Around 250 Sitkans gathered in Totem Square on June 1 to honor George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in Minneapolis Police custody on Memorial Day, after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck.
Organizer Margot O’Connell read a statement before the silent vigil began, to explain why Sitkans were gathering.
“We are here tonight for George Floyd. We are here tonight for all of the black men, women, and children who have been killed by the police in this country. We are here to stand in solidarity and to demand justice. We will stand together in silence for seven minutes. Seven minutes because that is the amount of time that a police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd while he begged for his life,” O’Connell said. “Seven minutes while people on the street pleaded for him to stop. Seven minutes to reflect on the history of police violence and systematic racism in America. Seven minutes together.”
The group stood in silence for seven minutes. Many held signs in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Some signs read “End Systemic Racism”, “Justice for George“ and ”White Silence is Violence.”
A video of Floyd’s death sparked protests and demonstrations across the country. Nationwide, protesters put the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor at the center as well, calling for an end to violence against Black people and institutional racism. Many organizers also call for major reform of the criminal justice system and defunding police departments.
Some protests have become violent, prompting many cities to set curfews. Shortly before Sitka’s event took place, President Trump said he would deploy the U.S. military if governors weren’t able to quash the demonstrations in their states.
Sitka’s vigil was peaceful, which was always the organizers’ intent, but the demonstration still prompted a small response from a handful of residents. A group of around ten people stood in front of city hall observing the vigil, one holding an American flag.
KCAW spoke to Marshall Albertson, who owns a business on Lincoln Street. Armed with a handgun, Albertson said he and several others were prepared to shoot and to defend downtown businesses, should the vigil turn into a riot. In a news release earlier in the day, the Sitka Police Department stated that it was aware of counter-protest dialog on social media, and asked everyone to remain respectful.
When the seven minutes of silence concluded, Louise Brady and daughter Dionne Brady-Howard of the Kiks.ádi Point House led a group in singing two traditional Tlingit songs- Aakwtaatseen, followed by Xwaal’, the Peace Hat Song.
“These are really heartbreaking times that we’re living in right now, and I really would like to thank the organizers for putting this together because I think sometimes it’s really difficult if we don’t have an outlet for all this pain. I think with the turnout and all the people here we can see that there’s a lot of people who care,” Louise Brady said.
“That’s my hope that in hearing these words and coming together, that you all be touched by some kind of peace. And I hope that people reach out in the coming days and the coming weeks and the coming years because I hope this is just the beginning of the organizing.”
Organizers called for Sitkans to take action beyond the vigil to work toward more positive social change.