by the recent shooting at a prayer vigil in Española and hold Jacob Johns and his family in our prayers. We lament the ongoing trauma created by systems of conquest, genocide and exploitation — systems that continue to shape modern North American and Western culture. 

“We as Christians have enabled this violence and oppression and are trying to undo it through the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. . . . We call on the Christian Church at large to acknowledge and make amends for the damage that more than 500 years of displacement have inflicted on First Nations and all beings who live here.”

The Tewa Women United, headquartered in Española, responded to the tragedy this way: “We are asking our communities, our followers, our supporters, our friends and our relatives to have courageous presence with heart-centered peace. We have done so much heart/hard work to -create courageous spaces to address the many violences we face with patience, understanding and compassion. Our choices now . . . are to work together, to live together, to respect each other.”

The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery stands with Tewa Women United. Their fate is our fate. What harms them harms us all. We call on our friends to join us in prayer for transformation and healing.  

Sarah Augustine

Sarah Augustine, a Pueblo (Tewa) woman, lives with her family in White Swan, Washington. She is the Executive Director of Read More

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