About 120 protesters chanted "Hands up, don't shoot" and "I can't breathe" while peacefully marching through downtown Anchorage Saturday afternoon, echoing national calls to end racial profiling and discriminatory policing in the United States.
The march, organized by the local NAACP Youth Council, was the first major demonstration in Anchorage since a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, decided not to indict the white police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in August. Amid turmoil over the Ferguson case, fresh grief and anger erupted this week when a grand jury did not return an indictment in the death of Eric Garner, a 42-year-old black man who died after a white officer in New York put him in an an apparently illegal chokehold.
The deaths of Brown and Garner, along with the police shooting of a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland on Nov. 22, have touched off an emotional debate about the relationship between policing practices and race.
In contrast with other cities, rally organizers and officials said in Anchorage the relationship between law enforcement and minorities is largely a positive one. The Anchorage Police Department, for example, worked with members of the NAACP in advance to plan Saturday's rally, including route options.
Instead of confronting police, Saturday's rally was aimed at memorializing Brown and Garner and showing that support for the national cause of ending racial profiling extends to Alaska, said Kevin McGee, president of the Anchorage NAACP. A statement issued in advance said organizers wanted to "recognize the crisis across the country that young African American males face -- 'Black Lives Matter' and all men of color who encounter racial profiling and injustice."
Around 2 p.m. Saturday, people gathered in front of the NAACP office on Third Avenue in Anchorage, drinking hot chocolate and holding signs that read "Black Lives Matter" and "I am Mike B."
"I called this rally because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," said Xavier Mason, the president of the NAACP Youth Council and a key organizer, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into the microphone just before the march began.
Later, walking down Fourth Avenue, Mason recalled attending the funeral of a friend in California in 2012. The friend, who was black, was killed by a police officer under what Mason described as "questionable circumstances." He said what happened to his friend still bothers him, as well as the prospect of it happening in other places.
Andrew Freed, 24, the president of the Black Student Union at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said he identified with what happened to Brown and Garner: "Any one of those people could have been me." At the same time, he said he's lived in Anchorage 11 years and has always felt safe around police officers.
In an interview Friday, Anchorage police Chief Mark Mew said he's tried to build relationships with minorities through transparency and keeping communication channels open. He also pointed to the establishment of a Minority Community Police Relations Task Force and efforts by the police department to host community discussions about hot topics, such as "stand your ground" laws.
About a month ago, APD participated in a panel discussion with the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter about traffic stops. The discussion focused on what happens in a traffic stop and what a citizen's rights and responsibilities are when stopped by police.
"The point is to have these discussions when there's not a crisis," Mew said. "So when the crisis does come around ... there's more trust, better understanding and a better feeling that the police department isn't going to hide anything."
Municipal ombudsman Darrel Hess, who attended Saturday's rally, agreed that Anchorage doesn't see the same problems of excessive use of force or strained relationships with minority communities as other cities. He said that's both a good and a bad thing.
"It's a good thing we're not New York or Missouri," Hess said. "But it's also bad in a way, because people perceive there are no issues with racism here, and people get complacent."
Camille Davis, 24, was walking with her hands in the air. She grew up in Queens, New York, and watched police officers stop friends who were driving home from school. She moved to Anchorage a year ago.
Davis said she was marching for her brothers and family members in New York, and this was her "little way of standing with them."
Walking near Davis was her 20-year-old friend David Quigley, who is white and also from New York. He held his hands in the air, in solidarity, he said.
As the marchers passed a Fifth Avenue tattoo parlor, employees inside stood up, faced the window, and also raised their hands.
Over about an hour, the march wound its way back to the parking lot in front of the NAACP office building. Before the crowd began to disperse, Mason left them with a few words.
"This is the rally," Mason told them. "The protest starts tonight. The protest starts when you decide to be involved in your community … (that) those things that happened in Ferguson (and) New York will not happen in Anchorage."
Jerzy Shedlock contributed to this article.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing