Facebook group for those with grievances against the mayor and assembly grows

A woman speaks to someone in a wheelchair. On the back of the wheelchair is a sign that reads, "I'll take dangerous freedom over peaceful tyranny!"
Protesters gather to oppose a city mask mandate outside Anchorage Assembly chambers in June. (Kavitha George/Alaska Public Media)

Over the last few months, a Facebook group called “Save Anchorage” has become an organizing place for people with grievances against the Berkowitz administration and the city’s largely progressive assembly.

It began with neighbors who objected to the city’s plan to purchase properties to house the homeless and provide substance treatment and grew to include people against public health measures like mandatory masking and business closures.

Save Anchorage launched around the time the assembly took up the city’s plan to purchase four properties for homeless and substance treatment resources. Hundreds protested and testified against the plan, which the city had shaped for over a year with public input, calling it rushed or even illegal.

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Assemblywoman Jamie Allard, who opposed the purchases, said she spread the word about the city’s plan, prompting concern from residents in Midtown, where two of the properties are located.

“And from there, they established the Save Anchorage site and moved forward with getting the public involved,” she said. “And I supported that and had attended a few meetings to make sure that they knew exactly what was going on. And it just, it escalated.”

By the time the property purchase plan was approved in August, members of the group had taken on other issues, opposing the city-wide mask order, restrictions on indoor dining, gathering limitations and potential use of the Ben Boeke ice arena as a homeless shelter. Large protests outside assembly chambers gathered everyone from business owners to hockey players.

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“I think what happened is that you had particular groups of people that got upset about one thing, decided that they better pay attention and then upon paying attention realized … there’s like 10 other reasons I have to be upset as well,” said Bernadette Wilson, a local businesswoman and frequent speaker at Save Anchorage rallies.

Wilson said Save Anchorage is a grassroots movement of people who feel ignored, even lied to, by local government. She said many supporters are people who have never voted or participated in politics before. 

“What’s unifying them is the sudden realization that the policies and politics of the left is destroying the city that we once knew,” she said.

In late August, former Air Force and commercial pilot Dave Bronson announced his candidacy for mayor at his own rally outside assembly chambers. He emphasized a promise to undo initiatives of the Berkowitz administration, including the property purchases. 

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Bronson declined a request for an interview through Wilson, who is helping organize his campaign. But she said supporters view him as a “light at the end of the tunnel.” In their eyes, he’s helping to “get [their] city back,” she said.

For many political observers, the anger and sustained motivation of Save Anchorage is unprecedented.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this up here,” said Mike Porcaro, a media consultant and conservative talk radio host in Anchorage. 

While the majority of the demonstrations have remained peaceful, a handful of protesters have at times become confrontational. After an assembly meeting in August, a small group followed Berkowitz and two aides into the parking lot, jostling them and blocking them from their car. Some members of Save Anchorage have used name-calling and personal attacks against the mayor and left-leaning assembly members in person and on social media.

“I mean, there is visceral dislike,” Porcaro said. “And it shouldn’t be personal, but I’m starting to see it become personal. And that’s a little troubling. I mean, you don’t have to like somebody for what they’re doing as a leader, but leave it at that, you know?”

The 9,000 member Facebook page, which is now private, has also contributed to a spread of misinformation about the pandemic, the city’s public health measures, the homelessness situation, and other issues. Members routinely share information that has been debunked — among other things, that masks are ineffective or unhealthy, and that reported data on COVID-19 case numbers and deaths due to COVID-19 are being falsified. 

Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar, who is also running for mayor next year, said the group has been fueled by conservative media, most prominently, blogger Suzanne Downing’s website, Must Read Alaska.

“Suzanne Downing, for example, she wrote that the Golden Lion property is going to be a homeless shelter. That’s not the case, but very quickly became sort of the gospel in her neck of the woods,” he said. The city plans to use the Golden Lion as a substance treatment center with supportive housing.

Even though it’s not specifically intended for people who are homeless, Downing said over the phone that it’s “splitting hairs” to say it’s not a homeless shelter.

“She has a certain reach amongst the population of folks that are now supporting Dave Bronson, or Save Anchorage or what have you,” Dunbar said, adding that the Assembly will often receive numerous emails from constituents repeating something Downing has written.

She also said she has “no idea” whether her blog has encouraged the group.

Mayor Berkowitz went a step further than Dunbar, arguing that Save Anchorage isn’t purely grassroots, but the product of conservative political orchestration and calculated misinformation campaigns.

“There are people who genuinely disagree with what I’m doing,” he acknowledged. “But a lot of the anger that’s been whipped up here has been done through some very orchestrated means and it is not genuine, grassroots but more astroturf in its nature.”

Supporters like Allard and Wilson don’t see Save Anchorage as a necessarily conservative movement, the way Dunbar and Berkowitz do, though the group’s disagreements are mainly with recent progressive policies or public health measures some on the right national have criticized.

It’s not clear how broadly the group’s views are shared in Anchorage, but observers like Porcaro point to the Alaska Republican primary last month, in which voters chose several hard-line conservative challengers over more moderate incumbents. People are angry, he said. They don’t feel heard, and they’re looking to make some changes.