The live-streamer who recorded a widely shared, street-level video of a moment Monday night when officers on Capitol Hill in Seattle began to shoot pepper spray and tear gas at demonstrators said people had for hours been passionately but peacefully protesting police killings of Black people.
“There was no sense of de-escalation” by police at that apparently crucial moment, said Omari Salisbury, a Seattle-based citizen journalist with Converge Media who’s been documenting the protests here. “The police are the professionals. They’re supposed to know how to de-escalate.”
In the video recorded by Salisbury, some demonstrators facing a line of officers across a barricade at 11th Avenue and East Pine Street open umbrellas to guard against the pepper spray some officers are threatening to deploy. Other protesters can be seen standing still, some with their arms up in the air. They’d been chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” Salisbury said.
Then an officer grabs a pink umbrella, setting off a tug of war with protesters as other officers start to shoot pepper spray. The incident was also captured on another video from a view above the scene, with the crowd loudly chanting, “Take off your riot gear. We don’t see no riot here.”
Officers deploy more pepper spray at protesters pressed against other points along the barricade. Some objects are thrown from the crowd, the aerial video shows. The officers deploy still more pepper spray, along with flash bangs and tear gas.
Most people in the crowd run away, but Salisbury stays nearby as long as he can, pleading with the officers to “bring it down” and then finally walking away, gasping for breath.
“I took in so much tear gas,” he said in an interview Tuesday morning. “I got hit with the pepper spray and the tear gas.”
As events progressed, the Seattle Police Department declared a riot.
In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best said they’d seen videos of the incident. Durkan said she “was concerned that things had escalated and changed so rapidly,” though she said she believed the officers were in a “highly charged and very fluid situation.”
Salisbury, who hosts a local Black news show called “The Morning Update” online, said he grew concerned in the minutes leading up to the chaos for multiple reasons.
Earlier Monday evening, as protesters moved around Capitol Hill and encountered lines of officers positioned in the blocks surrounding the Police Department’s East Precinct, Black Lives Matter activists had led the way and had sought to maintain some distance at other barricades.
“The Black Lives Matter people were like, ‘Five feet! Five feet!’” he said. “There was definitely a buffer zone kept by Black Lives Matter.”
Salisbury no longer saw those people at the front of the crowd in the minutes before the pepper-spraying began, he said. Some protesters were very close to the barricade, and the police hadn’t issued clear instructions about distance.
Salisbury said he grew even more concerned when Seattle officers wearing gas masks, accompanied by some state troopers, replaced a line of bicycle officers wearing gas masks and carrying batons.
Warning: This video contains explicit language.
In an extended video clip, Salisbury warns what that could mean.
“We have a definite change in posture,” he says. “What we can expect next is tear gas. … This situation is escalating.”
Salisbury didn’t see anything being thrown at officers at that point, he said.
In the video, Salisbury mentions that no dispersal order has been given. “We have not heard an audible anything from any authority here,” he says. Seconds later, an officer grabs the pink umbrella and the pandemonium starts.
“The Seattle Police Department declared a demonstration on Capitol Hill a riot Monday evening after a crowd … threw rocks, bottles and fireworks at officers and attempted to breach barricades one block from the East Precinct,” the Police Department said in an online blotter post, describing the location as 11th and Pine.
“In response to the increasing number of assaults on officers and the increasing risk to public safety, the Incident Commander declared the incident a riot. Officers deployed less-lethal munitions and a mobile line of bike officers was established to disperse the crowd.”
As the night wore on, there were protesters at other locations nearby and other interactions with officers. Best said Tuesday an officer was “struck in the face with a large piece of concrete” and several other officers were injured.
She noted East Precinct commanders had knelt down with protesters shortly before the situation devolved. She and Durkan said they wanted peaceful demonstrations to continue.
They said the Police Department’s Office of Police Accountability would investigate the Capitol Hill incident for potential misconduct and said the city’s Office of Inspector General would review the incident for potential policy changes.
What happened frustrated Salisbury, because the protesters had been nonviolent Monday and because some Police Department sergeants had at times previously displayed composure and judgment, he said.
“There are officers who have shown exceptional leadership, but that was lacking” at a critical juncture, he said.
The incident also bothered Salisbury because he said he saw officers fail to stop property destruction Friday night in the Chinatown-International District.
“These anarchists tore the ID up,” he said.