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As unrest sweeps through US, Anchorage rally organizers emphasize the power of working together

Protestors momentarily kneel in traffic on Northern Lights Boulevard. A crowd gathered in the parking lot of the Midtown Mall and along the sides of Northern Lights Boulevard Saturday, May 30, 2020, for the “I Can’t Breathe” protest against police brutality. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

Outrage over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died earlier this week at the hands of Minneapolis police, has spread across the nation.

In Anchorage, demonstrators rallied in solidarity with protesters around the country Saturday afternoon, a day after Anchorage’s police chief described what happened in Minneapolis as “unfathomable.”

Protesters marched through the streets of downtown Anchorage midday Saturday, beginning at Town Square Park and finishing on the dandelion-covered Delaney Park Strip.

The downtown event was organized by Markus Vinson, 16, who will start his junior year at East Anchorage High School in the fall.

“I’m feeling really overwhelmed," Vinson said while marching in front of a few hundred demonstrators downtown in what was billed as a peaceful protest. "It started out just me and my friend group, it was only supposed to be a couple of people.”

Taylor Steinmetz, 15, said while marching alongside Vinson that contrary to what some may believe, teenagers are plugged into current events and politics.

“We see this and we are so angry, that just because of a person’s skin color, just because of a person’s sexuality, they are being hunted down, they are being discriminated against," Steinmetz said.

Taylor Steinmetz, left, and Markus Vinson join with hundreds of other marchers. Protesters marched from Town Square in downtown Anchorage during the first of two large rallies in Anchorage on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

Vinson said he put the event on Instagram and from there, “it spread like wildfire.” At the end of the event, Vinson said that just 48 hours before, only 20 people had planned to attend.

”I got a large group of people to come together and put aside their differences," Vinson said. "And I just want people to realize that they can do that too. It doesn’t matter how old they are, it doesn’t matter what they look like, it doesn’t matter their differences.”

Later in the afternoon, an even larger crowd gathered in a Midtown Mall parking lot along Denali Street, carrying signs and wearing masks as a pandemic precaution. Some were in their cars nearby, and the event was broadcast on the radio, said Jasmin Smith, a community activist who organized the event.

Smith opened the event with the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday and spoke to the crowd among a group of young people at the front.

“You recognize that Anchorage is a very diverse city,” Smith said. “And it’s easy for us to constantly be proud of that diversity. But if that diversity doesn’t come with equity and justice, what good is diversity alone?”

Smith said, that as a black mother of black children, she asks herself every day: “At what point do our kids go from cute to suspect?”

She said that fear has continued for generations and so has prejudice and racism.

“There’s all these adults out here that have the power to rally around these kids, no matter what end they’re on, so they don’t become the next suspect or they don’t become the next bigot. And all that starts with us,” Smith said.

A crowd gathered in the parking lot of the Midtown Mall and along the sides of Northern Lights Boulevard Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

Smith said the group was there in solidarity with Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck, and Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger who was fatally shot after being pursued by white men in Georgia — “and so many more,” Smith said.

“And we’re also here in solidarity for our missing and murdered indigenous women,” Smith said.

At least two other large rallies were held elsewhere in Alaska on Saturday. In Fairbanks, hundreds of people gathered at an “I Can’t Breathe” rally hosted by the Fairbanks NAACP and Native Movement, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

In Southeast Alaska, more than 200 people in Juneau attended a rally where demonstrators sang and chanted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, KTOO and Alaska Public Media reported.

Members of the rally crowd raise peace signs. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

On Friday, Anchorage police chief Justin Doll released a statement about Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

“I think it is important to state unequivocally that every law enforcement professional I know was left speechless by the event in Minneapolis,” Doll said in the statement. “It is simply unfathomable conduct by a police officer.”

Doll said that unrest nationally stemmed from a lack of trust in law enforcement “as a result of current and historical injustices that have occurred in those communities.”

Anchorage police officers are trained on cultural sensitivity and de-escalation techniques, Doll said.

Doll acknowledged past officer misconduct and wrote that he could not promise it will not happen again, but said the department would take action if it did.

The Anchorage Police Department takes trust within the community seriously, Doll said.

“The relationship we have built with the community we serve has taken decades to earn, and we believe very strongly that it is our duty to maintain and improve it every day, on every call for service,” Doll said.

At the Midtown rally Saturday, speakers from several organizations and community groups representing a wide range of backgrounds — including the First Alaskans Institute, a group of ministers and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum — spoke during the first part of the rally before the crowd moved into a collective chant, with people thrusting their signs upward and yelling in unison.

“Sadly, police brutality against the black community is a continuous and ever-present danger," Kevin McGee, president of the Anchorage branch of the NAACP during the event. “It comes out of the systemic racism and prejudice ingrained in the fabric of this nation for decades and is currently being refueled and reinvigorated by President Donald John Trump.”

Men hug at the Midtown Mall rally. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

The rally concluded around 3 p.m. after the chants and a poem. Several rallygoers walked to the Northern Lights Boulevard and Denali Street intersection. From there, they held signs and chanted as several cars drove past and honked, some drivers and passengers raising their fists in the air.

“It’s very disheartening to see — as a black man — how many people can die and then they become a hashtag, and then there’s somebody else who is now a hashtag, and we forgot about the last hashtag,” Daymen Wright, 24, said after the rally in Midtown.

Wright said he felt like he wasn’t alone because of the diversity of the crowd at the rally.

“In a country that everyone would like to say is so divided, it’s just very nice to see that the division isn’t what people think it is,” Wright said.

Noah Willard, 22, said he felt protests are effective at showing how many people support a certain idea within a community.

“I think it’s so important that we all show up and show our support for Black Lives Matter and protest against what’s going on in the nation and what’s been happening for so long,” Willard said.

A crowd gathered in the parking lot of the Midtown Mall and along the sides of Northern Lights Boulevard Saturday, May 30, 2020, for the “I Can’t Breathe” protest against police brutality. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

Terria Ware, 37, secretary at the NAACP, came with her husband, son and daughter to the Midtown event.

She said it was important to have her son, Durrante, at the event and to talk about how there “are wonderful police officers — he actually wants to be a police officer — but there are bad police officers also.”

Ware said she often talks with her family “about how one day it could be him on the ground. One day we could be marching in the streets for Durrante Ware and we don’t want that. So, it’s really important for us to have him see what this is.”

Wendi Manumalo, 47, said she had trouble describing how meaningful it was that so many different people showed up at the Midtown rally.

"It’s hard to find words to comprehend the kind of hope that I feel seeing everybody gathered together today.”

Zakia Thornton holds her 7-month-old daughter Za'manii and her fist on Northern Lights Boulevard. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

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