The border crisis maybe thousands of miles away, but that hasn’t stopped Sitkans from expressing their disapproval for current immigration policy. As part of a day of action, during the lunch hour today, a group of about two dozen Sitkans gathered to protest family separation and the detention of migrant children.
“We’re standing at the Roundabout of Halibut Point Road and Sawmill Creek Road,” said Kevan O’Hanlon, one of several Sitkans who gathered at the traffic circle near downtown to express their outrage at the treatment of migrant children in detention centers. “So it’s where we get most of our traffic and we’re just standing, waving, holding signs, seeing a lot of people we all know.”
Many of them held signs; some read ‘Close the Camps’ others ‘Reunite Families.’ For many of the protesters, the thousands of miles between Sitka and the border is no excuse not to be vocal.
Michael Mausbach was among those protesting. “Just because we’re on an island with 14 miles of road in the North Pacific doesn’t mean we can’t advocate for children in other parts of this country,” Mausbach said. “It reflects on us as well.”
The demonstration followed a series of heated exchanges online after the event was posted to community Facebook group ‘Sitka Chatters,’ but the noontime gathering remained calm. Demonstrators held their signs and waved at tour buses winding around the roundabout.
Levi Albertson said, “I’d like to see every citizen come out and see this isn’t who America is or who should be.” He hopes the demonstration catches the eye of locals.
“Honestly more than anything I hope my neighbors see it,” he said, referencing some of the comments he’d seen online earlier. “I don’t think they’d be okay with it if it were their kids getting locked up. I think one of the big things that we lack is empathy for the other.”
For Maggie Gallin, the issue is personal. Her family migrated to the United States in previous generations. “I feel an obligation,” she said, “to give some kind of a voice to the kids who are being held.” Mostly, she hoped that other Sitkans saw the protest.
And the immediate audience was mostly Sitkans driving to or from lunch, and a few tourists. But many of the protesters hoped to catch the eye of representatives in Washington D.C. and Juneau. Mandy Evans distributed copies of letters Sitkans could send to their representatives expressing their concern and desire for change.
“If you’re driving around this roundabout and you think ‘I can’t close the camps,’ you can actually ask the people that can to do so,” she said. “You have the right and privilege to do so.”
That drive to do something runs in strong in one Sitka family: Margot O’Connell’s. O’Connell carried a sign today. Her mom, Tory O’Connell was on her way back from a trip to Clint, Texas, to try and see the migrant detention center for herself.
“She has the ability to take action and she does it,” O’Connell said. She thinks the work her mom does is important in a moment when there are so many who are more directly affected by this and don’t have the privilege to advocate.
“It’s important to be visible,” she said. Visibility, she hopes, can help to counteract the narrative that this isn’t a problem that affects Sitkans. “It affects everyone,” O’Connell said.
And visible the protesters were. So much so that one cruise ship passenger rushed off her tour bus to join them. Janice Burness calls New Jersey home and is in town for one day only.
“I said to my husband I have to go back for solidarity,” Burness said. “In the long term we have to be on the right side of history and in the long term this is going to be the wrong side of history. And I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. I want to be on the right side of history.”
Burness gets back on the cruise ship tonight. And just as the protest wrapped up in time for everyone to get back to work, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General released a report calling for DHS to address what it called “dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention” at several of the facilities.