This is a remarkable scene that freelance photographer Alex Garland captured on Saturday afternoon at Westlake Center in downtown Seattle:


Here's what's happening, according to witnesses: A man employed by the private company Valor Security, which guards Westlake Center, is unloading a can of mace in the face of 25-year-old Raymond Wilford, who says he was on his way inside the mall to meet a friend.

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You can see Garland's full photo set of the incident here. What did Wilford do to deserve being pepper-sprayed in the face? The mall's security director says the incident is under investigation and the company has no comment. Nor would he tell me the guard's name.

According to a Seattle police report, the mall cop told officers that when Wilford "took an aggressive step towards him he deployed his pepper spray."

But according to Wilford and two witnesses I spoke to (Garland and a community college student demonstrator named Isra Ayesh), that's not what happened. They say the mall cop should have dealt with the shirtless man, who you can see in Garland's other photos, because he had been getting up in the faces of and harassing several dozen pro-Palestine demonstrators. The man called at least one person "towelhead," the witnesses said, and was cursing. Garland said he thought he overheard the man say "sand nigger." Seattle police officer Ronald Hylton says in his report that he'd been flagged down by a protest organizer because a white male "with no shirt on was causing a disturbance and 'picking a fight' with the protesters."

"I was trying to avoid him because I heard him say a bunch of racial stuff," says Wilford, interviewed by phone from his home in South Seattle. It's not clear who bumped into whom or what started the altercation between Wilford and the shirtless guy. In the photos, they encounter each other and then square up in opposing fighting stances.

But there's no indication in the images, witness statements, or police reports that Wilford committed any crime. SPD's police report says "the unknown suspect"—the shirtless man whose name we don't know—"started a fight with him." Garland and Ayesh said Wilford did a kind of pump-fake move at one point, but didn't actually throw a punch. "I never hit him and he never hit me," Wilford says.

"The security guard was like, 'Stop,'" Wilford remembers. "The white guy was still yelling and walking towards the security guard. I was like, 'Why are you pointing your mace at me? He’s the one being aggressive.' And then he pepper-sprayed me."

Here's video from Garland, the photographer, of the mall cop awkwardly attempting to detain Wilford immediately following the pepper spray. The demonstrators can be heard yelling, "You maced the wrong guy!":

"I think he’s real bad at analyzing the situation," Wilford says. "He said he got a call for a white guy for his shirt off. He should have paid attention to that person. I don’t want to say it’s a race thing or anything. But his attention was straight on me. He never looked at him. After he sprayed me, he lied to me and said he sprayed both of us."

The mall cop kept trying to pull his arms back and slam him on the ground, Wilford says. His eyes burned from the pepper spray, he felt like he couldn't breathe, and he was worried "might go into a panic attack."

Eventually, Wilford was led into the mall and offered medical aid, then released.

As for the protest, "We were just a bunch of demonstrators protesting the current violence in Gaza and publicly condemning Israel and US complicity [in Israel's actions]," says Ayesh, the student protester. She says people had been asking the belligerent man to leave and telling him it was a peaceful protest.

The mall cop didn't assess the situation and used excessive force, she believes. "This guy just had his finger on [the mace] the entire time. It blew back and hit a bunch of the demonstrators in the face."

In fact, in a second report filed that day, another police officer said he was approached by an individual who "stated their group was intentionally targeted by Westlake Mall Security with excessive force and that Mall security was racist. [Redacted] stated she did not want Mall security at the next rally." The person had red eyes consistent with being hit by pepper spray, the officer reported.

Wilford said he's considering filing a complaint. But in the meantime, "I don't want to be in that area. This is not the first time. The security always harasses people. You sit down for a brief second and they’re harassing you." He says one time, a security guard followed him into in the bathroom and questioned him for using the handicap stall.

"I’ve been treated like that all my life, so it kinda brushes off," Wilford, who has two kids, says. "I’m from the South, I’m from New Orleans. I’ve seen the worst of it." He lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and came to Seattle a decade ago "to try to redo my life," he says.

"People here seem to be more secretive about their not liking black people, or their racism," he says. "I’m so used to it I don’t know what’s wrong and what’s right half the time."

Seattle police say they're investigating the incident.