Anchorage Labor Day rally urging racial equality draws hundreds of supporters

The rally, a celebration of the March on Washington 57 years ago, drew a smaller group of protesters who said they were opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Alaska Black Caucus and other groups called for justice for Black people and racial equality at a rally attended by several hundred people in downtown Anchorage on Monday, a celebration of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech 57 years ago.

Many in the crowd waved “Black Lives Matter” signs or wore apparel with that message, while speakers urged unity and support to help the Black community improve disparities in education and other areas.

The speeches were occasionally interrupted by clutches of hecklers, some wearing pro-Trump hats and waving American flags.

That led to several tense face-offs between attendees, though law and order prevailed.

The anti-event protesters shouted profanities at Mayor Ethan Berkowitz as he spoke, drowning out his voice from the back of the rally.

“Black lives matter!” the mayor urged the crowd to shout, to retorts of “All lives matter!”

The mayor said America is built on a promise of liberty and justice for all.

“Until Black lives matter, America cannot be America,” he said.

The rally ended with a march, stretching several downtown blocks to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial at the Delaney Park Strip.

The event was was designed to advance equality and well-being for Black people, said Celeste Hodge Growden, president of the caucus. It would have been held on Aug. 28, the anniversary of MLK’s speech, but earlier restrictions on outdoor gatherings amid the COVID-19 pandemic delayed it.

There was no visible police presence at Monday’s event. It followed a summer of “Black Lives Matter” protests nationwide, sparked by the death in May of George Floyd in May, the 46-year-old black man killed by police in Minneapolis. That sparked mostly peaceful protests, though the nation has also seen riots and fires along with violence from both police and protesters.

The Alaska Black caucus organized Monday’s event with partners that included Alaska AFL-CIO and other union organizations, plus the NAACP Anchorage and Anchorage Chapter of Jack & Jill of America, nurturing African-American leaders.

“It’s time out for polarization, it’s time out for painful division, it’s time out for systemic racism,” Growden told the crowd.

She said she was a little frustrated because overnight someone had removed a banner installed for the event outside the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, the backdrop for the rally.

The vandal took the sign that said “Black,” she said. That left only the slogan, “Lives Matter in AK.”

But the large turnout, including many families with children, was inspiring, she told the crowd.

“Thank you for being here today with your mind, your heart, your hope, your love, and yes, very good masks,” she said.

Chris Schutte, the municipality’s director of economic and community development, said the removal of the sign has been reported to police. He said the center, owned by the city, is reviewing video footage as part of the investigation.

The city approved the signs because the center has had its shows canceled during the pandemic. The center does not currently need the walls to advertise shows, he said.

Rahsaan Perry, an event-goer who wore a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, said he was touched by the majority turnout of non-Black supporters at the event.

But there weren’t enough African Americans, particularly young Black men, he said.

Black men and boys are disproportionately killed by police, according to a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s good that other people are interested in showing solidarity, but we want our own people to show up to help right these wrongs,” said Perry, 44.

At least two people openly carried weapons at the gathering, including one man with a semi-automatic rifle slung over his chest who wore a Trump 2020 hat. He declined to provide his name. He said the gun was for self-defense, and to protect anyone else who might be in trouble if the protests got out of hand. One of the counter-protesters said this summer’s Black Lives Matter rallies nationwide had promoted violence and another described the movement as Marxist.

Another man with a hatchet on his belt blew a survival horn to drown out speakers.

The hecklers had their right to come out, Perry said. But they were often disrespectful, he said.

“That’s not a race problem,” he said. “That’s a people problem.”

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.