A Sunday, May 31 protest against police violence drew 60 participants, despite having been announced just hours earlier.
The event was called by resident Megan Butler to draw attention to the case of George Floyd, a black man who died while being arrested by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25. Officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck while Floyd lay handcuffed on the ground, was subsequently charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Floyd’s death touched off a series of sometimes violent protests in cities across the U.S.
The Cordova protest began at the Cordova Center, moving down First Street and along Railroad Avenue, past the offices of the Cordova Police Department, before returning to the Cordova Center. There, protestors read aloud a list of names of black people killed by police, as well as that of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man fatally shot Feb. 23 during an altercation involving a former police officer. Organizers affiliated themselves with Black Lives Matter, a loose-knit activist movement opposed to anti-black racism.
Butler, who is a PhD student at the University of Oregon, said she was surprised by how many people attended the march, given that it had been announced just 18 hours ahead of time.
Pastor Mike Glover of Cordova Community Baptist Church addressed the crowd prior to the reading of names, referring to a passage in the Book of Genesis in which God names Adam and other aspects of creation.
“It’s been heartening to see communities peacefully demonstrate and show support for justice,” Glover said. “It wasn’t violent… but it was insistent that justice needs to be served and that rights need to be upheld, and I think that was the right balance of emotion: to not be caught up in anger that leads to violence, but, instead, anger that leads to a dogged persistence to find justice.”
Glover said he found the violent demonstrations occurring elsewhere in the U.S. understandable, given the circumstances, but considered them unlikely to achieve the desired result.
Butler read out a selection of Buddhist scripture from Zen priest Kelly Weaverling, leader of the Pathless Way Zen Community. Weaverling did not attend, as he is in a group at elevated risk from the coronavirus.
A diversity of tactics
Cordova’s protesters also received the support of local police. Police and Fire Chief Mike Hicks called Floyd’s death a tragedy and said that the officers involved had betrayed the values of their profession.
“I was pleased to see the members of our community peacefully support the memory of George Floyd,” Hicks wrote in an email. “Once again, Cordova is a shining example of how things should be done. These are the kind of efforts that will lead to change, not senseless rioting and looting as we have seen in so many other parts of the country.”
Protests throughout Alaska have remained subdued in comparison to the unrest that has swept cities like New York and Washington, D.C. At a Saturday, May 30 vigil in Juneau, protesters were joined by Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer and other police officers, according to Associated Press reports.
Butler, however, refused to condemn the property damage occurring elsewhere in the country. Looting, she said, is not necessarily a senseless act, but can be a potent way to voice popular outrage and to push back against unjust institutions.
“I think that looting is a really powerful form of lament and grief, and I think we should be bothered by the fact that we are so concerned with the damage that goes to property, because, in all respects in American life, it seems like we value property a lot more than black men, women, nonbinary and trans people,” Butler said, speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of other protesters. “I think people look at looting and they see… people just stealing things for monetary gain. But looting is also a way to show the power of people over the power of police, specifically police that do not value black communities and black lives.”
The use of force to render political change has enjoyed some support among American thinkers since the nation’s infancy. Henry David Thoreau, writing in defense of an unsuccessful effort to spark an uprising of American slaves, contended that “the question is not about the weapon, but the spirit in which you use it.” A century later, members of the civil rights movement elaborated the concept of “diversity of tactics,” according to which a movement may choose nonviolent or violent methods depending on the situation. Socialist historian Howard Zinn, who further developed this theory during the 1960s, argued that, while nonviolence is generally preferable, a simple distinction between violence and nonviolence is not sufficient to guide activists through the complexities of actual political upheavals.
While Butler defended looting as a potentially legitimate protest tactic in some contexts, she said she believed it would not be an appropriate tactic for Cordova protesters.
“I do not think that is a route that we need to go on,” Butler said. “I don’t think we feel the pain in that same way. I do think that looting is an expression of pain and deep grief.”
Not all attendees of the Cordova march hailed from the Left. Kevin Chung, a self-described right-wing libertarian, appeared at the protest with the Gadsden flag, reading “Dont tread on me,” wrapped around his shoulders. In his hands was a sign bearing the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Duncan Lemp. Taylor, a black woman fatally shot by police on March 13, has often been memorialized by Black Lives Matter activists. Lemp, however, is a different story — a white software developer with an extensive firearm collection, Lemp was fatally shot during a no-knock raid of his home in Potomac, Md. Eyewitnesses to the raid claimed that Lemp was asleep in bed when he was shot, according to AP reports. Police, however, maintained that Lemp was awake, armed with a rifle and refused to comply with commands to surrender.
Previously, Chung had been a supporter of Blue Lives Matter, a countermovement to Black Lives Matter that pushed to extend hate crime protections to police officers. At that point, Chung wouldn’t have attended a rally like the one held in Cordova. However, events of the past few months have changed his perspective, he said.
For Chung, the May 31 protest was more about police brutality than about racial issues. Protest movements weaken themselves when they emphasize internal divisions such as those based on race, he said.
“I think this is bigger than just racism,” Chung said. “I think that this is also about just how corrupt authoritarian power can be… Not all police are bad, obviously, but the problem is that, if you give the police state enough power, the corrupt ones are usually the loudest.”
Chung said that the rally sent a strong message against governmental heavy-handedness while remaining strictly peaceful.
“I really wanted to show people that you can be protesters without destroying private property,” Chung said. “We can make a change without ruining other people’s lives… I think, at all costs, we should make it as peaceful as possible. Violence is the very last resort. In my opinion, that should only come if we are actually being fully tyrannized with violence from the government. For right now, we should be able to get together and make a change peacefully.”
The rally was also attended by Republican Party Cordova Precinct leader William Deaton.
Butler said she considered the event a successful gesture of support for protestors elsewhere in the nation. However, with more time to plan, she would have liked to have invited more community leaders, she said. The protest was the first event of that type that she had organized.
Butler encouraged supporters unable to attend the protest to donate to organizations helping to pay protestors’ bail bonds, or to donate directly to Black Lives Matter.
“There were some people who were very angry, and I think we heard that,” Butler said. “And there were some people who were grieving, and I think we saw that… If you’re interested, do your research. Listen to people of color. Listen to black people talk about these issues. Then talk to people in your community and talk to people in your homes about racism and about police brutality.”