• Mark White

The May 30 George Floyd Protest in Downtown Seattle

A protester with an apocalyptic religious message was front and center during the tear gassing.

When Real Change asked me to cover the George Floyd Protest that was being held at the Westlake Center in downtown Seattle, I jumped on it, not realizing that I didn't really understand what I was agreeing to.

For more pictures of the protesters, police, and teargas activity, please view my George Floyd Protest album.

I follow the news closely, mostly through newspaper apps. I watch virtually no news on television and listen to NPR maybe once a week. Of course I knew about the nationwide protests in response to George Floyd's killing, but I hadn't watched any film clips of the protests, and I somehow didn't consider that Seattle's event would turn as violent and chaotic as the other cities where more recent police shootings had occurred.

Throughout the May 30 George Floyd protest, I tried to capture as many faces amongst the protesters as I could.

So entering the event about 30 minutes before it was scheduled to start, I was completely unprepared for what was about to happen.

Partly because of my inexperience in covering events (I had only covered one previous news event as a photographer in my life), and partly from my general approach to photography, I didn't capture a single image of the speakers at the rally, where thousands had gathered before marching to shut down interstate 5.

Instead, rather than covering the political protest itself -- the speakers, rally and march -- my focus was on the chaos that ensued once the police began teargassing the crowd.

That wasn't my intention, but when I arrived at the event, I got caught in a maelstrom of protesters and police lines a half block away from where the rally was staged. The energy was electric. Tensions were high. With the exception of a macing incident between a cop and a protester in a gas mask, who was hell-bent bent on mocking the police, the first hour was peaceful. Angry, tense, loud, dynamic....but peaceful.

"I Can't Breathe" is one of the thousands of messages protesters held high.

In other words, it was an adrenaline-producing, full-throated exercise of First Amendment Rights.

Although I knew I had a journalistic commitment to capture at least some of the speakers, I figured that every other news source would be doing just that. So I decided to stay on the police lines. That's where I kept cameras focused.

When I referred earlier to my "general approach to photography," I was referring to my penchant as a street photographer for capturing everyday people and moments. When I walk the streets, I try to capture stories of people in the streets. I try to uncover a small moment that would otherwise go undetected.

At the George Floyd Protest, I stayed focused on Police Officer Karman for awhile. I was taken by his calm demeanor amidst all the shouting and the ongoing interaction he had with one protester in particular.

I followed this particular protester and Officer Karman for much of the event.

I also have series of close-up images of the two of his police colleagues on the front line -- where I was mostly stationed -- who were throwing or shooting the tear gas canisters into the crowd.

Throughout the event, I also looked for and captured as many faces as I could. And as the event took a turn to chaos, I stayed with several of the individual protesters who took to spray paint and baseball bats as their weapons of choice.

Once the tear gas was thrown by police, a contingent of protesters pulled out their spray cans and began painting the Nordstrom building.

I had two cameras -- a Fuji X-T3 with a 35MM prime and my Olympus OMD with a 40-150 zoom. Both are mirrorless cameras, which I find perfect for street shooting. But like I said, this was only my second news event, and once the frenetic activity between the police and protesters started, the zoom became useless to me.

The lens was fine while the crowd remained relatively static. I was able to use it to isolate individual faces and signage in scrum of thousands of others. But since I had no experience shooting with it on the fly, 90% of my shots with it once the teargas started flowing were out of focus and useless. I had only previously used it for landscape and architectural shots -- in other words, in very still, calm, non-dynamic environments.

The other problem I had was that aside from the cotton face mask I was wearing for Covid, I wasn't wearing any protective gear, such as a gas mask that I noticed several journalists in the crowed wearing.

I took this selfie immediately after experience the first wave of tear gas from police.

The fumes from the first round of gas felt as if my eyes had smacked into a barbed-wired fence. It burnt like hell, but it only took me a few minutes to recover. But at another point in the midst of the chaos, I found myself on top of a protester pulling him off a journalist (he was assaulting her on the ground). To break up our scuffle, the police tossed a canister at my feet to. (I'm not sure why they wouldn't have intervened when the clearly marked journalist was being assaulted.) The gas singed my right hand and the right side of my face and neck pretty badly. For the next 48 hours, my skin felt as if I had a severe sun burn.

For nearly 30 minutes after being gassed, I could not hold my camera with my right hand, and I was unable to open my right eye. So an entire series of shots in the early stage of the tear gassing were taken with my left hand and my left eye, which resulted in some pretty horrible shots. When I recovered, I was able to shoot again as normal.

For more pictures of the protesters, police, and teargas activity, please view my George Floyd Protest album.

© 2016-2020 MARK WHITE  |  mark@mjwhitephotos.com I 206.409.1247

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