Protesters: Caribou heart meant to send message to senator

FILE - In this May 7, 2020, file photo, Sen, Dan Sullivan, R-Ark., wears a mask at a hearing in Washington. Protesters in Alaska carrying a banner and a caribou heart interrupted a campaign event for Sullivan who is seeking reelection. The Anchorage Daily News reported the small group of protesters were restrained and escorted out by staff and attendees at Sullivan's campaign launch event in a hangar near Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Saturday, July 11. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP, File)
FILE - In this May 7, 2020, file photo, Sen, Dan Sullivan, R-Ark., wears a mask at a hearing in Washington. Protesters in Alaska carrying a banner and a caribou heart interrupted a campaign event for Sullivan who is seeking reelection. The Anchorage Daily News reported the small group of protesters were restrained and escorted out by staff and attendees at Sullivan's campaign launch event in a hangar near Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Saturday, July 11. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP, File)
BECKY BOHRER

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The man who owned a caribou heart that protesters said they wanted to give U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan during a disrupted campaign event said Sullivan reminded him of the robotic Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz,” and he wanted to give him a heart.

Samuel Johns said his intended message was tied to Sullivan’s support for opening a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. The refuge provides grounds for the Porcupine Caribou herd, which is significant to the Indigenous Gwich’in.

“I thought, maybe I should give him a heart as a symbolic message that the caribou heart is what has kept my people alive for thousands of years,” Johns said Monday.

Sullivan's campaign defended the senator's record. State officials have long pushed for opening part of the refuge for oil and gas drilling, including all three current Republican members of Alaska’s congressional delegation.

Johns said he was not at Saturday’s event in Anchorage, in which a protester stepped on stage next to Sullivan and his wife and attempted to pull the heart from a bag. Video posted by the Alaska Landmine blog shows another woman run into Sullivan’s campaign manager, Matt Shuckerow, as he moved toward the protester on stage. That woman was knocked down. A statement from the protesters released to the Anchorage Daily News said the woman was trying to get between them.

Shuckerow said the actions taken by protesters at the event, at an airport hangar in Anchorage, were dangerous and unsafe. Protesters said unnecessary force was used in responding to their actions.

The matter was being reviewed by police from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and the city, said David Schulling, deputy chief for airport police and fire.

“We’re still looking into it, to try to determine what exactly took place,” he said.

Shuckerow described the incident as a “very serious security threat,” and said he was concerned about the woman who stepped on stage as she “was reaching to grab something concealed within a handbag.” He also thought they might throw the “bleeding” heart at the Sullivans.

Johns said “blood, anywhere, was not part of the plan,” and said he should have been more explicit on the handling of the once-frozen heart.

Kathleen Bonnar, the protester who went on stage, said she never planned to throw the heart.

Sullivan is seeking a second term in office. His wife is Alaska Native and from a prominent Alaska family.

Rina Kowalski said she was among the protesters and had bruises after the event. She called the protest bold and said she hoped it would get Sullivan's attention.

“And it did capture attention. ... Our goal was fulfilled,” she said. “Hopefully he can't ignore us now.”

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