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Santa Fe Obelisk Defendants’ Charges Dropped After Completing Restorative Justice-Inspired Program



WPLC Legal Director Natali Segovia, WPLC Board Member Jeffrey Haas, and WPLC Cooperating Attorneys Sandra Freeman and Larry Kronen, represented Melissa Rose and Lauren Straily, two Indigenous women charged in connection with the removal of the controversial obelisk that stood at the center of Santa Fe Plaza (located on O’ga P’ogeh, ancestral Tewa Pueblo lands) on Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020. Their charges have now been dropped as a result of the completion of a Pre-prosecution Diversion Restorative Justice Agreement.


Background


After the summer of 2020, when racially-motivated police violence sparked civil unrest across the country, protests and calls to remove statues representing the Confederacy, slavery or segregation, and colonialism followed.


For over fifty years, the obelisk that stood at the center of Santa Fe Plaza (O’ga P’ogeh, located on ancestral lands of Tewa Pueblos), was the subject of considerable debate.


"The obelisk, known as the Soldiers Monument, was erected 153 years ago in honor of Civil War Union soldiers. The monument had been a lightning rod of controversy for some people, who decried an etching on one side dedicating it to soldiers who died fighting “savage Indians.”


In 1973, after an unidentified individual chiseled away the word “savage,” the City Council unanimously voted to remove the obelisk. However, when that decision meant the loss of federal funding the Council rescinded its vote.


In June 2020, Mayor Alan Webber signed a proclamation that committed to removing the obelisk and other racist statues. The proclamation acknowledged that the long and complex history of Santa Fe included “trauma, tragedy, and sorrow.”


Nevertheless, after months of community calls for removal, the obelisk and other statues remained standing. On Indigenous Peoples’ Day (October 12, 2020), after a three-day "occupation" of Santa Fe Plaza by Indigenous activists and allies, over fifty protestors toppled the obelisk. Of those protestors, only a handful were charged.


“[The fall of the obelisk] was a really emotional moment for me. For all that it represents, this type of monument shouldn’t exist,” Cipriana Jurado, 53, an Indigenous woman from Chihuahua, Mexico, said in Spanish. “There is so much to celebrate here and in Latin America that existed before European culture.”


A New Process in New Mexico


The subject of how to resolve the cases of those few protesters charged in connection to the obelisk removal became a highly divisive issue in Santa Fe. With movements across the country and world decrying the punitive approach of the criminal justice system–one bent on punishment and overcriminalization, not transformative change–in place of prosecution, District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies agreed to resolve these cases via a pre-prosecution, alternative conflict resolution process for the first time in the state of New Mexico.


While pre-prosecution diversion is contemplated by the State of New Mexico for nonviolent offenses, because of the complex historical and political nature of the case, the parties outlined a way to incorporate principles of restorative justice into the existing diversion framework.


The Pre-prosecution Diversion Restorative Justice Program is “consistent with the direction of the community toward healing and reconciliation,” and places “community and human relationships over property,” said a statement by the attorneys representing seven of the defendants accused of tearing down the Plaza obelisk.


The DA’s office provided seed money for the initial intake process but defendants raised funds to cover remaining expenses to complete the program. The process required participants to be open-minded and engage in dialogue. It was facilitated by Common Ground Mediation Services and brought together those who felt harm by the loss of the obelisk and those who found the obelisk harmful and emblematic of historical trauma.


Collectively, those who participated in the pre-prosecution restorative justice program completed more than 320 hours of community service and charges have now been dropped.


While far from perfect, the resolution of this case creates new horizons for conflict resolution.


“This case further supports the precedent established in other cases, where antiquated figures and symbols of racist and colonial oppression have been removed, of resolving the issues outside the penal and carceral criminal justice system,” said Jeffrey Haas, one of the WPLC attorneys working on this case. “It also speaks to the need of local governments to promptly respond to the demands by the victims of racism, sexism, and colonial oppression and remove symbols glorifying their oppression or oppressors,” he continued.


There is an ongoing need to continue working to dismantle systems of oppression and a need to find ways to resolve disputes that benefit entire communities. It may appear impossible at times to move beyond the seemingly immutable contours of the colonial legal system and carceral state, but this is only a starting point–we can do better. Part of that is a willingness to be self-confronting and seek to understand the history of oppression in this country.


“The ongoing genocide of Indigenous Peoples has never been fully acknowledged in the United States. Many statues that were erected around the country and still stand are remnants of that history and constant reminders that those unwilling to grapple with this history contribute to the current day dehumanization of Indigenous Peoples. Our collective understanding of the past informs our present. So while this particular Obelisk case is now resolved, true reconciliation for Indigenous Peoples cannot happen without acknowledgment of that history. There is no honor in genocide.”

- Melissa Rose

Kanien'kehá kah

Akwesasne Mohawk Nation


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