What was going to be a University of Alaska student rally at the UAA Bookstore on July 9 became a much bigger gathering that united a much larger group of Alaskans.
From the stage, Alex Jorgensen, the speaker of the assembly for the Union of Students at UAA, or USUAA, stood before more than 1,000 people.
“This started out as a rally of maybe like 100 people with backing up a pickup truck outside of the Student Union,” Jorgensen said to the crowd. “But we are in front of a truck so I feel like we’re not too far off from where we started, but a whole hell of a lot more people.”
Originally scheduled to occur at the Student Union, the event was moved to UAA’s Alaska Airlines Center parking lot to accommodate the larger crowd. Individuals of various organizations and businesses were represented at booths and through the signs held by those who gathered.
Trevor Storrs, President and CEO of Alaska Children’s Trust, reached out to Jorgensen and USUAA to expand the event. Through collaboration, the event gained the support of 50 other organizations. A full list of organizations involved can be found on the event listing on Facebook.
The rally featured a variety of speakers from throughout the state including UA President Jim Johnsen, the Salmon Sisters, known for their clothing and commercial fishing business in rural Alaska and performances from Portugal. The Man, a local band originally from Wasilla, Alaska. Each spoke of why Alaska is at risk because of the 182 vetoes placed upon the budget by Alaska Gov. Michael Dunleavy.
The crowd united in chants, ranging from “save our state” to a “knock-knock” themed chant, where concerned Alaskans were at the door. The chants were led by Jorgensen and Storrs.
Tables were set out with markers and other art supplies for participants to create their own placards to hold during the event, creating a sea of messages in the crowd. Large “UA Strong” signs were also set at points throughout the event space.
Some statements went beyond the placards and signs, as the statue located in front of the Alaska Airlines Center was wrapped in black material, with the phrase “#ripAKarts” posted on the display.
Maria Williams, a professor of Alaska Native Studies at the University of Alaska, looked out upon the crowd and offered a recognition to Alaska Native cultures, as UAA is on indigenous land.
Speaking for the University of Alaska system, UA President Johnsen addressed the crowd with a well-received statement.
“We are Alaskans and we are strong,” Johnsen said.
Johnsen reminded the crowd that Alaskans are resilient and that throughout the state are able to rise to any challenge.
“How do Alaskans, who are strong, deal with challenges?” Johnsen said. “Up in the interior where I live, when it’s 40 below and the ice fog is really thick, and a car is pulled over on the side, do we drive by? In the village when there is salmon, does an elder go hungry? And when our budgets are getting whacked, do we just stand by and let that happen?”
To each question posed by Johnsen, the crowd responded with a resounding call of “no.”
Johnsen then shared the news that the Alaska Performance Scholarship and the Alaska Education Grant were part of the “whacks” made by legislators.
“There are 12,000 University of Alaska students — 12,000 — not 48. Twelve thousand University of Alaska students who have been receiving those scholarships. That money is not there right now folks,” Johnsen said.
Other guest speakers at the rally included Hayley Cavitt of the Seawolf Debate team, Polly Andrews, a storyteller, mother and traditional dancer from Chevak, Alaska, Dash Togi of Covenant House Alaska, Lisa Aquino of Catholic Social Services and Vic Fischer, the last surviving founder of Alaska’s constitution.
Student reactions to the rally showed both fears over the possible consequences of the UA budget cuts, and hope for an override to the vetoes.
“I’m afraid that my degree is going to get cut and I’m afraid that we are going to lose funding. The main reason people come here or stay here is school,” Camille, an environmental science major at UAA, said.
Others were moved by the size of the rally, and in the gathering found new hope.
“Very, very assuring to see so many people here,” Michael, a theatre major at UAA, said.
The feelings transcended the student population of UAA, as others found the rally inspiring.
“I’m glad that people are finally getting together and doing more than shaking their fists in the air,” Nicholas, an aspiring political activist and rally participant, said.
Legislators will meet on July 10 to override or accept Dunleavy’s vetoes. 45 votes out of 60 members are needed for the override.
The budget decision is on Alaska’s doorstep, and with it came the cries of the crowd at the rally to override the vetoes.
“Knock, knock. Who’s there? Concerned Alaskans, everywhere,” the audience chanted.