'This is assault': Alaska Native activist says Wasilla mayor targeted, grabbed her
An Alaska Native woman says she was assaulted Wednesday during the special session in Wasilla when protesters tried to storm the seating area for lawmakers.
Haliehana Stepetin attended the third day of the second special session of the Alaska Legislature at Wasilla Middle School to protest with other demonstrators who were asking legislators to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy's vetoes.
As Stepetin was making her way to sit down where lawmakers were sitting, she said Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle forcefully grabbed her arm and then her wrist.
Rochelle Adams began taking video and pictures as the interaction unfolded. Stepetin also said the press secretary for the House Minority Republicans, Zach Freeman, also grabbed her arm as she was walking.
When asked about the incident, Freeman said in a statement Thursday:
“In the moment, no one knew if the individuals were planning to harm members of the legislature. 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.”
Freeman went on to say he would let Cottle "speak on his own if he chooses to." Multiple requests for comment from Mayor Cottle's office had not been answered at the time of publication.
Stepetin filed a report with the Wasilla Police Department Thursday. Wasilla police confirmed there is an active investigation, saying, "There is a report being made and it was assigned to an investigator because of the nature of the situation."
The police report filed by Stepetin details her account of the incident between her, Freeman and Cottle. It reads in part:
"I did not react or pull away. I remained calm, still facing the direction I was walking when I was grabbed and waited for them both to let go of me. Mayor Cottle and Freeman did not let go, so finally, I turned around to my left and Mayor Cottle was holding my left wrist. I then asked him, 'Are you security? Are you a police officer?' (no response, just a baffled expression on his face). I continued, 'Then you cannot touch me. This is assault.' The mayor replied, 'That's bullshit' and finally after an additional intervening from a bystander let go of my arm before he continued to hover over me and make me feel uncomfortable, unsafe, and in danger. [...] it is clear Mayor Cottle and Zach Freeman targetted (sic) me in the group of concerned citizens at a public session for legislators with forceful, physical behavior."
In a phone interview, Stepetin said he made her feel violated.
"I was scared and uncomfortable and I just didn't want to get hurt or anything," she said.
Video and pictures of Stepetin's account appear to support her claims Cottle and Freeman grabbed her.
In the video, Stepetin can be heard saying, "Do not touch me, do not touch me."
As to why Stepetin feels like she was targeted by the mayor, she said she felt he didn't want people there expressing their dissent.
"We were there to speak to the legislators that are not in Juneau and thus who aren't doing their job representing their constituents and being there to vote and being there with everybody else," she said. "So I think he was upset about that, that we were there and making it known that we weren't happy with our legislators for that, which is you know, we're allowed to do that, it was peaceful."
About a third of state legislators reported to Wasilla for the second special session, in support of Dunleavy's call to hold the session in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. A majority of legislators reported to Juneau, where lawmakers are attempting to override the $444 million budget vetoes.
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