ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The killing this spring of a homeless man who police say was shot by two Albuquerque teens "for fun" has spurred civil rights and Navajo Nation human rights advocates to push for more vigilance among community members in reporting attacks perceived as directly targeting Native Americans.
The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission held training sessions this week at the Albuquerque Indian Center and City Hall aimed at raising awareness of hate crimes against Native Americans, with attorneys and federal authorities outlining the legal standards for them and how to report them.
"This is a touchy subject, for real," shouted Joleen Kelly from the back of a large meeting space at the Albuquerque Indian Center, as she and others who seek services at the nonprofit expressed concern Wednesday over how they believe they have been harassed on the city's streets.
Arusha Gordon, an attorney with the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, urged those gathered at the Albuquerque Indian Center to document and report to law enforcement attacks, along with instances of threatening hate speech. The second of the training sessions this week was held at City Hall, where officials encouraged public employees and police officers to attend.
The events came two months after authorities charged two Albuquerque teenagers in the shooting death of 50-year-old Ronnie Ross, who was from the Navajo Nation town of Shiprock. Police said in a criminal complaint that one of the boys, whom The Associated Press is not naming because of their ages, had told friends afterward that he had shot "a hobo in the back."
The crime had marked the latest in a series of several homicides in recent years with homeless Navajo victims. Others include the 2014 beating deaths by three teenagers of Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson as they slept, and the killing this past winter of 39-year-old Audra Willis, who was found decapitated on the city's east side.
While none of the cases have been classified as hate crimes by law enforcement, advocates say they still underscore ongoing concerns they have for the safety of homeless Native Americans, who statistics show have been overrepresented among those living on the streets in New Mexico's largest city.
In Albuquerque, Native Americans make up 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living without shelter, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.
A 2014 survey showed 75 percent of homeless Native Americans in Albuquerque had been physically assaulted.
For crimes to classify as a hate crime, authorities say there must be clear evidence that the victim was targeted because of his or her race. The homeless are not a protected class under New Mexico's hate crime statute.
Michelle Melendez, the director of Albuquerque's Office of Equity and Inclusions, said she and others are currently reviewing previous recommendations for addressing homelessness among Native Americans as the city relaunches a task force on the subject.
"I think it would be important for officials to consider that there are a lot of American Indians in the Albuquerque metro area that are homeless," said Colleen Gordon, an artist and board member of the local nonprofit Quote Unquote Inc. who attended the session at the Albuquerque Indian Center. "Just because people don't have property doesn't make them worthless."