Police work finally led to the arrest and charging of suspects this week in high-profile crimes against Alaska Native people in Anchorage -- a series of unsolved rapes and the paint ball shootings that shocked the community and even the nation last month. These steps are important, but they're only the beginning of a whole lot of work ahead on many fronts.
The Alaska Federation of Natives raised the stakes Wednesday with a call for federal hearings on racially motivated violence against Alaska Natives and other minorities. AFN and others have been dissatisfied with state and local government responses so far, and a representative of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is expected in town Monday. The hearings would ''bring to the fore the more serious nature of racism in Alaska,'' said AFN co-chairman Roy Huhndorf.
Hearings would explode any remaining complacency about racial antagonism and violence in Alaska. Painful though they would be, federal hearings would provide an important forum for Alaska Native people and others who feel their voices are not taken seriously on these subjects.
Such hearings also would place a premium on efforts across the community to close communication gaps and build cross-cultural alliances. Groups ranging from Bridge Builders to Commonwealth North, United Way to the Alaska Humanities Forum, the Interfaith Council to Healing Racism in Anchorage, have worked to address these issues with public forums and person-to-person contacts. Their efforts now assume greater importance.
Anchorage made the national news again Wednesday with the announcement that a 20-year-old Eagle River man had been charged and two unnamed 17-year-olds had been linked to the paint ball incident. That followed the earlier arrest and charging of a 30-year-old Anchorage man for a series of five rapes against Alaska Native women in downtown or Fairview. The job is now with the courts to see that justice is done and done properly.
But the community's work will not be completed in court. The community's work, particularly in the case of the paint ball shootings, will be done in listening and learning -- wrestling with the question of where the three youths who did the shooting came from. What can we, as a community, do to reduce the specter of hatred that makes this crime possible?
There is much to talk about, but for civic leaders, on this issue, the greatest benefit is in listening.
A town hall meeting tonight focusing on racism in Anchorage is one good way to start. Federal hearings, if they occur, offer another chance.
For generations and throughout Alaska, one of the most lasting grievances of Alaska Native peoples -- and surely of other minorities as well -- is that members of the dominant culture, education systems, economic institutions and political structure just won't listen.
The mayor himself, but also literally thousands of other community members and civic leaders, would do well to stay tuned to this conversation -- a conversation about the very fundamentals of our future.
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