WASILLA — The legislative activities planned for Wasilla Middle School on Wednesday were interrupted. Protesters sprung from the bleachers in the small gym at WMS and sat down in the seats assigned for legislators.
The 22 legislators gathered in Wasilla made feeble attempts to drown out the voices of the dozens of men and women sitting in their chairs in the WMS gym and gave up after eight minutes. The legislators and much of their staff retreated to separate classrooms and eventually dispersed, calling another session for 11 a.m. on Thursday. Meanwhile, the 38 legislators who chose to conduct business during the second special session in Juneau were debating over the motion to veto Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s overrides. The debate on the house floor in Juneau was scheduled for 10:30 a.m.
Protesters supported by Defend the Sacred AK, Alaska Rising Tide, Fireweed Collective, Alaskans Take a Stand, Native Movement and the Poor People’s Campaign sat in legislators’ chairs for over an hour before performing a Dena’ina song and dance and leaving WMS, having communicated to the legislators, staff and citizens at WMS and the entire Alaskan political viewership that they demand the 22 legislators in Wasilla travel to Juneau to conduct the state’s business.
“There’s reason now to escalate the situation and they brought this on themselves by bringing this to a gymnasium in Wasilla instead of being in Juneau where they should be,” said Justinga Beagnyam for the four. “We are out here demanding that our legislators return to Juneau and do their job.”
By 9:30 a.m., four protesters wearing chains were sitting in front of the front doors of WMS. Sitting in between Rev. Jacob Poindexter, Will Bean, MC MoHagani Magnetek and Dana Dardis was a sign that said “AK leg do your job.” The four were not actually preventing the doors from being opened, and the chains were not attached to the doors themselves. The large gym door was opened for people to enter WMS. The four were spoken to by Wasilla Police officers on numerous occasions.
“They aren’t doing anything. We’re going to leave them alone,”said WPD Chief Gene Belden.
Rep. David Eastman (Wasilla- R), and Rep. Sarah Vance (Homer- R), were the first to enter the gymnasium for the start of the house floor session. As the rest of the legislators followed just after 11 a.m., the scramble ensued. Former Senate Majority Leader Mia Costello, stripped of her leadership position for attending the WMS session on Monday, stood at the podium on the House side of the gym and waited, briefly. Wasilla Republican Colleen Sullivan-Leonard had a brief conversation with the protester sitting in her seat. Palmer Republican DeLena Johnson sat next to a woman wearing a pink dress and a scowl on her face, holding a sign on a small piece of notebook paper written in permanent marker that read simply “OVERRIDE.” Those who sat in then sprung to prevent the legislators reverse seating maneuver and scurried across the gym to the senate side. Costello again stood at the podium as those sitting in the legislators’ seats shouted “45 to override.”
There was a brief break in the coordinated table slapping and shouting when Rep. Sharon Jackson began singing “Amazing Grace,” and the gathered crowd of legislators, staff, and residents joined in. Protesters began chanting “Indigenous prayers on indigenous land,” during the song and continued on during the prayer. Costello spoke briefly with one of the protesters who had duct tape across the back of her shirt that read “override.” The protesters changed their chant from “45 to override” to “don’t hide, override.” After eight minutes, legislators filed out, their planned session in the WMS gym at the call of Dunleavy’s proclamation thwarted for a day. Representative Lance Pruitt (Anchorage — R) stopped on his way out to take a selfie with an accosting protester. As legislators hustled out the back door, the crowd of 12 protesters who sat in legislator’s chairs followed them to the back exit and then sat back down. Each member of the sit-in was given time to stand in front of the group and speak about why they felt the legislators should override Dunleavy’s vetoes, which they did without the microphone which had been cut. As protesters continued to chant in between speeches, two people spoke out against the protest. Both were quickly drowned out by sheer volume. However, one protest opposer was given the chance to speak her mind and have a friendly debate with the members of the protest. The legislative staff that remained in the gym passed out water bottles to those in legislator’s chairs.
“Wasilla is an illegitimate, inadequate, and expensive
meeting location for legislative activities, creating a political impasse instead of doing their job,
representing Alaskans. Legislators need to return to Juneau to vote to override the vetoes,” read a press release issued by the groups that supported the protest. “Specifically, the protest
today is focused on rejecting the cuts which benefit large corporations at the expense of working
Alaskans. This places oil companies profits in direct competition with Alaska’s PFD. We are
demanding legislators to choose Alaskans to do their job, represent their constituents, take a
vote, and value people over these oil companies...This nonviolent direct action was planned because concerned Alaskans want to remind elected officials of our power as the people who voted them into office. It is the responsibility of our legislators to do their job and represent us in the Capitol.”
Natasha Gamache stood carrying a sign next to the four chained near the door, speaking to police, Sen. Shelley Hughes, and the various anti-protesters who shouted at those sitting in during the protest. Gamache recently finished her first semester at the University of Alaska Anchorage with a 4.0 grade point average. Gamache left an abusive husband and had been homeless with her six children up until two years ago. Gamache fears that due to Dunleavy’s vetoes, she could face homelessness with her family again.
“I’m going to fight for me and my kids because my kids have suffered enough and there’s plenty of Alaskans that have suffered enough we don’t need to cause more needless suffering,” Gamache said.
Gamache was in awe of the four sitting in front of the doors, and wished that she could join them. She feared that with six children and without financial security, she could not risk getting arrested to stand up for what she believes in.
“It’s a bold move. It’s courageous. They’re willing to put their safety, their security on the line because they believe so deeply that we need this override,” Gamache said.
The masses of protesters that lined the walkway of WMS on Monday were absent by Wednesday. A small handful of residents stood near the trees, waiting for their chance to act. Three musically minded protesters sang a song along with a track played over an amplifier prior to the start of session.
“Somehow our future must be saved and it has to be this week. Won’t you please go down to Juneau?” they sang.
As the protesters lingered in the gym for an hour and the legislators in Juneau were well underway discussing the veto override, the 22 that had attempted to hold session in the WMS gym escaped to a nearby restaurant. Valley legislators David Wilson, Mike Shower, DeLena Johnson, David Eastman, George Rauscher, Cathy Tilton, Shelley Hughes, Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, and Mark Neuman were present at WMS and all but Neuman were present at the restaurant. The Valley delegation was joined by Laddie Shaw, Kelly Merrick, Sara Rasmussen, Sarah Vance, Josh Revak, Lance Pruitt, Sharon Jackson, Mia Costello and Lora Reinbold.