Protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement drew thousands of residents from around Southcentral Alaska who marched peacefully over the weekend.
One of the most-watched – and well-attended – was a protest in Palmer that raised concerns about violence but ended mostly peacefully on Saturday.
The march, advertised as the Palmer Vigil for Victims of Targeted Police Racism, caused concern after a Lucas Howard, a concealed-carry advocate, claimed in a Facebook video that “if things get out of hand, then we’ll go ahead and step up and assist law enforcement as they ask us to do so.” That comment was interpreted in some social media circles as a sign that the Palmer Police force had enlisted the help of a citizen militia, something police and Howard denied.
Shortly before the rally, Howard and his group met with organizers of the Black Lives Matter march. Howard, along with several supporters, exchanged some heated words but, then, shared a prayer before the start of the rally. It was led by Eden Johnson, one of the organizers.
“I think we all had a lot of assumptions as to how things would have turned out but I’m glad that we were able to communicate here and now and in person,” Johnson said.
Hundreds of protesters joined the march, which started at noon and made its way in a short loop around the main streets of Palmer, passing the police and state trooper station along the way. There was no visible police presence at the march, though State Troopers stood outside their building watching the marchers pass.
On the periphery of the crowd, there were several arguments between supporters of Black Lives Matter, and those who rejected its ideas. At least one incident came to blows. Howard, as well as unarmed trained de-escalators who supported the Black Lives Matter march, helped diffuse the situation.
Many supporters at the protest drove from Anchorage after hearing of the controversy and in order to show their support.
“What originally drew me out here was the controversy over the militia,” said Jim Rogers, who attended the march from Anchorage carrying a sign in support of police reforms. He said he was carrying a gun in his backpack in case of any security concerns, but called opponents of the march he had spoken to “nice people.”
At a rally in downtown Anchorage on Friday evening, over a thousand marchers took to the streets. During speeches before the event, relatives of a 16-year-old Samoan boy, Lufilufilimalelei “Daelyn” Polu, who was killed by police earlier this year spoke out against police brutality against minorities.
Protest organizers called up Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz to address the marchers. Berkowitz came to the stage and said while America was founded on equality, the country hadn’t lived up to that promise.
“That is not our history, that is not the way of our past, and if you want change, you have to change the future,” he said to cheers from the crowd.
He also stood up for the Anchorage Police Department, despite cries from some of the protesters of “murderers” and “liar” from some in the crowd.
“This police department is listening to what you have to say. This police department doesn’t do the things that are done in other places. But we can be better,” Berkowitz said.
On Saturday morning in Anchorage, healthcare workers, many wearing scrubs and lab coats, marched along the park strip in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The demonstrations were peaceful.
Sean Northover was at the protest Saturday evening in the city with his friends, his wife and their son, Moses, who is almost two years old. He said he was there to support the Black Lives Matter movement and black people across America, to fight back against racism. Also, he said, it’s important for Moses to see this historic moment and to know his voice matters.
“If you ever feel like someone has their foot on you, stand up,” Northover, 30, said. “At all times, be strong.”
Protesters demanded changes at the Anchorage Police Department including that officers go through mandatory, intensive mental health training.
At all of the protests, masks were mandatory. Volunteers handed out face coverings to anyone without one.
Alaska Public Media’s Tegan Hanlon contributed to this story.