A man’s racist testimony about Alaska Natives during an Assembly meeting last week ignited a larger conversation about how city officials and residents should respond when people make false or derogatory statements, especially during public meetings.
Assembly leaders have since issued a statement condemning the man’s words.
During an Assembly meeting last Tuesday, the man, David Lazer, said he drove to Anchorage from his residence in the Hatcher Pass area to testify on a piece of Assembly legislation about sheltering homeless residents.
Lazer blamed Anchorage’s issues with homelessness on Alaska Natives, said the city should “send them home to their Native village” and suggested that Native corporations should be held responsible and foot the bill.
After Lazer finished his testimony, Assembly member Forrest Dunbar pushed back on the generalizations, stereotypes and untrue statements Lazer had made, at one point asking, “Where did you learn all this false nonsense?”
Other Assembly members then intervened, ending the exchange and Dunbar’s line of questioning. Assembly member Jamie Allard called a point of order, noting Assembly members are not allowed to debate with members of the public, and said, “Let’s just not debate. I understand both perspectives and I just hope we can move on and not debate.”
When footage of the man’s testimony was shared on social media, many Alaska residents, both Native and non-Native, condemned his words — and questioned why Dunbar was cut off.
“What the xúl. The whole thing is our home. You go home. This articulates a forever problem in Alaska,” X’unei Lance Twitchell, professor of Alaska Native Languages at University of Alaska Southeast, said on Twitter.
Many said that Lazer’s blatant statements laid bare often-repeated misinformation and the anti-Indigenous ideology at play in Alaska’s communities — and further exposed how testimony during the public meetings has been used to spread messages of bigotry and misinformation.
First Amendment vs. providing a platform
In his testimony, Lazer said of Anchorage’s homeless residents, “This is not a white-Black problem. This is an Indian problem.”
“I say send them home to their Native village. The Native corporation is the problem, not a white problem. Why should we be paying for a Native problem? Send them home. They would be happy there, and we would be happy,” he said, and suggested Native corporations pay the cost.
Alaska Native corporations and organizations play an extensive role in homelessness and health care services, including through housing programs and in large donations to service organizations. Recently, several have donated large sums toward the city’s homelessness relief efforts.
Statewide data from the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness show that, of those people who have interacted with homelessness services so far this year, the largest percentage identify as white at about 46%. About 43% identify as American Indian, Indigenous or Alaska Native. The data includes other racial identities and multiracial individuals can be counted toward more than one group. Indigenous people are overrepresented in the state’s homeless population when compared to the state’s overall demographics, a result of numerous factors including the history of violence, racism and oppression toward Alaska Natives in the state.
Lazer has not responded to phone calls from the Daily News seeking comment.
In an interview last week, Twitchell said it’s important to reject statements like Lazer’s, especially when made in public forums.
“If someone’s going to make a bunch of public statements that are uninformed and ignorant and based in an extremely racist ideology, then I think it’s important to actively condemn that,” he said, also saying that he’s “extremely disappointed” Anchorage’s city leaders did not immediately take formal action to do so.
Left unchecked in public meetings, or ignored or laughed off during conversations with friends, family and acquaintances, the messages can be conveyed widely and that, in turn, perpetuates racism and misinformation in Alaska’s communities, Twitchell said.
“There should be no room for racism anywhere, least of all in public forums like Assembly meetings, and I hope the Assembly as a whole condemns such comments in the future,” said Melanie Bahnke, president/CEO of Kawerak, Inc., the nonprofit tribal consortium in the Bering Strait Region. Bahnke also spoke out on Twitter last week after seeing the video of Lazer’s testimony.
“Every city in the U.S. has a homeless problem and it’s not isolated to Natives. We have a major housing crisis in both rural and urban Alaska. His comments were racist and I’m grateful that Mr. Dunbar called them out as such,” she said.
In a written statement Tuesday, Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance and Vice Chair Chris Constant said Lazer’s testimony “invoked racist stereotypes that were based on misinformation” and condemned it.
Others have also expressed racist views during meetings, they said.
“The First Amendment gives wide latitude to members of the public to express opinions, even hateful ones, and this latitude extends to the Assembly Chambers,” they said. “We are saddened by the pain the statements have caused to our friends, neighbors and community members who are Alaska Native. We want everyone in our community to feel welcome, safe and valued.”
‘No other side’
The incident comes just ahead of the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage, an annual gathering for the Alaska Native community that draws thousands each year from across the state for the convention and related events.
Residents have also lambasted Allard on social media for her “both perspectives” comment, saying she treated Lazer’s racist remarks as a valid viewpoint.
Twitchell said there’s no two valid sides or perspectives to an argument when someone makes comments like Lazer’s.
“If they’re just standing up there, and just spewing hatred and racism — there’s no other side to that. There’s racism, and then there’s people who can move to a better place and come to a common understanding,” Twitchell said.
In a texted statement about her comment, Allard said, “I made no comments condoning the comments made by this public member … I was simply trying to get Assembly members to move on and not get into a debate that was off topic with the items on our agenda.””
LaFrance and Assembly member Daniel Volland also interrupted Dunbar during the meeting, referring to Assembly meeting rules.
“As painful as that testimony was to listen to, I don’t think we’re supposed to be engaging in debate and would just prefer to move on,” Volland said.
Volland later said he sought to end the exchange as to avoid giving Lazer further time to continue making untrue and offensive statements on the public platform.
Twitchell and some other Alaska residents have expressed frustration at how testimony such as Lazer’s is allowed, while Dunbar’s response was eventually cut off.
LaFrance and Dunbar both said the laws around public testimony are tricky, leaving little leeway for the Assembly chair to intervene, unless a person’s testimony is not relevant to the item at hand, or the person is “creating an actual disturbance,” according to city code.
Generally, each member of the public is allowed three minutes to speak on an agenda item during a public hearing. City code governing the conduct of public hearings during Assembly meetings holds that Assembly members “shall not engage in debate” with testifiers and that any questions members ask should be aimed to gain clarification or additional information.
LaFrance said, “As Assembly chair I can’t prohibit people from giving misinformed and offensive testimony. We’ve seen a lot of that recently, including at Tuesday’s meeting. Unfortunately, racist sentiments exist and the fact that they came out in a public meeting highlights how important it is for us to address these hurtful and offensive ideas.”
The Assembly is consulting its attorneys for guidance on the tightrope between the First Amendment and Assembly procedures, to see if anything can be done differently, LaFrance said.
“I just think there wasn’t a lot the Chair could have done under our rules,” Dunbar said. But, he said, “I wish I had been a little more forceful in the moment. And I do wish that my colleagues had let me continue in my line of inquiry and sort of demonstrate the misinformation that this person was spewing.”
‘We have to get our business done’
Racist and bigoted ideas and false information have come out in public testimony more and more over the last two years in the Assembly chambers — including persistent untrue statements about COVID-19, vaccines, homelessness and Alaska Natives.
Just over a year ago, a group rallied against a proposed mask ordinance in a series of meetings that stretched over two weeks. At one meeting, many people wore yellow Stars of David to protest it -- a move that was widely condemned among Alaska Jewish leaders and drew national scrutiny. Mayor Dave Bronson initially made a statement defending the use of the Stars of David, which he later apologized for.
Homelessness, an issue that recently has been drawing heavy public scrutiny, has become a “political football with pretty heavy racial undertones,” Dunbar said.
A past plan to tackle homelessness in Anchorage from former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, amid COVID-19 restrictions and shutdowns, galvanized a wave of opposition from a vocal group of residents, organizing largely through a private Facebook group, Save Anchorage.
Many of those testifiers at Assembly meetings expressed their concerns about government overreach and economic impacts of pandemic restrictions, and disagreement over city homelessness policies and spending, without making offensive and untrue statements. However, some others gave testimonies imbued with misinformation and racism when expressing similar concerns.
Bronson’s campaign capitalized on the outpouring of public anger surrounding those flashpoint issues, and his criticism of pandemic restrictions and rhetoric on homelessness helped carry him to a narrow victory against Dunbar, who also ran for mayor.
“We’ve had about two years now, where different groups have realized that they can get a platform to spread misinformation and drive the conversation using the public testimony at the Assembly,” Dunbar said. “... I think the response there was largely from the Assembly to try to sort of keep things moving. We have to get our business done.”
“Ultimately, the kind of racism that Mr. Lazer espoused is much broader than the Anchorage Assembly. It’s a societal problem,” Dunbar said.
Twitchell and others say it’s a problem that needs to be addressed head-on, within the Assembly chambers and beyond.
“How do we then shift what Alaska is? How do we educate people?” Twitchell said. “And then, how do we run public meetings to make sure that this type of stuff cannot happen? Because we have tremendous problems. We have tremendous pain and we don’t need more.”
Reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed.