THE BIG TALK
An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
Journalist Omari Salisbury says he wasn’t chasing glory via his cellphone coverage of protests and riots in Seattle in the summer of 2020. He just wanted to let his neighbors — and the world — know what was happening in his hometown.
“I wasn’t trying to make some commentary on the spot. I was just showing people what I saw,” said Mr. Salisbury, who became a ubiquitous presence with his red iPhone during the weekslong Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP, in Seattle.
Today, his iPhone is on display at the Museum of History and Industry, a private institution focused on the Seattle area’s mercantile roots and which bestowed one of its History Maker 2020 awards on Mr. Salisbury, founder of Converge Media, a local news and entertainment production company.
Looking back on the tumultuous, if not chaotic, events of that season of protest, Mr. Salisbury, 46, finds himself cautiously optimistic that some good may have been wrought: “A lot of people had no real idea anything would change. We thought it could.”
The CHOP dominated headlines for 23 days in June 2020. Amid nationwide demonstrations over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, protesters besieged the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct and assumed control several city blocks not far from City Hall and Cal Anderson Park.
Police fled the scene, and the normally hip neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest was cordoned off by barricades as an “autonomous zone” was declared. Democratic Mayor Jenny Durkan went on national television and mused about another “summer of love,” but when gunfire left one teenager dead and another critically wounded, the CHOP lost its charm and the authorities moved back in.
Stores were looted and police made dozens of arrests, but the events that precipitated the emergence of a large, organized protest were sparked by the authorities, Mr. Salisbury said. His video from June 1, 2020, — and Mr. Salisbury’s fame rests primarily on the videos he took, live, day after day within the CHOP — shows him getting teargassed.
“Seattle, I have a question,” Mr. Salisbury tweeted at the police department, the City Council and Ms. Durkan. “Are you seriously saying that no one is responsible for tear-gassing a whole neighborhood? Asking on behalf of media, peaceful protesters, and residents of Cap Hill all who got gassed.”
While Mr. Salisbury’s sympathies clearly lie with the goals of CHOP protesters, he insists he approached the event as a journalist rather than a participant. His iPhone simply recorded what transpired around him as CHOP unfolded, not what he did.
Mr. Salisbury said when CHOP began, his Twitter feed had 114 followers. As he began posting video accounts at Converge, his followers rocketed to several thousand in just over 48 hours. He now has more than 30,000.
“It was such a unique situation,” he said. “The city had never seen that level of police violence, and it seemed reprehensible that people in their homes with kids around there were getting teargassed several days in a row.”
In perhaps the most widely known incident, Mr. Salisbury was recording a surging mass of protesters, one of whom had a pink umbrella. A police officer lunged to grab the umbrella.
“That was a real flash point, a real change in the protest, right there,” Mr. Salisbury recalled. “People started fighting over the umbrella, and then officers started spraying mace. I got sprayed, other people all around me were getting sprayed, and then the police threw flashbangs that you can hear erupting all around.”
In the aftermath of CHOP, Mr. Salisbury sees some changes as significant. Former Police Chief Carmen Best resigned amid the protest, and Ms. Durkan has opted not to seek reelection. The sheriff of King County is now appointed rather than elected. State lawmakers in Olympia have taken up the issue of police reform and passed two key bills.
Meanwhile, at Converge Media, Mr. Salisbury’s website, stories focus on uplift and events in the Black community, along with celebratory pieces on local artists of color. There are political stories, too, but the overall tone of Converge is one of Black success rather than seething.
Mr. Salisbury says he’s not really interested in accolades. Instead, he wants to see progress. While torn by some of the violent incidents that occurred in CHOP as well as violence that continues to rear its ugly head in Seattle, the overall direction CHOP pointed toward is a positive one, he says.
“I think a lot of us are still trying to figure out exactly what CHOP meant,” he said. “I think you can make the argument that that was a genuine success with CHOP, if only because it raised awareness and the issues. Things are definitely happening here.”