“I call this rally because there is a higher court than courts of justice, and that is the court of conscience,” Xavier Mason spoke into a microphone outside the NAACP office in Anchorage on a chilly Saturday afternoon.
Mason is the president of the NAACP Youth Council, and also a junior at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he is double majoring in management and marketing. In front of him was an initial crowd of about 50 protesters, with signs reading “Indict the System,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “I Can’t Breathe” — odes to two recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and New York not to indict police officers involved in the fatal deaths of African Americans.
This is not just a rally, this is a call to action. This is a call to each and every one of you [to] become engaged in your community, so that situations such as Ferguson and New York cannot happen here in Anchorage. This is a call for the youth to graduate high school, to graduate college… [and] a call to everyone to vote, or even better, run for office. Attend city council meetings. And, because this situation is so dear to our hearts, [attend meetings of] the Anchorage Community Police Relations Task Force, so that our voices can influence our lives instead of the voices of somebody else…. This is just a rally. The protest begins when we return to our homes. The protest begins the moment you as an individual make a conscious decision to get involved.
Mason was one of three brief speakers who kicked off a march in the heart of downtown Anchorage. Another was Samuel Johns, an Alaskan artist, storyteller, and performer who also goes by AK Rebel. Johns told the audience that the problems in other corners of the nation are also present at home.
“I stand up for the Fairbanks Four, and they’ve had their time of injustice,” he told the crowd — a few of whom held signs adding their names in support of Marvin Roberts, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Eugene Vent. The four men, now in their thirties, were found guilty of murdering 15-year-old John Hartman in 1997 despite jury misconduct, a lack of evidence, a lack of witnesses, and a confession from another convicted murderer, last year, who contends they were not involved.
“So, I feel for Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and everyone else that’s experiencing — all the families that are experiencing — injustice,” Johns said. “It’s such a sad time because, you know, it’s 2014 and racism is still alive and well. You can see it on every little article that gets posted.”
Around 120 protesters marched for almost an hour, despite temperatures dipping into the mid-twenties. Current Anchorage Ombudsman Darrel Hess, former Assemblywoman Sheila Selkregg, and former candidate for state senate Clare Ross among them. People of all ages and ethnicities held signs and raised their hands, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” as they walked in a line that spanned a city block down 5th Avenue. Auto traffic occasionally honked their approval, and pedestrians stopped to take pictures on their cell phones.
The procession stopped for a few minutes outside of the Nesbett Courthouse, where an Anchorage police officer stood watch. Event organizers told me they had worked with APD to ensure a peaceful protest. Despite knee-jerk wholesale assessments of protesters in online comments threads, which painted anyone demonstrating as an unruly, lawless thug, Saturday’s rally was intended to be peaceful. And it was.
“We’re not trying to engage in any negative behaviors, any verbal confrontations, we want to avoid any of that,” youth advisor for theEmployees at a local tattoo shop raised their hands in support as marchers passed by the window.
Anchorage NAACP, Dawnyale Bolds, told the crowd. “So, my advice to everyone, if you get spoken to, just keep walking, keep moving forward. We don’t want anybody to get hurt, we don’t want any violent activities to occur. So, I just want to put that out there. I want everybody to walk and come back the same way we left.”
“It’s good to see people come out; make a change,” Valerie Smith said. Smith was born and raised in Alaska and is a member of the NAACP. “I think we constantly need to educate our youth about being approached by the law: what to do, what not to do. And it’s good to see the participation here, because [Anchorage] is not a rural area. It’s a city now. We have city stuff going on. We do need to be involved in the things going on nationally so it does not occur here.”
Education was a central theme. Especially for Cal Williams, a former president and current board member of the NAACP who worked on desegregation efforts in the South during the Civil Rights Movement.
“Everyone should express outrage when injustice is done and too much injustice has occurred. Not just to people of color, but poor people, marginalized people of every kind,” Williams told me. He said he hoped the event would bring with it understanding and empathy. “We have young kids now who have been sheltered by those of us who lived through this. We didn’t want to pass those horrible stories on to our kids. And I think that was a great failing, because now they’ve grown up not aware of why some of the things are happening to them.”
Looking to be in his early 20s, Chris Cappo drove from Wasilla to Anchorage with some friends to take part in the day’s protest. “We want to do something,” he said. His friends nodded along. “And, you know, this is just the least we could do. I mean, you have to do something. Any way we can help.”
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