The New Mexican/September 11, 1999, by Steve Terrell
Angry members of The Potters House church charged Friday that Santa Fe Police used “unbridled and unfettered” force in using pepper spray to disperse the group’s annual preaching to the crowds leaving the burning of Zozobra.
At a news conference Friday at the church on Cerrillos Road, members of the evangelical church played a video tape from Thursday’s conflict with police and distributed photos, including one of an officer spraying a can of pepper spray.
Among those speaking at a press conference was Chrystopher Crespin, a 12-year-old boy with asthma who said an officer lifted him off the ground, threw him against a parked car and sprayed him in the face with the pepper spray – which resulted in a visit to the St. Vincent Hospital emergency room.
There also was Donald D. Huerta, 49, a blind man who got maced, as well as two jail guards at the county juvenile jail – Carlos Rivera, 24, and John Allbritton, 41, who claimed an officer sprayed them in the face after Rivera told the officer, “Jesus loves you.”
However, a spokesman for the city said there was no evidence that police acted improperly at the confrontation on Washington Avenue near Federal Place.
“The group was in the middle of the street illegally,” said city spokesman Juan Ríos. “When (police) asked them to clear the street they refused.” The use of pepper spray was appropriate at that point, Ríos said.
“Right at that moment, you had this flood of 25,000 to 30,000 people coming down the street, and this group actually blocking the street and trying to stop people and accost them,” Ríos said. “It was a serious public-safety hazard.”
Church spokesman John Byers said at one point there were some 450 church members at the scene. However, when the pepper spray was used there were only about 60 members there, Byers said.
Asked about the boy with asthma – who said Friday he was leaving the scene to look for his sister as he got maced – Ríos said, “It’s unfortunate the parents had children with them at this demonstration.”
Ríos said the group had no permit to assemble Thursday night. Church members said they had inquired about the necessity of permits but were told by City Hall that none were necessary. Ríos confirmed that in past years Potters House did not need a permit.
“It was when they went onto the middle of the street when it became an illegal assembly,” Ríos said.
Police made only one arrest during the Potters House confrontation. Les Uptain – a Potters House pastor from San Antonio, Texas, who was in Santa Fe for a conference – was charged with two misdemeanor counts of battery on a peace officer, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and failure to obey a lawful order.
One of the battery charges was for an alleged crime against Police Chief John Denko. The other was for an alleged battery of Officer Martin Bird.
Ríos said he was not sure what exactly was done to the officers to warrant the charges.
Contacted later, Denko declined comment, citing possible litigation over the Potters House confrontation. The church and one individual have threatened legal action.
“I didn’t touch anybody,” Uptain told reporters Friday.
Asked why he was arrested, Uptain said, “I guess because I stood up and said ‘They’re taking your rights away with this police state.’ “
The video tape showed a police sergeant on horseback telling church members to get off the street and on to the nearby sidewalks.
At one point somebody’s hand goes over the video lens. The man who took the footage said this was a police officer.
Although Ríos initially said that the city had determined the police had done no wrong and that there would be no investigation of the matter, he later said that such incidents automatically are reviewed by the city.
“At this point, unless there’s any other evidence to the contrary, we stand behind our police officers,” Ríos said.
Several congregation members said they were surprised by the harsh police response because they’ve developed good relations with cops during street preaching in previous Zozobra burnings.
“They were our protection in years past,” said Pastor John Vigil of Potters House in Española.
“It looked like we were dealing with a whole bunch of new officers that were real gung-ho and overzealous,” said John Byers, Potters House’s youth director.
Byers, who works for the state probation and parole office, said the incident raises concerns about police just as voters are preparing to go to the polls Sept. 21 to decide whether to raises taxes for more officers.
“I’m in favor of police officers … but I’m not sure I want 15 additional officers that are going to use unfettered and unbridled authority,” he said.
Since 1984 The Potters House has gathered on Washington Avenue to greet – and some nonchurch members say “pester” – Zozobra celebrators with personal testimony about their relation with Christ – sometimes using bullhorns. Some members give away religious pamphlets. Several church members said Friday they consider Zozobra to be a religious ceremony “with dancing devils.”
Ríos said there were more complaints this year than usual about the activity.
Staff writer Mark Hummels contributed to this report