Updated: Dec 28, 2021
Gunfire killed the serenity. Mob justice rules the streets today.
I swept through the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest Zone at the edge of downtown Seattle, Washington, gripping my cameras in a low crouch as someone fired two gunshots in the distance. Six months into the global pandemic, the streets sweat with an aggressive fever as the city baked under the midday June sun.
“Fuck you, press!” Someone spat as I weaved between protesters. The weight of my armor plates and ballistic helmet provoked my labored breathing as I advanced toward a mass of rioters that were descending upon a shirtless man who was screaming at the radical swarm occupying his neighborhood.
Seattle erupted in nightly riots less than a week after George Floyd was killed during a police stop in Minneapolis. Protesters captured six-square blocks of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, declaring it as their own following a number of violent exchanges that left people critically injured from gunshots and vehicle strikes. They renamed it the CHOP and facilitated its rapid descent into anarchy. As a relatively new conflict photographer, I was determined to capture this historic time, and diligently report the truth. Even though my condo building was nearly demolished in the city’s riots, I made every effort to maintain my objectivity and independence as the city I called home for over two decades was being systematically destroyed. On this day, I decided to capture daily life in the CHOP. I wasn't there long before it erupted in violence.
“No pictures!” Someone yelled as I steadied myself against a graffiti-stained telephone pole. I raised my camera, exhaled, paused between breaths and fired off a short burst of frames to capture the chaos unraveling before me.
I moved to a scarred concrete barrier and knelt behind it as the screaming man challenged another to a fight. A passing medic pushed his way through the lawless hoard and stepped between both men when a bystander swept the crowd with pepper spray. A suffocating cloud of chemical agents engulfed the melee, exploding the mob in all directions. The only casualty was the peace-keeping medic. He took a direct hit to the face. Staggering, he pushed his palms into his eyes, futilely attempting to extinguish the pain before tripping to the ground. A woman rushed to his side and cradled him in her arms, flushing his eyes with warm milk as he gazed upon her in a tender embrace that manifested the seraphic beauty of a Renaissance painting.
I focused my lens, pressed the shutter release on my camera and heard the snap, snap, snap as I clicked off a 3-round burst of frames to capture the scene.
I spun around, bounded back, and slipped into the crowd as someone huffed, “Where’s that fuckin’ camera man?”
This is Part 1 in a 3 part series about my time in the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest Zone (CHOP), also known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). Part 2 details my observations about how the vast majority of protesters are peaceful agents of change with only a very small minority of people pillaging their efforts to wreak havoc and derail any efforts for real and meaningful change.
NOTE: Let me be clear about one thing: BLACK LIVES MATTER!!!
I have no patience for people telling me that all lives matter. Of course all lives matter. But, right now, we need to focus on Black Lives Matter. Think of it this way, we all live in the same neighborhood. One house is one fire. In that moment, only one house matters and we should all work together to keep it from burning to the ground. Of course, all the houses in our neighborhood matter. But, right then and there, only that one house matters and it will take our collective effort to save it.
So, yes, let me repeat... BLACK LIVES MATTER!