Ethan Jack Harrington poured himself a glass of whiskey, walked up to the rooftop of the Capitol Hill apartment building he manages, and finally relaxed.
The sea of protesters and the lines of police and National Guardsmen that had assembled outside his window for almost two weeks had cleared. The Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct, across the street, was emptied and boarded up. People sat in the intersection of 11th and Pine, squarely in what’s now called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), listening to speeches.
Still, Harrington keeps a tripod set up at his third-floor window, ready to broadcast live video, also known as livestreaming, of whatever needs to be seen by thousands of people who have come to depend on him — and neighbors Brandon and Jessica Frost — to share a view of history.
Others have been livestreaming from street level, and doing it well, including citizen journalist Omari Salisbury, Live from the Field, Chai Adera (@future_crystals on Instagram), Joey Wieser and rapper Raz Simone.
Salisbury has been one of the most consistent livestreamers throughout the protests. On June 1, he broadcast officers shooting pepper spray and tear gas at demonstrators, later telling The Seattle Times “there was no sense of de-escalation” from police. On Monday, Salisbury streamed an interview at the protest site with Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, taking Sawant aside to ask her more about her demands.
People like Harrington and the Frosts seemingly had no choice but to broadcast. The protests came to their homes, and they immediately knew what they saw needed to be shared over social media.
“Everything was happening so fast,” said Jessica Frost, a painter who was laid off from her job at an architecture firm in April. “And I thought, ‘People need to see what was happening. This angle needs to be covered.’
“So I didn’t move and I wasn’t going to move and people said, ‘You should eat,’ but I thought if I move, I’m going to miss something.”
The Seattle protests have been seen over Facebook, Instagram and Twitch by a worldwide audience. But livestreaming has also kept the local players in this real-time drama — the police and the protesters — accountable.
On the first day of the Capitol Hill protests, the Frosts streamed for nine hours straight. Their viewers went from 11 to 18,000 in no time. They were buried in messages and friend requests.
At one time, they had more than 250,000 people watching on Facebook, and on June 1, they racked up 1.1 million views.
“It became a documentation,” Brandon Frost said. “(The police) moved on the protesters and we moved to following that action.”
Harrington remembered watching a busload of National Guardsmen empty in front of the East Precinct, and seeing black-clad police officers on the roof of the liquor store across the street. Everyone watching his livestream watched along with him.
“A lot of people looking at the feed see it as a way to keep an eye on the police,” he said.
The first couple of days, Harrington said, he wanted to keep the livestream on “for everything.”
“It was so new to my eyes,” he said. “Then I got so desensitized. They would be burning something and I’d be like, ‘Wait ’til something really happens.'”
Harrington moved into the apartment three years ago, when he became the building’s manager. It was the perfect fit for the full-time painter and his girlfriend, Pearl Sanchez, because they don’t go out that much.
The Frosts moved into their apartment at 11th and Pine last September from a studio in the University District. The place had huge windows and wonderful light and plenty of space for Brandon’s work as an audio engineer and Jessica’s art.
Then George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police May 25. The following night, protesters gathered near Seattle’s East Precinct, and Harrington started streaming for a bit.
The following Saturday, there was a violent protest downtown, and Jessica Frost wondered when protesters would be coming their way.
When they did, she didn’t think twice about pulling her phone out, which surprised her because she is an introvert.
“It kind of happened, and now I feel more of a responsibility,” she said. “This has never happened before. People have said, ‘You’re the only reason I feel safe because I know you’re up there.'”
Things got “chaotic,” on June 4 and 5, when Seattle police used flash-bang devices and tear gas to disperse protesters and the apartment filled with gas.
When Harrington saw 100,000 people were watching, “I kept going. I realized that this is a service. At first it was just me drinking a couple of whiskeys, going, ‘What the (expletive) is going on?’ It went from being a ‘This is a powerful protest’ to ‘Oh, (expletive)!'”
Sometimes, Harrington does the talking, professing his love for Sanchez, or discussing protesters’ T-shirts (“A ‘Poetic Justice’ shirt? That was the worst of the Tupac movies.”)
At one point, Sanchez, who gets up at 6 a.m. to go to work as a credit account manager in Bellevue, got only three hours of sleep in a 48-hour stretch. She has had to show her ID to get into her apartment building. A co-worker who drops her off calls this Area 51.
“It’s been rough,” she said. “But Black Lives Matter. I’m for it. And we do hear a lot of people who have something to say, and say it eloquently.”
Sanchez noticed workers boarding up the lower level of the East Precinct building on Sunday and the upper half on Monday. Police officers came out carrying out boxes and driving off.
“I thought, ‘They’re abandoning everything. What’s going to happen?'”
What happened was a certain, purposeful calm. The intersection outside their window has now been painted with “Black Lives Matter” in giant letters, and serves as a gathering space, where a crowd recently sat for a screening of Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” about the intersection of racial injustice and the justice system.
The change made Harrington laugh: “They were so angry and so determined to get here, but then when they opened up the street they were so polite,” he said of the protesters.
Now that things have calmed a bit, the livestreamers are sorting through what the experience has meant, and how it has changed them.
“The entire process has been anxiety-inducing and stressful,” said Brandon Frost, who is in the master’s program for nonprofit leadership at Seattle University. “But we don’t fear the people who have been protesting. Our stress levels have gone down tremendously since the police have left. There’s no war zone, if you will.”
Still, he added, what they’re enduring in their home is nothing compared with the tear gas and rubber bullets people endured on the streets.
“Even with our anxiety,” he said, “we try to recognize that privilege.”
The livestreamers have had some ominous experiences. The Frosts have seen police drones hovering outside their window, and heard their names mentioned on the police scanner. People with Proud Boys tattoos and Confederate flags in the backgrounds of their profiles have written to them on Facebook, one writing to Brandon Frost: “I’ll see you tomorrow,” and another saying they would come back “and take what’s theirs.”
The comments on Harrington’s feed range from friends asking if he needs beer or groceries, to others — strangers — attacking him.
“People are still coming at me like, ‘Oh, you cis white straight man,’ and Black people probably feel the same way when people say ‘all Black people.’ It hurts my feelings.
“I’m in the creative class,” he continued. “I’ve never had money, never thought I could effect change. Now I’ve been able to give people a view of the chaos.”
Both Harrington and the Frosts have made new friends, connected with activists on the street and felt their communities broaden far beyond Capitol Hill. They hope that connection continues into the future.
“When this is all over, I am going to sleep,” Harrington said, “and pray to God that there is going to be a massive change in the ugliness that we’re living in.”