Markus Vinson: The voice behind the chants
On May 30, Anchorage’s Town Square Park was filled with mask-clad Alaskans bearing cardboard protest signs. Their messages read, “Silence is Betrayal,” “Black Lives Matter,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and notably, “Say Their Names.” The diversity of messaging was mirrored by the individuals carrying them. The rally cry, however, was more laconic: “No justice, no peace!”
Although the impetus behind the rally was the brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25, the scene in Town Square Park showed that the issue is much deeper than one man—or even one race. Those in attendance were fighting against systemic racism, classism, sexism, and cissexism, built into everyday life in America.
Fittingly, the person behind Alaska’s first official George Floyd rally was a 16-year-old transgender boy of black and Athabaskan descent who was raised by a white adoptive family.
“It was the first protest that I had ever attended, let alone organized, but I just got tired of white people telling us people of color how we need to protest,” says the protest’s organizer, Markus Vinson.
Growing up, Vinson says he never really connected with his heritage because he lived in a white household in a predominantly white neighborhood. As a result, Vinson said that he was sheltered from having conversations about the realities of being an African-American youth in America.
“I didn’t have to have the talk about what could happen if I was stopped by the police or that I could be killed just because of the color of my skin,” Vinson says. “I really grew up with the feeling that I could do anything or be whoever I wanted to be.”
As he got older, Vinson says that he began to realize that his skin color mattered—especially at his predominantly white elementary school.
“I had a lot of white friends, but I never really fit in with them, and I didn’t really fit in with the kids of color at my school either,” says Vinson.
By middle school, Vinson had become accustomed to microaggressions as classmates would call him “the whitest black person they had ever met.”
“I found myself straightening my hair even though my [adoptive] parents encouraged me to keep it natural. They really did their best to keep me from feeling like I had to change how I looked or acted to fit in,” says Vinson.
Despite the support of his parents, unrelenting anger was brewing within Vinson. In 2018, he was diagnosed with bipolar 2, ADHD, and depression. After episodes of self-harm and suicidal ideations, Vinson was admitted to the Southcentral Foundation’s Pathway House.
An inpatient mental health treatment center, the Pathway House provides individualized mental healthcare for Alaska Native youth.
Vinson would spend a full year in the program. While he credits it for giving him the tools to connect with his heritage, even within treatment, he struggled to fit in.
“The kids in treatment called me ‘whitewash’ and ‘city native.’ It definitely hurt my feelings, but I was also kind of used to being called things like that because I didn’t have a connection to my roots. I kind of just accepted that I would never really fit in anywhere,” said Vinson.
The bullying he experienced led Vinson to start diving into his black and Athabaskan heritage. He found himself becoming increasingly interested in understanding the Civil Rights Movement and American history. But just as Vinson was beginning to feel connected to something, an essential part of his identity would be ripped away from him.
Throughout his life, Vinson has had contact with his birth parents, and he says that he has developed a “chill” relationship with his birth mom. His birth father, however, has remained transient, and in 2019, Vinson severed ties with him.
“When I was in treatment, he told me that I would never be a real black person because I grew up in a white household,” explains Vinson. “He told me that I am not a real nigger because we grew up being shielded from having to go through what a black person has to go through.”
His father’s words left a painful scar on Vinson’s heart, but when he stood in front of the hundreds of protesters who had assembled to march in solidarity, he realized his full identity.
“I am black and Alaska Native,” Vinson proclaimed via bullhorn. “And I am a transgender man.”
It was the first time the Vinson had come out as transgender to a large group. At the time, only a few close friends knew about his identity.
“I finally felt free telling people. Like, I was finally able to be myself,” Vinson says.
Four days after the rally Vinson organized, he was awarded a proclamation for service by the Municipality of Anchorage. For Vinson, it was a hollow governmental response to the protest.
“I know that a lot of youth up here are feeling trapped and like they can’t really say anything because, in Alaska, we’re detached from the rest of the United States. We feel like the Lower 48 they can’t really hear us. But I’ve actually seen a couple [social media] posts from people in the Lower 48 that are like, if Alaska can do it, there’s no excuse for anyone else,” Vinson says. “Alaska might have a small, spread out population, but we got so many people—like hundreds of people—to come out and that has to say something to the rest of the U.S.”
Currently, Vinson isn’t planning to organize any future protests, but he isn’t resting on his laurels. He is offering assistance to other groups organizing, and he continues to march at every rally he can make it to.