PALMER — Elena Butler stood on a picnic table in the pavilion in downtown Palmer on Saturday and told a large crowd of protesters that the first time she’d been called a racist slur was when she was in the eighth grade.
“We all know someone who has experienced racism, and that is why we are all here today — to end it,” Butler, a 2020 graduate of Mat-Su Career & Tech High School, told the crowd.
Butler is one of several recent high school graduates who helped organize Saturday’s protest against racism and police violence, which drew at least 1,400 people.
The march in Palmer is one of several demonstrations in Alaska in recent days — including three in Anchorage — sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by Minneapolis police last month.
“It’s incredibly tragic that it took a man’s death to pay attention to the issues at hand,” Butler said. “George Floyd is changing the world.”
Floyd’s killing has started a coast-to-coast movement. Many of the protests have been peaceful, though some have resulted in looting and rioting, and violence at the hands of police and protesters.
Saturday’s peaceful march in Palmer was centered on unity, peace and rooting out racism from local communities, and worries of a major clash between protesters and counterprotesters did not materialize.
Several speakers, many of whom were recent high school graduates, spoke to the crowd. Teenagers described the racism they’d endured growing up as people of color in a predominantly white community.
Eden Johnson, a 2020 graduate of Chugiak High, heard many slurs throughout high school. Kids called her “monkey,” “negro” and worse, she said.
“I always had to sit in the back,” she said. “My white teachers made me sit in the back of the class because my hair was ‘too big, too curly’ and they called it ‘nappy,' ” she said.
After the rally, the march spilled onto the streets of Palmer, wrapping in a triangle around a section of downtown. Many protesters wore masks, and some carried signs with messages like “Am I next?” and “Disarm racism.”
“When you’re born a person of color, you’re born into a world that will never treat you the same as others,” said Reggie Drummond, who recently graduated from Mat-Su Career & Tech.
The event comes amid tension surrounding the city’s decision to put police Chief Dwayne Shelton on leave over Facebook comments from 2018 that, among other things, called Black Lives Matter a “hate” group.
Eighteen-year-old Aurora Till, who was born in Palmer, obtained a permit from the city for the protest and expected only 100 people to attend.
“I am unbelievably proud of everybody,” she said after the march. “This is the start of a new conversation in the Valley.”
The march and rally was met with resistance from some residents in the Mat-Su, Till said.
When Till posted on social media that she wanted to hold a protest in Palmer, she experienced an outpouring of violent threats online — including criticisms from people she knew and adults she had trusted as a kid growing up, she said.
“I never expected grown men and women attacking an 18-year-old just trying to do something great for the community," Till said.
Soon after she announced the event, the leader of a local Second Amendment rights group called 907Freedom posted a video that was widely circulated on social media. In it, the leader, Luke Howard, asked his members to not wear their “big guns” or military gear to the event and to just “watch and observe.”
“A lot of people on social media were saying we ought to just show up and tell them this doesn’t belong in Alaska,” Howard said. “When I started seeing that escalation, I personally chose to come out and say, ‘There’s no reason to go outside the norm on this.’ ”
Till said that with the social media backlash that emerged after she announced the rally, “people were scared to come to this event."
Organizers streamed the rally online so people who didn’t feel safe attending could support it from home.
Howard, who was present at the rally, said about 100 other members of his group were there to observe.
Before the rally began, Howard, Till and other organizers spoke about the misunderstandings that occurred. A small group including 907Freedom members and protesters then prayed together, with fellow event organizer Johnson leading one of the prayers, Till said.
"I think we all got some understanding out of it," Till said.
But the 907Freedom group created confusion, she said. “It’s not about them. It was never about them.”
A few bystanders heckled the marchers. At one point, a truck flying a Confederate flag passed protesters and was followed closely behind by an SUV that displayed Black Lives Matter banners out the windows.
Palmer City Council member Steve Carrington said he saw “a little bit of tension and a few heated exchanges,” but that situations were quickly de-escalated between the protesters and those who opposed them.
A large number of protesters came from Anchorage to join the march. Kevin Bruno, 31, participated in Friday night’s protest in downtown Anchorage and said he came to Palmer to support the youths calling attention to racial inequality.
“The youth is the future. It’s a great thing to see them wanting change for themselves and for everyone else,” Bruno said. “People say that we don’t have a problem here, but just take a look at the justice system.”
Till said that the protest was a way to unify the community in support of its people of color.
Any messages of hate she received only fueled her more, she said.
“We made something truly beautiful today.”
Anchorage protesters speak out against police brutality
The night before the rally in Palmer, hundreds of protesters representing a wide variety of backgrounds peacefully marched through the streets of downtown Anchorage, calling for justice for George Floyd and an end to police brutality.
“They’re supposed to be out here protecting us, but how can they be protecting us if they’re killing us?” Anchorage protester Melisha Pilcher said at Friday’s event. She was carrying a sign that read “Pacific Islanders 4 Black Lives Matter.”
Seventeen-year-old Kaiya Houchins, who will be a high school senior in the fall, said the range of diversity among protesters was incredible. “It’s mind-blowing,” she said. “This is our time.”
Speakers galvanized protesters with short speeches before the march began, and organizers announced a list of 10 demands for local police, asking for more accountability and transparency with the public.
Karen Mariko, the mother of a 16-year-old boy who was killed by Anchorage police in February, also spoke.
“We have to look right here at our own cases of police violence,” she said.
At one point during the protest, a speaker urged Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, who was standing in the crowd, to address the marchers and talk about Anchorage police.
“This police department is your police department,” Berkowitz said. “It has not always done right by the people here.”
“If you want a police that acts differently or behaves differently, you need to speak up because this police department is listening to what you have to say,” he said.
Laura Melchor, 27, said she was marching because the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor — a young black EMT who was shot by police eight times in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment in March — are still walking free.
“This feels like joy mixed with grief,” she said of the demonstration as she marched.
[Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified a speaker at Friday’s march in Anchorage. Her name is Karen Mariko, not Kay West.]
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