Every year since Albuquerque police killed him in 2009, the family and friends of Dominic Smith gather in the month of October at a roadside memorial that they built and have carefully maintained. There, they raise up his memory and continue their calls for justice.
This year marks 11 years since Albuquerque cop Jacob Welch killed Smith. He would have been 41. Welch is still on the ABQ police force. October is both the month of Smith’s birth and his brutal, senseless killing at the hands of Albuquerque police.
What made this year’s gathering unique was the unveiling of a new descanso. Descansos are roadside memorials that mark the site where a person died. They decorate the New Mexican and Southwest landscape. The word comes from the Spanish word meaning “to rest.”
For months, members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation worked intimately with the Smith family, planning and making arrangements to update and add onto the old descanso that the family has diligently maintained for over a decade.
This year’s gathering coincided with the still simmering nationwide revolt against racism, a revolt animated by opposition to the kind of police terror that claimed Dominic Smith’s life in 2009.
Back then, Smith suffered a broken ankle. He was given an opioid prescription for the pain. Like so many others, use of pain relievers led to a very powerful urge to use even when they were no longer medically required. The kind of medical care and supportive programming that might have helped himas he slid into addiction were too expensive or unavailable.
Depleted financially, one day, he attempted to steal some pain medication from a drug store with a written note. In response to a call from the drugstore, Albuquerque police arrived. Smith walked out of the store and unwarily crossed a busy street. He was under the influence. In an altered state of consciousness, he did not respond to Officer Jacob Welch’s commands. He was unarmed and walking away, representing a threat to no one. Welch went and grabbed a long-range rifle from the trunk of his vehicle, caught back up to Smith, issued one more command to stop, and then pumped two precisely aimed bullets into Smith’s chest and heart, killing him instantly.
Dominic Smith’s mother, Margaret Ann Saiz, told Liberation News, “There were 68 witnesses and they all knew Dominic didn’t have a weapon in his hand.”
No charges have ever been filed against Welch, and he remains on the force to this day.
Welch’s actions fit a pattern that was commonplace in the Albuquerque Police Department. This incident and several others led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that in 2014 found APD had engaged in a pattern of using excessive force that violated the U.S. Constitution and federal law.
Family and friends were keenly aware that this year’s gathering was taking place in the wake of one of the worst summers of police repression against people just like them: those rising up demanding basic fundamental justice against killer cops.
The unveiling of a new descanso made this year’s event special. It includes a plaque and is surrounded by such permanent memorabilia as golf turf and cones, Dallas Cowboy insignia and a large cross, all important aspects of Smith’s life. Perhaps most importantly, the descanso includes literature and information about mental health and substance abuse resources. “I wanted to add the resources for people because I know it’s something Dominic would’ve wanted us to do; to reach out to people and help out,” Margaret Ann said.
PSL members spoke at the memorial including Smith’s cousin and longtime PSL member Lisa Santillanes, who admonished APD for its “shoot-to-kill” mentality that is particularly aimed at the homeless and the poor.
There was a balloon release ceremony, honks of support and yells of “jail killer cops” from passing cars.
Margaret Ann spoke on the megaphone. “The DA made us believe they were siding by us and things would be done. But it never got done! We need to take over and stop the police from killing our family and friends!”