Rallying against Anchorage police officers' use of lethal force in recent weeks, about 150 people gathered to protest, sing and march near police headquarters Saturday.
The rally followed two fatal shootings by Anchorage officers in less than a month: Shane Tasi, a 26-year-old carrying a long stick June 9, and Harry Smith, a 59-year-old brandishing a BB gun July 1. Tasi's shooting was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by state prosecutors; Smith's is under investigation.
Leaders in the local Polynesian community met with police and city officials on Friday, urging them to change what they call a "shoot to kill" policy in those situations when an officer is in danger. And while Police Chief Mark Mew and Mayor Dan Sullivan indicated after the meeting, through a spokeswoman, that they were open to better community outreach and increased funding for nonlethal weapons, they say training on the use of firearms in those situations will not change.
That didn't dissuade the protesters from gathering Saturday with signs that said, "We want justice," and "We want to be heard!" Speakers of various ethnicities addressed the crowd, one suggesting a state law requiring less-than- lethal police tactics and another issuing a plea directly to officers to "bridge the gap" with the people they're tasked with protecting and a call to parents to do a better job raising their kids. Another said that the officer who shot Tasi could have used his pepper spray to disable the stick-wielding man.
Miriama Aumavae, executive director of the recently founded Polynesian Community Center and a rally organizer, said the meeting Friday and the protest Saturday were a starting point for an important conversation.
"Law enforcement must be held accountable for any oversight committed on the (police) department's behalf," Aumavae said. "We will continue to raise our voices until the preservation of life, the preservation of our sacred God-given breath, is the Anchorage Police Department's top priority."
Marilyn Stewart-Richardson, director of the city's Office of Equal Opportunity, addressed the crowd on behalf of Mayor Sullivan. Sullivan was vacationing in Hawaii, where he took his oath of office last week.
"We had a very sensitive meeting yesterday, but we worked through those issues," Stewart-Richardson said. "Questions were asked and we responded. It might not have been the response that everyone was looking for, but the most important thing is to look for a (common) ground that we can start building and coming together."
"This is all about community," she said. "And one of the things I can assure you of is that Mayor Sullivan is very sensitive to these types of issues."
Activist Kokayi Nosakhere said he didn't buy that.
"I heard that the mayor's office is sensitive to what's going on 'round here. Sensitive? Sensitive enough to do his oath from Hawaii? Sensitive? I believe in outcomes. I believe in action," Nosakhere told the group. "I'm going to give you a lesson from the African- American community. Stop this now. If you don't stand up and get the police department to respect your community, all they gonna do is keep killing the people in your community. Period."
After the speeches, the crowd sang a rendition of the song, "We Are the World," and marched to the intersection of Elmore and Tudor roads, where passing motorists honked their horns.
"We are a community, and tough conversations come up like this," said Stewart-Richardson.
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.