Updated 6:02 p.m.: More than 400 people gathered in central Fairbanks on Saturday to support one another, grieve and demand action following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, mirroring marches around the nation.
The Fairbanks NAACP and statewide group Native Movement jointly hosted an “I Can’t Breathe” rally and march from Veterans Memorial Park on Cushman Street to Golden Heart Plaza downtown. At the same time, another rally hosted by Native Movement and Native Peoples Action was taking place in Anchorage. In Juneau, law enforcement joined elected officials and city residents in a vigil.
In Fairbanks, people, wearing masks, chanted and carried signs. One read “Silence = violence” while another read “LOVE PLEASE.”
“Enough is enough. Black lives matter,” the crowd chanted as they moved down Cushman Street.
Protests broke out in Minneapolis, then across the country, this week after a bystander’s video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died, began circulating online. Floyd can be heard in the video saying “I can’t breathe” as bystanders asked officers why they continued to hold him down.
The call to rally
Fairbanks NAACP President Bennie Colbert and Native Movement Executive Director Enei Begaye shared their thoughts with the Daily News-Miner the day before the local rally.
“We want to show that Alaska can be an example for some of the people that are hurting in the Lower 48, so that we can get together in solidarity with our other brothers and sisters and have a peaceful gathering,” Colbert said.
Colbert said the march was something community leaders were talking about because of the recent events, but they hadn’t realized how many people were truly being affected by it within this community.
People expressing dismay over Floyd’s death were planning their own type of protest or rally, according to Colbert, which sprung the NAACP and other community leaders to action to spearhead a peaceful gathering.
He said he would like to see people come out of the rally feeling their voices and concerns have been heard.
“Their pain and anger has been acknowledged and now it’s time for us to reach across the aisle to our fellow brothers and sisters in solidarity and try to heal and then move forward,” Colbert said. “I feel that people think that there’s changes that need to be done.”
Colbert said people need to come together as a community, to sit down and listen to one another and strategize and come up with a plan to make changes. One way he thinks people can make a change is by voting.
Begaye said one of the issues Native Movement focuses on is racial justice.
“You know, I think we are seeing, like the rest of the country, the continued violence being perpetuated against black and brown lives, particularly by law enforcement, and we are feeling the hurt and the pain that our communities are feeling throughout the state,” she said.
Begaye thinks a lot of the communities Native Movement works with are feeling those pains. She added that they think this is a moment to bring the communities together and “stand in solidarity with our community members, black brothers and sisters’ who are feeling trauma.
One Minneapolis officer, Derek Chauvin, has been arrested on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death. Colbert said community leaders and others need to make sure that people don’t feel like the other officers in the Floyd case are not going to be either investigated or prosecuted.
“I feel that there’s a message that needs to be sent that enough is enough. You’ve got to be a part of the solution, not the problem,” Colbert said.
As he looks at the events that are happening in Minnesota, Colbert said he hopes it can be de-escalated.
“I truly believe that’s what is the biggest point — people need to feel that they’re being heard and their concerns are being taken into consideration,” Colbert said.
Begaye said the issue of justice spans decades back and includes many other names.
She cited Chauvin’s presence at a 2011 incident in Minneapolis. Five officers, including Chauvin, pursued Leroy Martinez, an Alaska Native man living in Minnesota, while investigating a shooting. Officer Terry Nutter shot Martinez, who survived, according to police, after Martinez would not drop a gun he was carrying. A witness later told the Star Tribune that Martinez had dropped the gun and put his hands in the air when he was shot; however, police dispute this.
Begaye said she hopes people can see law enforcement and justice systems change all over the country to hold people accountable.
“If you’re wearing a badge, you have even more responsibility,” she said, “and killing someone unnecessarily, killing someone unarmed, is still murder, and we cannot allow that system to continue, that continues to keep murderers off the line just because they’re wearing a badge, but of course I feel like this issue is also larger than just the police forces and the law enforcement forces.”
At the rally, calls for change
At the Fairbanks rally, people laid flowers down in Golden Heart Plaza at the feet of the “Unknown First Family” statue.
"Black and brown and Indigenous lives that were taken, that were murdered for no reason. Human beings murdered for no reason than for the way they looked. Enough is enough," Begaye said at the rally.
Chants gave way to silence from the crowd while speakers read the names of deceased from around the nation aloud.
Dana Lewis, a woman involved in organizing the rally, was one of a group who read the names of black and Native men and women who have died in police shootings as bells rang in the background.
"What's hurting the most is at least half of this list are names of children," Lewis said, holding back tears. "This has gone on too long."
Begaye also read the names of the dead.
“It’s hard to say their names, but we’re saying their names here today and we’re going to keep saying their names, as hard as it is, because we recognize the racism that has been allowed to be perpetuated for too long,” Begaye said at a mic in the plaza.
Coming together will help begin the healing process, Colbert told the crowd.
"This is an incredible sight," he said, standing in front of the hundreds gathered in the plaza in 80 degree weather. "As I look out into the audience, and I see a rainbow of different colors and faces and skin tones, black, white, everybody coming together for the same cause. Why does it always take a death to bring everybody together?"
Colbert told the crowd people have to stop justifying the wrong of the police in these instances.
“We have to stop justifying. Do not say for a moment, do not say for one moment, ‘Well, I have to wait for all the evidence to see what happened.’ You watch the video just like I did. Enough is enough," he said.
Rally attendees gathered in song and chant until around 4:30 when the crowd began to disperse.
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMlocal. Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.