Independent journalist Omari Salisbury talks about CHOP and the fractures it’s exposed
The Capitol Hill Organized Protest — or CHOP — in Seattle has attracted worldwide media attention. Huge companies with big payrolls have dispatched reporters there. The whole time, Omari Salisbury has been there, too. He’s an independent journalist, and his company is Converge Media. It often streams live video for hours a day that attracts thousands of views.
When Salisbury started recording the clashes between police and protesters back in May, his camera was a four-year-old iPhone. Today, thanks to donations from people who support the work that he and his team are doing, Salisbury has better technology.
A supporter donated a loft condo next to the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct for Salibury to live and work out of. He and some of his staff even have bulletproof vests.
In an interview recorded at the loft, Salisbury told KNKX’s Jennifer Wing that he and his team have talked to hundreds of people protesting in Seattle since late May. Listen to the audio above, or read the transcript below. Both have been edited for length.
Omari Salisbury: My very first story was Friday, the 29th (of May). Everybody remembers Saturday the 30th, but Friday the 29th in the International District, and I just happened to be the only person there. And I happened to catch these guys just tearing up downtown. And the police didn't stop them or arrest them. They went 1.4 miles from Fifth and Jackson to Seventh and Pine. And I captured it and I wrote about it. And I thought that 50, maybe 100, people were gonna read it. And it turns out that people actually started watching my stream.
To be honest with you, there's so many people on both sides. ... And I tell people all the time, I really don't have a dog in this fight in a professional capacity. In a personal capacity, man, I want to see, you know, my city. I love Seattle, the Emerald City. I mean, I want to see things get better for people. You know, I'm saying, I want there to be a better situation here. But professionally, all I can do is show up everyday with my camera, try to ask as many different people from as many different perspectives questions, and try to give myself, for one, and the viewing audience an understanding of what's going on.
Jennifer Wing, KNKX: And is one voice that is possibly missing or that you want to get is some individual police officers?
Salisbury: What I have been doing is talking to some officers. I'm trying to arrange something to get on camera. The chief speaks as the chief of police. But, you know, the officers, it’s been crazy for them. And one of the conversations that I've been having with the officers, especially the ones that are based at the East Precinct and live on Capitol Hill, and be like, "Man, what was it like to look across the barricade and to see, like, a buddy that you might know from the gym?"
And I think that the police perspective is very important. And also, you know, the business owner perspective. The business owners, they feel like, shot in the heart because the police, their action impacted business owners and then, you know, the occupation impacted business owners. But the thing is, when the western barricades were still here, a lot of those business owners were the lifeblood of keeping the protest moving. They had food out there for protesters. They had a mutual aid, PPE, a rest stop. People can use the bathroom and everything else. And when the barricade fell the few days after that, a lot of the business owners, they weren't feeling the love. They were really in the mix. They sacrificed twice. And, there was never any real outreach to them.
KNKX: Are people coming from outside or are they from Seattle, where most of the people that you guys have talked to, where are they from?
Salisbury: It's kind of a tourist space right now, but the majority of people are from Capitol Hill. This has always been a residential thing. Now, as we look out here today, a lot of the numbers are dwindled down and a lot of the people who are camping are here. And, you know, clearly those aren't people who really live on Capitol Hill or within a convenient base because they're camping. I'm talking different (people) from the homeless or the unhoused. But, at its height, if you were to say like a week ago or something like that, you'd find so many when they were doing their town halls up there in front of each precinct, all those people live in the neighborhood. Those weren't people that were getting bused in or something like that. That's also why this was sustainable for so long, is that it was people who might go to work down at Facebook or Google during the day and they protested night or somebody who's a nurse at night, at Swedish or Harborview. And then, you know, they're out there at CHOP during the day. And so, you know, that's what sustained the action.
KNKX: And you're talking about that almost in past tense. What do you see going forward?
Salisbury: Going forward, we're going to see what's going to happen with the East Precinct. Cal Anderson, people wanted the park back. They're going to get the park back. Human Services is probably going to have to relocate the majority of the homeless that are in a tented area — or the hardcore ones, the true believers to the cause who just happen to be homeless, you're going to see them either go downtown to a different park or to the East Precinct. That's going to mean that the protesters are giving up the whole footprint except basically in front of the East Precinct, which kind of sets the stage for a standoff between the police and the protesters.
And it also presents an opportunity for negotiation because the police, all they have is bullets and batons, as the chief said. The protesters, all they have is their physical presence in front of the East Precinct. ... (W)hat neither side, the police nor the protesters, are talking about — which is a powerful weapon, and tool — is negotiation and communication.
KNKX: And who's doing that?
Salisbury: It's been outsourced. The mayor said she was outsourcing it to Black community leaders. And that’s cool, because it's better for the mayor to be like, "Man, I can't handle this communication. So let me find somebody," then for the mayor to do nothing at all. It's very clear, just like COVID exposed some counties only have one ventilator, what CHOP and the (protests) uncovered is that the links between community and City Hall, they're just not that strong — at least not here in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Because other neighborhoods look at Capitol Hill and think, "Man, these guys, they’ve got it together. Everything they do up here. ... They do pride. They do Capitol Hill block party." You know, great cooperation with the police and everything else.
But it seems like when it comes to issues, these social issues and things like that, you know, we didn't see any leader from Capitol Hill over all this time step up and say, "hey, man, you know, I'm representative of the people and I have a great relationship with City Hall. Let's see how we can do something." We called for leadership, leadership, leadership, and it's never really materialized.