ANCHORAGE — An Alaska Native activist said Thursday that she was assaulted by the mayor of a small town as protesters took over a seating area intended for lawmakers during a contentious session of the Alaska Legislature that’s gathering in two cities.
Haliehana Stepetin filed a citizen’s complaint with Wasilla police Thursday, naming Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle, along with House Minority spokesman Zach Freeman. She also plans to seek a public apology from Cottle.
The 27-year-old Anchorage woman alleges Cottle and Freeman grabbed her arm without her permission Wednesday as she attempted to take an empty seat at the gathering of Republicans in Wasilla.
In a video that captured the incident, Cottle can be seen gripping her arm for at least five seconds, while Freeman let go after two seconds.
“I felt like I was in a vulnerable place,” Stepetin said. “And I still feel like I’m in a really vulnerable place.”
Freeman told The Associated Press in a phone interview that he believes the incident has been blown out of proportion. He called the encounter a reaction.
“In the moment, no one knew if the individuals were planning to harm members of the Legislature,” Freeman said in a written statement subsquently emailed to the AP. “I was impressed with the way our legislators and members of the audience remained calm and maintained decorum while facing yesterday’s attempted hostile takeover of an official government meeting.”
Messages left with police and Cottle’s office weren’t immediately returned.
The encounter happened in Wasilla, where 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin served two terms as mayor from 1996-2002.
Dunleavy called for the special session to be in Wasilla, his hometown and the home of his conservative base. Senate and House leaders, citing security, access and expense, decided to instead to meet at the Capitol in Juneau.
Twenty minority Republicans refused to join a majority of lawmakers in Juneau and instead have been gathering at a makeshift legislative hall in the gymnasium of a Wasilla middle school.
The protesters want the legislators to attend the gathering in Juneau.
In a video of the incident, Cottle approaches Stepetin as she trails other protesters taking seats designated for the lawmakers. Cottle grabs the woman’s left arm or sleeve and pulls her back. He initially uses one hand, then both to hold onto her. Freeman grabs her right arm then quickly releases it.
Stepetin said she didn’t know Cottle was the mayor. She said she asked him if he was a security or police officer.
“Then you cannot touch me. This is assault,” she recalled saying. She said Cottle dismissed her comment with an expletive. Cottle let go after another Alaska Native protester put herself between the mayor and Stepetin.
That activist, Shawna Larson of Anchorage, said Thursday she acted after witnessing the struggle from nearby bleachers. She said Cottle was releasing his grip as she stepped up. Larson said she told Cottle he was not a police officer and he didn’t have the authority to touch Stepetin.
She questioned why Cottle targeted a small and petite Native woman, saying he should have known better as a local leader. She also noted there were police officers at the gathering, but the mayor didn’t turn to them at the time.
“He was acting in a violent manner to reach out and touch her instead of politely asking her to please take her seat back in the bleachers or to go get a police officer to do that job,” Larson said.
Another protester, Besse Odom of Anchorage, said she also saw Cottle grab Stepetin. Odom, who is black, also was alarmed about a minority citizen being targeted by a public official.
“I think folks in elected office should be leading by example and should be very aware of what the laws and regulations, especially in their own communities, say,” Odom said. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that another individual thinks it’s OK to try to control, touch or guide someone’s body that isn’t theirs, especially a woman and a woman of color.”
This is an Associated Press report by Rachel D’Oro.