On the evening of June 2, over 100 Bethel residents gathered to peacefully protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by Minneapolis police. The Black Lives Matter movement has resonated with Bethel residents, who are predominantly Alaska Native, another group familiar with inequities in law enforcement.
The crowd of protesters met in the parking lot of the Bethel Cultural Center, nearly everyone wearing a face mask. Many brought cardboard signs. One read “All lives cannot matter until black lives matter.”
Organizers thanked state troopers for being in attendance. Prior to the event, an individual posted on Facebook that he would be attending the march armed with a weapon, but the demonstration remained peaceful.
Cecilia "Cece" Franko, one of the event organizers, requested 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence, the amount of time a police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck before he died.
Among the rally speakers was Adam London, who wanted to remind the group that George Floyd was just one of many who died at the hands of law enforcement.
“Ahmaud Arbery’s life mattered. Tamir Rice's life mattered. Trayvon Martin's life mattered,” London said. “That is just a few of the many names of black lives that mattered.”
A study published in 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that a black man is 2.5 times more likely than a white man to be killed by police. But African Americans are not the only group to be disproportionately targeted by police, as London pointed out.
“We, especially here in Bethel in Western Alaska, we share a little bit of their story,” London said.
The same study showed that American Indians and Alaska Natives are between 1.1 and 2.1 times more likely to be killed by police than Caucasians. State House Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky said that she was protesting to address injustices against both groups.
“It's for all of the black lives, but it's also for all people of color who experienced that,” Zulkosky said.
Bethel has had its own experiences with police brutality. In July 2014, a surveillance camera caught a former Bethel police officer slamming an Alaska Native man on the ground multiple times in the AC parking lot. The officer was fired and served jail time for fourth degree assault and official misconduct.
“It gave us a black eye for sure,” said Acting Police Chief Amy Davis. “But I can tell you, within the department it wasn't condoned.”
She said that the 2014 incident spurred the Bethel Police Department to adopt body cameras, which officers are required to turn on any time they interact with the public. And whenever an officer uses force, Davis said that at least three supervisors review the action to ensure it was appropriate. She feels that the department is good at policing itself.
“I can't tell you one officer that would stand by and watch something happen that they didn't feel was right,” David said. “I feel like our crew right now would stand up and say something.”
From the cultural center, the protesters marched to Watson’s Corner and back as cars driving by honked in support.
“My hope is just to end racism in itself,” said one of the group’s organizers, Nellie Agimuk.
Despite the large crowd, there were only a few African Americans in attendance. The last U.S. Census recorded the black population in Bethel at around 2 percent. One of the protesters, Garry Howard, shared some of his experience as a black man in the United States.
“Everywhere you go, as an African American, someone's gonna look at you crazy or say something under their breath,” Howard said. “I mean, I'm 28 so I've been dealing with this since I was a kid. But in Bethel, I haven't really had any problems with that. Luckily.”
He said that he feels solidarity with Alaska Natives, who he knows have suffered some of the same disproportionate violence at the hands of law enforcement as the black community. Asked what he thought about the protests, though, he said that his feelings were mixed.
“I mean, it's great that everyone's coming together to try to make a change, but I've seen this a lot,” Howard said. “Hoping for a change, but we’ll see.”
Howard said that it’s difficult to see the same thing happen over and over again without justice being served.