WASILLA — Protests at Wasilla Middle School reached a crescendo Wednesday, with more than a dozen people swarming the gym floor and occupying legislators’ assigned seats as the lawmakers walked into the room.
The protesters called on the legislators to return to Juneau, where a vote was being held to overturn the governor’s sweeping vetoes, despite the absence of the 22 Republicans. When the legislators moved to the other side of the Wasilla gym, the protesters moved with them. Before the meeting started, four people had also locked themselves to the front doors with a sign that read: “AK Leg do your job.”
Inside the school, the protesters chanted, "45 to override!”
Forty-five of the 60 members of the Alaska Legislature need to agree to overturn a veto, and by Wednesday, that many legislators still couldn’t agree on where to meet, resulting in two meetings in two cities, hundreds of miles apart. Across the state, individuals and groups have called on lawmakers to throw out Dunleavy’s budget vetoes, though Wednesday’s protest was the first time the demands had interfered with a meeting of lawmakers.
“We are out here as a group of taxpaying citizens demanding that our legislators quit this spectacle and go back to Juneau and do their jobs,” Justina Beagnyam, 32 of Anchorage, said in an interview.
The protest was supported by Defend the Sacred AK, Alaska Rising Tide, Fireweed Collective, Alaskans Take a Stand, Native Movement, and the Poor People’s Campaign, according to a statement from the groups.
The group of legislators in Wasilla on Wednesday sang “Amazing Grace” and said a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, though their voices were often barely audible over the protests. “Indigenous prayers on indigenous lands,” some called. Minutes later, as legislators left the gym, protesters chanted, "Don’t hide! Override!”
“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” one of the protesters called after them.
Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, said the protest was disruptive, and would have never been allowed in Juneau. Wasilla is the lawful location of the special session, she said, so the rules should also be respected at the school.
"We were here today, we were ready to do our business, it’s the only call, it’s the legitimate call, and it was unfortunate that they stormed the legislative floor,” she said. "This is unprecedented in terms of coming onto the floor and sitting at our desks.”
House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, said the protest was disrespectful. People have a right to protest, he said, but not to storm the floor of a meeting. He said he was proud of how legislators handled it. While they didn’t agree, he said, they weren’t asking law enforcement to take action and arrest those protesting.
The Alaska Republican Party released a statement Wednesday about the protest, describing protesters as “threatening” and “shrieking” Democrats who interrupted a “peaceful session of Republican legislators.”
“We have seen these tactics used by similar mobs who injure conservatives around the country. And now the Democrats have brought this type of indecent behavior to our great State,” the statement said.
Some who had attended the meeting to watch or to support the legislators left the gym amid the chanting and also criticized the protest. There were more protesters outside of the school Wednesday morning too, both those calling for veto overrides and a smaller group calling for a $3,000 Permanent Fund dividend check.
“That full PFD can help the people who are actually struggling,” said Bruce Wayne, 57 of Wasilla.
Costello said she spoke with people demonstrating outside of the school, and she called those conversations productive.
“We need civility,” she said. “Our constitution supports freedom of speech, but it supports it in a peaceable manner."
Olivia Garrett, an organizer with Fireweed Collective, said in an interview that Alaska isn’t used to protests like Wednesday’s inside the middle school, but it’s not unusual in other states. Here, protesters are usually polite and courteous, she said, but that doesn’t seem to be working. She has attended rallies and has made phone calls, she said, but “legislators aren’t listening.”
Garrett, 25 of Fairbanks, said she’s very concerned about the governor’s vetoes, which “primarily affect families, young people, elders.”
“If this is a state where young people don’t want to raise children in, then we’re going to become an oil colony and not a state, and that’s very serious and they need to understand that,” she said.
After about an hour, more than two dozen protesters had a drumming circle and sang a traditional song in the gym before leaving the school. They hoped to come back Thursday, they said, and talk to legislators about their concerns.