Three separate events to delve into the discussion of racial injustice in America have been organized in Homer as locals join a movement that has spread across the globe.
Protests, marches and in some cases looting has erupted in many major U.S. cities since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25.
Floyd, a black man in his 40s, was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white. Video footage showed Chauvin with his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck for several minutes while Floyd told him he couldn’t breathe. Chauvin has since been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Since that day, protests have taken place in all 50 states in the country, some peaceful and others resulting in violent clashes between law enforcement and protesters. Gatherings, protests and demonstrations have been held in Alaska from Anchorage to Haines to Bethel, and a few local organizers have made sure Homer was included in that.
Winter Marshall-Allen, a special education teacher, organized daily demonstrations at Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith & Love Park on Pioneer Avenue. The gatherings are from 2-4 p.m., began on Saturday and will last through June 6.
More than 80 people attended the gathering on Monday, and about 40 people turned up at the park on Tuesday, said Marshall-Allen, whose parents were African American, Native American and Mexican. Her mother is a first generation citizen.
“We have a very small ethnic group here in Homer,” Marshall-Allen said of why she wanted to organize the demonstrations.
She said Homer is a beautiful place, but that no person needs to be subjected to what Floyd went through again and that it’s important the local community works together to have a greater understanding of racial injustice.
It’s prevalent issue in Alaska, Marshall-Allen said, not just in big cities in the Lower 49.
“I don’t think we’re that removed when we have villages that don’t have access to VPSOs (Village Public Safety Officers) and we have domestic violence that can’t be addressed,” she said.
Marshall-Allen said she hopes holding daily demonstrations as opposed to a single event will help create more lasting connections between the people who attend, which will be more supportive of long-term action.
“My intent is to build allies, and to build relationships between ourselves and our community,” Marshall-Allen said.
In particular, she wants people to engage with how they can get involved locally, whether it’s speaking to the local city council or the school board about local policies, and whether they have a lens of ethnic justice. What kind of equity and cultural training are local police officers getting, Marshall-Allen asked, as an example.
“I just really appreciate the show of solidarity from everyone,” she said.
Homer is a predominantly white community. According to 2019 population estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, about 85% of the city’s population is white, while black or African American people reportedly make up less than 1% of the population. Alaska Native or Native Americans and Hispanic or Latino people make up 5.3% and 6.5% of the population, respectively.
Overt acts of racism are known to happen from time to time, the most recent example occurring last March when Wasabi’s Bistro just outside of town was spray painted with racist phrases, including a misspelled version of the n-word and the phrase, “Go back to Affrica (sic).”
It is because Homer is so predominantly white that Sarah Simpson said she thinks it’s important to have demonstrations and conversations about racial injustice locally. She organized a Black Lives Matter demonstration on late Tuesday morning, also at WKFL Park, specifically for families with young children.
Mothers, fathers, boys and girls all waved signs at people as the drove by on Pioneer Avenue. Most participants wore face masks.
Simpson and her husband, Drew, live in Homer with their three children. She said she feels it’s important to have these conversations with them and to teach them that the rest of the world does not look like Homer, Alaska.
“I think it’s so important to involve our children in the story of what’s happening in our America,” Simpson said. “Because they’re the ones who are going to be the next big wave of people who will influence how our nation looks, you know? And so I feel so compelled as a mom to teach my kids the importance of when someone is suffering, we don’t look away. We looks towards the pain and do what we can. And if that’s just standing and having our signs, then I think that’s so powerful.”
It can sometimes be difficult for families with young children to attend other gatherings organized in town, Simpson pointed out, like with the demonstrations from 2-4 p.m. That’s nap time, she said.
About 17 families gathered at the park with family-friendly signs. One of them referred to the Bible, verses John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Simpson is religious. She said she knows not everyone is, but that it plays into her reasons for wanting to show support for minorities currently suffering.
“I think that as a Jesus follower, it is imperative that we support the suffering of others,” she said. “And that we see pain, and acknowledge it, and then invite whatever feeling needs to happen in that space.”
Beyond the demonstrations at the park this week, the conversation is set to continue. Sherry Stead, one of the owners of Grace Ridge Brewery, has gotten together with a few others to organize gatherings in WKFL Park every Sunday in June. The gathers are scheduled for 4-5 p.m. each Sunday, will feature speakers and promote conversation about racial injustice.
“I just wanted to do something positive,” Stead said.
For the first event this upcoming Sunday, Stead said organizers are aiming to have 10 speakers who will all have just a few minutes on their given topic. Throughout these gatherings, she’d like everything from historical justice to voting to be covered.
“Just a wide variety of subjects that people are passionate about or knowledgeable (about),” Stead said.
She’s hoping other locals will step up to take the reigns for the three next Sunday events. Stead said she’s not an expert on racial injustice but that the goal is education.
“I know when I first started reading about white privilege, I didn’t understand it,” she said. “Just because you only know your own reality, your own world, your own history.”
There are many social injustices that could currently be addressed in Alaska, Stead said, including the unequal treatment of Alaska Natives and especially Alaska Native women.
Those who attend the WKFL gatherings will be asked to wear face coverings if they sit or stand in the main grassy area, Stead said. Those farther back on the sidewalk will not have to.
To learn more about the upcoming educational gatherings, visit “WKFL Park Gathering” on Facebook.
“I think whenever we can look outside of our own circumstances and our own comfort, to engage with someone else, that is powerful no matter what,” Simpson said.