Roughly 50 Bethel residents gathered on June 5 at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center to peacefully protest the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white police officer. It was captured on video and circulated on social media, spurring the national wave of protests against systemic police brutality against black people. Their protest began with 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence to represent the time that a white police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck.
Then, for an hour, people spoke about the impact of America’s criminal justice system and police encounters on their lives. Piiyuuk Shields, a black and Yup’ik woman from Toksook Bay who grew up in Bethel, was one of them.
"I wanted to start by sharing a story with you," she told the crowd.
Shields told a story about her father, a black man, who was close friends with Bethel police. The story takes place when he was going to the Alaska Commercial Company store in Bethel.
"Someone falsely accused him of drinking and driving. They said that he was slurring his speech and his children were in the car," Shields said.
She said that before he opened his car door, he rolled down his window and saw a police car.
"And there wasn’t just like there were one, or two, or three police cars," Shields said. "There were more."
Shields said that her father knew his legal rights and that there were community witnesses who knew his character, so the police soon left. Shields said that her father looked at his children in the car, including Shields, and told them this:
"He said, 'Just because it’s normal, doesn’t make it right.' That was the first time I ever realized that just because of the color of my skin I could be put in danger, even in the town that I love, in Bethel, even on the land that my people come from," Shields said.
After the speeches were finished, Shields and the others marched down Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway to the AC store, and back to the cultural center.
The day that they marched was June 5, the 27th birthday of Breonna Taylor, a black woman from Louisville, Kentucky whom police killed earlier this year when they burst into her apartment while she slept. Taylor’s death has also sparked nationwide outcries and calls for police reform.