Salem Police Sgt. Mike Johnson in a video talking with individuals holding rifles outside of a downtown business. The video, captured by Joe Smothers, has sparked controversy in Salem. (Twitter)

Before he went to bed on Monday, June 1, Joe Smothers finished a Facebook Live video of the protests against police brutality that brought hundreds to the streets of Salem.

When he woke up the next morning, his phone was buzzing with requests for interviews that ranged from the Washington Post to KOIN 6.

Overnight, his Facebook Live video had gone viral after it recorded Salem Police Sgt. Mike Johnson telling a group of individuals armed with military-style rifles in downtown how to avoid violating the curfew imposed by the city in response to the protests.

The video, which runs over three hours, has sparked accusations that police have enforced the curfew unevenly, arresting protesters while taking a lighter-touch with the gun-toters. The video has outraged protesters. Salem City Council has called for a review of the incident.

A clip of the interaction has been retweeted over 151,000 times on Twitter and been picked up by media outlets including BuzzFeed News, Insider, the Daily Mail and others. 

“Honestly, I just went out to go and support (the protests),” said Smothers, 25, who had no idea he’d captured a viral moment.

Smothers, who moved to Salem three years ago from St. Helens, said that after watching how tumultuous demonstrations in other cities had gotten, he and his wife decided to show up to the Salem protest with water and medical supplies.

He also brought along his Google Pixel 3 smartphone. Smothers said he’s not particularly adept at taking photos or videos on his phone and struggles to join Zoom meetings. But he began livestreaming the protest to give friends and family a first-hand account of what was happening.

“I wanted them to be able to see what's actually going on instead of just watching the news,” he said.

In particular, he said that he wanted viewers to see that the protests have been largely peaceful. Smothers said that people watching his livestream felt comfortable enough to actually come out and join the protest.

As he continued livestreaming the protest, Smothers said he started getting comments in his feed about rumors that people were marching downtown wielding bats and that Antifa, black-clad protesters who’ve gotten into brawls at demonstrations elsewhere, were on their way.

As the protests wound down, Smothers headed toward Glamour Salon in downtown Salem. The business has been the subject of controversy after its owner, Lindsey Graham, publicly reopened in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions. During the protests, individuals armed with military-style rifles stood guard outside to prevent looting.

“I wanted to clear up those rumors to see if actually anybody was going down there to cause issues,” he said.

He didn’t see Antifa. But he did see individuals posted outside with rifles. As he kept filming, he recorded Johnson, the police officer, telling the armed individuals that he had been instructed to “request” that they clear out to avoid violating the curfew that was about to go into effect. Johnson also remarked that he didn’t want the police to appear that they were playing “favorites.”

The now widely shared video has drawn strong reactions. But at the time, Smothers said he didn’t see the officer’s interactions as controversial. He said that he thinks the officer was trying to clear out the area to prevent a clash between the armed individuals and Antifa or rioters breaking away from the protests.

“Everyone has their own opinions and everything,” said Smothers. “And when I heard (the officer) talk, I was like, ‘okay, with the rumors going on and everything it's pretty understandable.’”

Smothers said he’s reached out to people online who’ve posted strong reactions to the clip, explaining to them that there’s more to the story. He said that they’ve listened and deleted their comments or posts. 

Smothers, who lost his job as a budtender at a dispensary after the COVID-19 pandemic, hopes to build on the success of his viral video. He said he plans to begin organizing events in Salem, such as a garbage pick-up, and post videos of them to a new Facebook page, “What do you know with Joe.” He’s also planning a video to record the story of a sexual assault survivor and later will have an event aimed at helping the homeless.

“I'm hoping more people will see what our community is doing and start joining together to help our community become better,” he said.

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Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.