Kodiak residents marched on Thursday to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as protests sweep the nation in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Around 200 people marched from the Kodiak Public Library to East Addition Park holding signs denouncing racism and police brutality, and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Some who had experienced racism spoke out about their experiences, while others voiced their support.
“It’s just my responsibility as a white person to utilize the privilege that I have to stand with and for people who are being harmed by a corrupt system,” said Derek Rocheleau, a recent Kodiak High School graduate. “As a gay man, I owe my rights to black trans women. I owe so much progress that has been made for my community to them. It’s really the least I can do.”
Before the march started, Robenette Sagalkin, who was born in Kodiak and raised her children on the island, addressed the crowd and spoke about how she has experienced racism in her hometown.
“I am here because even here I have experienced the undertones of racism and white privilege, and I know that even here, on this small and beautiful island, we can make a difference,” Sagalkin said. “I see you. I am here because of all the George Floyds, and I am here because black lives matter.”
Rony Harden Sr., the pastor of Abba Father's Christian Fellowship Church, was at the march to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and to raise awareness of racism in the community.
“I fought in the military for over 31 years and through that process I fought racism throughout my military career … (I was) robbed out of promotions and advancement, and even just harassment,” Harden said. “I've been here (in Kodiak) 10 years and I still don't feel like I’m welcome … It's mind boggling to me because I've never felt like I've been welcomed or felt like I've been treated like an equal.”
Several people at the march wore shirts that said, “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.” One of them was 21-year-old Esmeralda Lopez. She was next to someone holding a sign that said, “Latinos 4 black lives.”
“Growing up as a Latina, it's sad to say, racism even within the Latino community exists. I think it's important that we partner up with Black Lives Matter to show to the Latinos that we don't have to be racist either,” Lopez said.
The march was originally intended to be a small gathering between high school student Lacey Nugent and her friends. After 30 of her friends showed interest in a march, she decided to open the event up to the community and posted her idea for a peaceful protest on the Facebook group Friends of Kodiak.
Interest in the march skyrocketed, with many comments on her event post supporting her idea. There were also those who posted negative comments, but she said people in the community who she did not know came to her defense.
Nugent said the march was a chance for the community to use their voices to protest against police brutality and violence against people of color.
Helping Nugent organize the protest were fellow high school student Keishin Caballa and former students Nia Pristas, Max Pyles and Izzy Janssen.
Caballa wanted to use her voice to speak up for “minorities like me,” she said, explaining that she has grown up hearing racist remarks against Filipinos. After one incident that still makes her voice quiver as she tells the story, she recalled crying and shaking.
“I've never felt more passionate about anything than this issue right now,” Caballa said. “People shouldn’t be dying or getting hate from their skin color, and I want my future children to grow up in a world that has equality for everyone.”
The Kodiak Police Department had a small presence at the march to show their support and to stand in solidarity with the community, said Kodiak Police Chief Tim Putney.
“We wanted to show up and offer some support and make sure everybody was able to partake in the protest today and that everybody was safe,” he said.
“We don’t tolerate racism at the department,” Putney said, adding that they have procedures and policies in place to prevent racism within the police department. “We continuously strive to do better and be the best police department we can for our community. It's always a work in progress.”
The ongoing nationwide protests over police tactics have revived memories of a 2015 incident that involved a Kodiak Police Department officer’s encounter with a special needs member of the community.
Videos of the incident showed Nicholas Pletnikoff being forcibly detained and pepper-sprayed by Lieutenant Francis de la Fuente, who was a sergeant at the time. In June 2018, de la Fuente was promoted to lieutenant and is now second in command to the police chief.
“People have unrealistic expectations of law enforcement in the first place. We are human beings, we make mistakes,” Putney said. “We learn from them. And the difference between a mistake and malicious conduct — there is a big difference there.”
As a result of the incident, the police department began conducting regular training on mental health awareness and on how to interact with individuals who are developmentally disabled, as well as crisis intervention training.
The department also brought in educators from Anchorage who train special education teachers to help train the officers in the department. The department has continued to offer training on how to pick up on visual cues or help officers to better navigate and deescalate sensitive situations.
Every year or two, the department conducts at least 48 hours of different types of mental health awareness training, he said.
“At the time, this was our first incident of its kind that put this on the map for us. It was nothing we'd ever encountered before, nothing we’d ever trained for. We realized we needed to fill that gap,” Putney said.