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'I've Been Silent For Far Too Long:' Unalaskans In Solidarity With Black Lives Matter

Maggie Nelson/KUCB

Global protests continue as communities rally against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and countless other black Americans before him. 

On May 25, Floyd was killed by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes while he was handcuffed face down in the street. 

Hundreds of Alaskans turned out around the state in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. In Unalaska, over 100 community members gathered downtown last week to show support. 


Credit Maggie Nelson/KUCB
Carlos Tayag, demonstration organizer.

Over 100 Unalaskans lined the sidewalks in Downtown Unalaska, holding signs stamped with messages saying "Unangan Against Police Brutality," "Justice For Floyd," "Injustice Anywhere Is A Threat To Justice Everywhere!" and "Black Lives Matter."

They turned out to show their support for the many protesters standing for justice across the nation in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Community member Carlos Tayag said he organized the demonstration to ensure Unalaskans are doing what they can locally to make sure justice is served and people are treated humanely. 

"Just because we are pretty far removed from a lot of the things that happen in communities outside of ours, doesn't mean that we're exempt from those things," said Tayag. "We're a diverse community:  We're Asian. We're black, white. We're African. We're Latino. We're European. And I don't think that anyone in this community is exempt from what's happening in the world." 

Tayag said he doesn't believe a lot of the problems that plague the rest of the country affect the community of Unalaska — or at least not to the same extent — but that it's still his responsibility to help shift momentum to change things.

Credit Maggie Nelson/KUCB
Beatriz Dietrick, and her son, hold a buoy that says "Black Lives Matter Oh So Very Much." There's another at her feet that reads "Silence Equals Violence."

Beatriz Dietrick is standing on the roadside sporting a buoy that washed up on an Unalaska beach in her arms, and which reads "Black Lives Matter Oh So Very Much." There's another at her feet displaying the message, "Silence Equals Violence." 


Credit Maggie Nelson/KUCB

"I'm here today because, honestly, this is an issue that I've been silent about for far, far too long," said Dietrick. "And there will never be enough that I can do to make up for that."

Dietrick came to the demonstration carrying her nearly two-year-old son, Nelson, on her back.

"This is a starting point," she said. "And hopefully, I will continue to make efforts to speak up for black lives. And always on the top of my mind is setting a good example for my son."

As the coronavirus continues to sweep across the globe, and there's fear and uncertainty about how close to get to others and what to do in public, Dietrick said she's proud of the community for speaking up and joining together. 

"We've all gathered today despite the [coronavirus], to speak up for an injustice that is impossible to ignore any longer. And I think a lot of us feel like there isn't possibly enough to do to make up for that," Dietrick said.

Credit Maggie Nelson/KUCB

The sun shone high in the sky, as summer has recently begun to make an appearance on the island. Unalaskans stood yelling and waving their signs in the air, encouraging drivers to honk as they paused  at the four-way stop downtown. 


Tayag said the event is bigger than he thought it would be, and that he is overcome with emotion by the turnout. 


"There's a lot of youth here. There's a lot of kids. And I think it's important that they see examples of kindness, of compassion, of humanity, and also of action. I think it's important that they see the older generation stand up," he said. 

Credit Hope McKenney/KUCB
Unalaskans stand yelling and waving their signs in the air, encouraging drivers to honk as they slow down at the four-way stop in Downtown Unalaska.

There were dozens of children, teens, and elders standing on the sidewalks. One of those young people was 18-year-old Alleri Tungul. She just graduated from Unalaska's high school with 34 other classmates, and she's demanding accountability. She said it's time to change the police system, which was built to oppress people of color. 


"I've been about this movement since my freshman year when it first began and I'm really happy our community's speaking up about it," said Tungul. "It's very important to me because I know we live in this bubble and it doesn't directly affect us, but it affects the people around us. And we should care about more than just ourselves."


While dozens of young people held signs and said how tired they were of hearing and seeing instances of police brutality against people of color, Tayag said it's a time for people to recognize the history of violence in this country, and change a system that was built to oppress numerous underrepresented communities. 


"Black lives matter. That is absolutely true," Tayag said. "But we also live in a place where we have a Native population and they've experienced some trauma culturally. Being sensitive towards things like Black Lives Matter also correlates to injustice that has happened to people of other ethnicities and other cultures. And they've happened here on the land that we currently live on, so we can't forget that." 

Credit Hope McKenney/KUCB
Shayla Shaishnikoff, Camp Qungaayux coordinator at the Qawalangin Tribe, holds a sign that says "Unangax In Solidarity With Black Lives Matter."

The day of the demonstration in Unalaska also marked 78 years since the U.S. government removed the Unangax̂ from their homes in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, and interned them in Southeast Alaska, following a deadly attack by the Japanese.

"It just happens to be the 78th anniversary of the bombing of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, and a way of life was changed that day for all of my people," said Sharon Svarny-Livingston. "So I think it's important to remind people that it's happened before, it's happening now, and it can't happen anymore."

Shayla Shaishnikoff, Camp Qungaayux coordinator at the Qawalangin Tribe, held a sign that said "Unangax̂ In Solidarity With Black Lives Matter." 


"I'm from Unalaska. My family is from Unalaska. My family's been here forever," said Shaishnikoff. "And I like to think that I'm representing the Unangan people today with my sign and that we're in solidarity with Black Lives Matter."

Credit Maggie Nelson/KUCB

Shaishnikoff said it's inspiring to see so many young people on the sidewalks of Unalaska standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

"I think that we definitely live in our own little corner of paradise. But we're not sheltered from oppression, we're not sheltered from racism. It's here. It's everywhere. And I think the fact that everybody is here today just represents that we are paying attention and we care," she said. 

Credit Maggie Nelson/KUCB

Cars honked in solidarity.  Fire department personnel passed out water. And officers from Unalaska's own police department showed up to recognize what Interim Police Chief John Lucking said are "relevant issues of social injustice in America today and a uniform need for change."

Credit Maggie Nelson/KUCB

Protests have reached all corners of the country. More than 700 cities and towns spanning all 50 states have seen — or are still seeing — Black Lives Matter demonstrations. These events are extending past the country's traditionally liberal cities and into rural and suburban communities.

And changes are happening, as protests have kindled a national conversation about racism and the use of excessive force by law enforcement, especially on racial minorities.

The founder of CrossFit resigned this week over racist tweets, dozens of corporations have put out statements expressing solidarity with protesters, thousands have gone on strike across the nation, and even Merriam-Webster said it would expand its dictionary definition of racism to address systemic bias. 


And while Unalaska may be removed geographically from the rest of the country —  as Tayag said, even a small community out in the Bering Sea can't stay quiet, and must raise its voice and express its solidarity with the rest of the world. 


Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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