Day after day, month after month, protesters gathered in Seattle this year to protest racial injustice and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minnesota police officer. Five people who were at the front lines reflect on their experiences.

These interviews have been edited for length.

How a year of protests changed Seattle

Travonna Thompson-Wiley, 29

Organizer, Black Action Coalition

Seeing a Black man murdered on my telephone screen, on the TV screen, on the computer screen was just about it for me. As a Black woman, I’m used to seeing images in regards to my people suffering. But seeing the clips and hearing him scream for his mom, it invoked a lot of emotion and pain out of me and I decided to go to the streets. 

I had never protested before. I have always gone to MLK Day marches because it’s an annual tradition in my family. But this was different.

It was a frenzy of thousands of people. There was no type of direction. It was just people on the streets that came there for the same reason I came there for, because they were just immensely hurt by what they saw on TV and what was going on around the country. 

I wasn’t expecting to go on the freeway, but I just felt strongly about what was going on and I felt that I had had enough. I had had enough from a president that didn’t care about what was going on with the pandemic, being stuck in the house, seeing people die, seeing people lose their jobs because of our government’s incompetence, and then seeing the police continuously brutalize people.

It was just emotion in me. I went on the freeway. We wanted to just make a statement that enough is enough and there has to be change. There was a lot of grief. There was a lot of anger. 

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It felt empowering because it felt for the first time when I was in Seattle in recent years where I felt seen as a Black woman, where I felt seen as a Black person. A lot of people down there were not Black. A lot of them were white. But it was the first time where I feel like a large group of white people finally understood what Black people have been saying since they got to this country, since they were taken as slaves from their home, from their motherland. I felt like my pain was finally seen and it wasn’t swept under the rug. 

— As told to Heidi Groover

Abie Ekenezar, 41

Navy veteran, screenwriter/director, protester 

SPD was using pepper spray and flash bangs, along with tear gas and rubber bullets. As a soldier, I would never think that my state would ever try to use tear gas or anything like that on its public citizens. I guess I was completely mistaken. 

I am very, very disappointed in the city of Seattle, in the mayor for doing that, especially when we were given her blessing in the beginning and then the whole last minute of her saying that we had a curfew while we were still at the protest.

Abie Ekenezar, 41, is a Navy veteran and screenwriter/director who participated in protests this summer. She is part of a lawsuit alleging the city failed to protect protesters from drivers and from police who injured protesters with crowd-control weapons.  (Courtesy of Abie Ekenezar)
Abie Ekenezar, 41, is a Navy veteran and screenwriter/director who participated in protests this summer. She is part of a lawsuit alleging the city failed to protect protesters from drivers and from police who injured protesters with crowd-control weapons. (Courtesy of Abie Ekenezar)

I don’t think I’ll ever forget where I was. Something was telling me to record everything. All of a sudden, we hear, “Stand back, go back.” They were throwing tear gas at people and I got a full whiff of that. [A friend] was trying to do everything that she could to use the bottle of baking soda that she had, to pour it into people’s eyes. I was covering her because I was just like, I’m back in Afghanistan again and I’m trying to make sure my people are protected.

I had this pride in the city of Seattle. That day was the first time that I was just extremely saddened and disappointed in the city itself, especially in the police department. We all still have this major distrust of the police and everything, but to see them blatantly go and hurt people on purpose, target people — it was grotesque, absolutely grotesque and disgusting.

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I do feel like there has been some change but it’s minute and it’s not enough. It’s very, very slow and it’s very, very small. And I hate that. I would love for it to be faster. But at least something is happening.

— As told to Heidi Groover

Randy Huserik, 55

Seattle police sergeant who led a squad of eight officers

When we got to work on Saturday, May 30, the first real big day, I was surprised at the sheer number of people that showed up downtown.

My squad at times, we were working anywhere from 15 to 18-hour days. For the most part my squad, we were front row center for all of the first week and a half’s worth of demonstrations.

It was the long days and just the venom and vitriol that came from people who had decided who and what you were and what you were about based solely on the uniform that you were wearing.

I would encourage [my squad] to not be a spark. People are out here looking to get a reaction and everybody in the crowd is standing there with their cellphone out. You can’t let this get under your skin because that’s what they’re trying to do, they’re trying to draw a reaction from you, they’re trying to get something that’s going to wind up on the internet, that’s going to wind up on television news.

My guys took rocks and bottles and frozen water bottles and full beer cans — you name it, and we had it thrown at us.

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We’re still seeing it, the psychological toll it took, just that constant verbal abuse from people. I think for a lot of younger officers, I think that just wore them down. [There was a] guy who was telling us the best thing we could do was take our guns out of our holsters and put them underneath our chins and pull the trigger and kill ourselves. There were just absolutely horrible things that were said to officers, what they were going to do to their children and their wives. You just kind of had to sit there and take it.

Screaming and yelling at each other over a fence isn’t going to get either side anywhere and I’d hope that in a year, in two years, in five years, that we look back on this as hopefully a time that changed everything for the better. I can’t look at the video with George Floyd and not be horrified by that, not be sickened by what you see. As a police officer, you almost wish that you were there to fix it, to yank his leg off of his neck and to somehow, some way, prevent that from occurring.

— As told to Sara Jean Green

Omari Salisbury

CEO of Converge Media, journalist reporting on the protests

Covering the protests there on Capitol Hill in Seattle, it called on all the virtues. It took a lot of faith, a lot of understanding, some courage, listening. The biggest focus for me being out there was just to be able to basically call it like I see it.

We were so intertwined, meaning that when the city wanted to talk to the protesters they’d call us, when the protesters wanted to talk to the city they’d call us, when there was disputes between different people in CHOP, they’d call us.

Converge Media’s Omari Salisbury holds a list of demands from protesters discussed during a closed-door meeting between Mayor Jenny Durkan and select representatives from CHOP on June 26, 2020. (Ramon Dompor / The Seattle Times)
Converge Media’s Omari Salisbury holds a list of demands from protesters discussed during a closed-door meeting between Mayor Jenny Durkan and select representatives from CHOP on June 26, 2020. (Ramon Dompor / The Seattle Times)

I find in a bigger sense, some of the things I learned is: there’s a leadership gap in this city and it’s unfortunate, and it’s glaring. There’s not enough people in our city who don’t have their own special interests enough to be able to communicate with all the stakeholders. I found that when everything really hit the fan, the people who we would really expect to emerge as leaders, the people we would expect to be an understanding voice, they never showed up.

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That also presents an amazing opportunity for our city for leaders to emerge, because there’s definitely a space. People are waiting for them.

We covered these protests from day one for our community. And that’s what kept us out there reporting, because these were protests around the value of Black Lives. And we felt like it was our duty to be out there every day for our community. For Black people.

— As told to Melissa Hellmann

Angélica Cházaro, Decriminalize Seattle organizer and University of Washington law professor

It took eight years of organizing to get people on board with the idea that we didn’t need a new youth jail in Seattle. This time within days, we had hundreds of the same organizations sign on to support the idea of defunding SPD by 50%. It was a testament to the decades of work that came before this moment, with people rejecting the status quo.

For a long time I’ve organized within my silos, whether that’s immigrants’ rights organizing, or organizing against police and incarceration. Seeing how many people from different sectors were ready to jump into this fight has really expanded the way I work.    

UW law professor Angélica Cházaro says, “Seeing how many people from different sectors were ready to jump into this fight has really expanded the way I work.” (Handout photo)
UW law professor Angélica Cházaro says, “Seeing how many people from different sectors were ready to jump into this fight has really expanded the way I work.” (Handout photo)

It was clear to me that so many sectors like housing justice folks, climate justice folks, immigrant rights folks, all saw their fight tied up in the fight to defund SPD and elevate Black lives. So I think that that’s going to have a lasting impact in how people work together toward common goals.

For so long we have been used to just having to hold the line and mostly losing, honestly. So to have this opening, where not only were we able to reverse the growth of SPD’s budget, but direct those investments into community, was really a transformational moment for me and for so many other people: to see that we could be about not just stopping the bad ideas, but building the kind of world that we all so desperately need right now to survive all of the direct crises that are facing us as a city.

— As told to Melissa Hellmann