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Brenda Evak, a 28-year-old Inupiaq mom, was arrested on Wednesday after repeatedly shouting an environmentalist rallying cry to Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy at the Nome airport. Her outburst was met with applause from many in the terminal and her action immediately transformed her into a hero to protestors opposing the governor’s proposed state budget cuts.

The incident occurred around noon when Dunleavy’s plane arrived at the Nome airport. The governor and his entourage came to attend a community meeting to discuss his proposed budget. The meeting was the fourth in a five-community “roadshow” of meetings held in towns from Anchorage to Fairbanks sponsored by the right-wing conservative group, “Americans for Prosperity.”

A POLITICO YouTube video with American for Prosperity President Tim Phillips

An eyewitness account

Sue Steinacher, a Nome resident who was at the airport picking someone up, says she was about to leave when she saw Evak confront the governor.

“She just stood in front of him. She did speak loudly and firmly. There was no raised fist. She wasn’t acting aggressive, she was acting assertively. And as best I can recall she was saying, ‘What do you do when our lands are threatened?’ I thought I remembered her saying, ‘We stand our ground.’ Others remember her saying, ‘We stand and fight.’ I honestly can’t recall.”

Steinacher watched Evak repeating her rallying cry as the governor moved toward her.

“She’s stepping back. He’s moving forward, and these two policemen are slowly moving in. And at some point, they are sort of pushing her out the door. Once they had her out the door, they put her in handcuffs,” Steinacher remembers. “Several of us approached the police and said, ‘Why are you arresting her?’ They said it was considered disorderly conduct.”

Although Steinacher did not see what started the confrontation, she and others in the small terminal admired Evak’s passion and bravado.

“She kept repeating herself all the way out. And myself and others started applauding her,” Steinacher stated. “Hopefully she understood we were applauding her and not applauding her getting arrested.”

Inupiaq mother Brenda Evak  (2)

Evak’s arrest emboldens the community

Word of the incident shot across the community and by 4 p.m. a large group of protesters gathered outside Old St. Joe’s Civic Center where the governor’s meeting was to be held. The protesters resented the meeting being tightly controlled by the event sponsors, Americans for Prosperity - Alaska. Americans for Prosperity is a right-wing conservative group funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers, and paid for Republican Governor Dunleavy’s travel as well as all the other expenses of the multi-town “roadshow.”

Attendees were required to register in advance and had to agree to comply with conditions such as not wearing candidate stickers, pins or t-shirts, not bringing recording devices or any bag larger than a purse. They had to agree to allow their image to be recorded and used by the group and any question for Governor Dunleavy had to be submitted in writing.

Protesters with signs or placards were not allowed in. Many thought the group’s control over the meeting stifled meaningful dialogue.

Brenda Evak led demonstrators in the same chant she shouted at Gov. Dunleavy earlier in the day.

At one point, Evak arrived, having been released from jail on personal recognizance. The 25 to 30 protesters outside cheered. Eventually, and some suspect due to pressure from the community, the restrictions were lifted and everyone was allowed in.

A tribal leader takes back the meeting

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The meeting resumed peacefully. Community members sat and listened as the governor answered questions that had been written on cards. No one was allowed to speak or directly ask questions. In the back of the room, a line of Alaska Native women held hands, holding them up when they agreed with something someone said as a sign of solidarity and defiance.

Demonstrators protesting Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s $1.6 billion state budget cuts wait outside Old St. Joe’s Civic Center in Nome on Wednesday. (Photo Courtesy Jim Dory)

Demonstrators protesting Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s $1.6 billion state budget cuts wait outside Old St. Joe’s Civic Center in Nome on Wednesday. (Photo Courtesy Jim Dory)

From the middle of the room, one hand went up. Melanie Bahnke, President and CEO of the Alaska Native non-profit corporation Kawerak refused to submit her questions in writing. She kept her hand up as the meeting proceeded, refusing to put it down. Other audience members began pointing to Bahnke in an effort to get the governor to recognize her. Eventually, Dunleavy acquiesced and allowed Bahnke to stand and speak.

Bahnke told the governor his rigid meeting protocol was not the way they do things in Nome.

“The protocol typically is not to be exclusive of who’s allowed to come and access our elected officials. I'm sure we've got a good variety of Democrats and Republicans in here, but typically when people come to Nome our political leaders… there isn't this question around who's allowed in and who's allowed to address you,” she told Dunleavy.

She went on to describe how Dunleavy’s proposed $1.6 billion in state budget cuts will hurt their community in areas such as education, public safety, and child protection.

Bahnke expressed how the governor's proposed cuts would unfairly affect Native communities.

“I hear frequently that you are saying, ‘Well you have to budget for your household. You need to have a balance in revenues and expenditures.’ And as a mother and as somebody who's responsible for the well-being of my children, I get that. But, if my income source was declining, I wouldn't simply put my children up for adoption because they're too expensive. Or shut down a youth facility and send them out there somewhere. I would be looking at alternative income sources. I surely wouldn't be looking at how I could cut our expenses as a family. But I wouldn't just put my kids up for adoption. That's not the solution. Your proposal I think disproportionately affects rural Alaska.”

After Bahnke spoke, others were allowed to speak and ask questions. Attendees described how the tone of the meeting shifted from a rigid presentation they could only observe to a community dialogue in which they felt heard.

A Facebook video titled: Governor Dunleavy Roadshow: Day 3 shows little interaction with Alaska Natives

“Stand up! Fight back!”

As the meeting ended, Brenda Evak stood in the rear of the room with other members of the Arctic protection group Protect the Sacred. Her eruption of wrathfulness at the governor earlier in the day set the stage for her community's pushback against what some would call billionaire-backed political bullies.

Evak's action and Bahnke's eloquence formed the heart and brain of the community. Together they broke through the meeting’s wall of ice and ensured the concerns of all would be heard.

After the meeting, Evak stood outside with the protesters and led them in the chant she had shouted at Dunleavy. “Our land is under attack! What do we do? Stand up! Fight back!”

In a court hearing the next day, Nome district attorney John Earthman announced he would not file charges against Evak.

The clashes continue

While Gov. Dunleavy has posted a lighthearted video of his day in Nome, a Fairbanks video on Facebook by Adrienne Blatchford shows protestors clashing with police. 

Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.