Discord over masks escalates with arrests, Holocaust comparisons at the Anchorage Assembly

Opponents of the proposed Anchorage mask mandate in the Anchorage Assembly chambers on Sept. 29, 2021. Several adorned their clothes with a Star of David, drawing concern from some of Anchorage’s Jewish residents. (Wesley Early/AKPM)

Anchorage police say four people were arrested at an Anchorage Assembly meeting on Wednesday night, including one man who was armed, during heated testimony over a proposed mask ordinance.

Alaska is facing the country’s highest rates of COVID-19 transmission and overwhelmed hospitals, including Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, have been forced into crisis care status. 

The ordinance, similar to a mandate that was in place in Anchorage for much of the pandemic, would mandate that people wear masks in public places and at large outdoor gatherings. It would last until Dec. 31 of this year, as long as Anchorage is at a high transmission level for COVID-19.

RELATED: Alaska healthcare professionals frustrated about inaction, incivility around COVID-19

The meeting was marked by numerous interruptions from a rowdy, angry crowd. At one point an audience member shouted a homophobic slur at another Assembly member and was met with cheers.

A consistent thread in the testimony was people comparing the mask ordinance to the Holocaust. Some wore yellow Stars of David. Several Jewish attendees and Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who is Jewish, expressed concerns about antisemitism.  

Dunbar read a letter from his rabbi, Abram Goodstein, explaining why the comparison is offensive. 

“For myself and most Jews, seeing the yellow Star of David on someone’s chest elicits the same feeling as seeing a swastika on a flag or the SS insignia on a uniform. It is a symbol of hate that reminds us Jews of the terror and horror we suffered,” Dunbar read, quoting Goodstein’s letter.

Anchorage’s Mayor Dave Bronson opposes mandatory masking, saying masks are ineffective and that requiring them infringes on personal liberty. At Wednesday’s meeting, he defended use of Holocaust imagery in the masking debate.

RELATED: ‘Appalling’: Scholars say Holocaust symbol has no place in Anchorage mask debate

“We’ve referenced the Star of David quite a bit here tonight, but there was a formal message that came out within Jewish culture about, that message was ‘never again.’” he said. “That’s an ethos. And that’s what that star really means is we will not forget, this will never happen again. And I think us borrowing that from them is actually a credit to them.”

The mayor has also blamed vaccine mandates for worsening staffing shortages at Providence Alaska Medical Center. Providence’s chief executive, Preston Simmons sent a letter to Bronson on Wednesday refuting the mayor’s claims that the vaccine mandate is causing staffing shortages. He also wrote that he supports the Assembly’s mask proposal. 

RELATED: Anchorage mayor blames vaccine mandates for hospital staff shortage. Hospitals say he’s wrong.

An APD spokesperson said that a total of four people were arrested at Wednesday’s meeting. Joel M. McKinney, 34, was removed from the chambers after police say he was creating a disturbance. Police say he told them he had a weapon when he was being handcuffed. He was charged with disorderly conduct involving a weapon and failing to inform. 

Monique Child, 47, was charged with disorderly conduct after police say “some type of confrontation occurred regarding Child not waiting in line for her turn to speak” and she refused to leave the chambers when security guards asked her. Two other people were removed and charged with trespassing after they were asked to leave the chamber. 

Amanda Forester, one of the attendees, spoke in opposition to the mandate, saying that the decision whether or not to mask was a personal health decision, and not the duty of the Assembly. She wore a yellow Star of David.

“Did you know that if you don’t pass this ordinance, people that want to wear masks can still wear masks? But if you do pass it, the people that can’t or won’t wear masks will be cut off from goods and services, buying food and clothing, cut off from their jobs, maybe even their friends and family,” she said.

RELATED: Emotions high as testimony begins on Anchorage Assembly’s proposed mask mandate

Christina Talbott-Clark was one of the people who testified in support of the mandate. She says that she believes it’s the public’s duty to look after one another’s health and wellbeing during the pandemic.

“I’ve heard a lot of very angry people shouting about how mask mandates deprive them of their freedom. I’m not going to shout, but I am angry, too. I’m furious that our neighbors are turning their backs on us. Risking their lives and their health and ours for their selfishly misguided idea of what it means to be free,” she said.

After roughly six hours of testimony, the Assembly did not end up voting on the ordinance. They are expected to hear more testimony Thursday evening at 6 p.m.

This story has been updated to clarify Mayor Bronson’s statements and to correct the amount of time that testimony was heard. Alaska Public Media reporter Lex Treinen contributed.

Watch the meeting:

a portrait of a man outside

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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