Matt Henson is a 31-year-old Asheville native who has picked up a few hobbies since the shutdown. He started playing the acoustic guitar and getting into hiking. His cell phone has three lenses, so Henson thought he’d also get into photography.
It was Sunday afternoon, May 31, when Henson went downtown after a hike to stop by Marble Slab Creamery. He noticed people gathering in Pack Square.
“And then police cars went by, and I heard people up and went up and looked. And I was like, ‘Man, this is a lot of people out here,’” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve seen Asheville have protests, but this is pretty significant. This isn’t our normal Asheville gathering.”
Henson took out his phone.
“It was the first time I ever used Facebook Live,” Henson recalled. “I just threw a title on and shared it.”
And Henson kept videostreaming, uninterrupted, for the next three hours.
Henson found himself in the heart of the protest as it wound from downtown to Patton Avenue onto the bridge to Interstate 240.
Henson stands 6 feet 5 inches, and he often held his camera overhead, providing a clear view of everything and everyone within the frame. He got right up to where protesters met lines of police in riot gear, and he experienced tear gas for the first time.
Henson appears white but said one of his grandfathers was African-American. Henson narrated everything he saw through his lens without hyperbole or any obvious bias, as a play-by-play announcer might. What Henson hadn’t counted on was the audience his video would draw and the impact it would have.
To date, more than 244,000 people have watched at least part of that video from the opening night of the protests and shared it more than 3,600 times. Henson went again on Monday, to the second night of protests. He livestreamed for more than four-an-a-half hours, drawing as many as 22,000 viewers at one time and 275,000 in total.
For many, Henson was their primary window into the protests. From the comment thread and anecdotal evidence, people across the spectrum of political ideology tuned in. So did some within the leadership of Asheville’s social justice and Black Lives Matter movements, along with some in law enforcement.
At one point, from late during the second night of protests, Henson still kept his livestream going despite being hit with tear gas. Two men who were watching his video feed from inside a bar they own stepped outside and called out to Henson, inviting him in to have some water and recover.
“I started getting messages from people telling me they were using the streams to check on their kids,” Henson said.
Henson had found a calling, at least in this moment. He returned downtown six more consecutive nights to produce more livestreams of the protests.
“By the end of the first night, I kinda understood, like, I’m just gonna give facts. I’m not gonna talk to the comments. I’m gonna focus on my being safe, for one, and try to bring as raw a footage as possible,” he said. “My objective was to be able to describe the situation so that if a person could not see the stream, they could still understand what was going on.”
The protests downtown have quelled to a simmer and, aside from receiving friend requests by the thousands, Henson’s life hasn’t fundamentally changed.
He works in data research and has a 5-year-old daughter, whose name he wears in a dog-tag-styled necklace. Among his many tattoos are a symbol on one arm honoring his grandmother and a symbol on the other for his grandfather. Along one forearm, in Greek, there’s a phrase Henson said means “Be a better man than your father.”
In his backpack, Henson now carries a drone and a large backup battery for his phone, along with a badge identifying Henson as “press,” courtesy of Asheville community radio station WPVM. Though he hasn’t livestreamed since June 22, Henson regularly returns downtown, ready to livestream when he’s inspired.
“Sitting at home is not getting it done. People gotta get out and start doing stuff,” he said. “If people want to leave a better world for their kids, it’s not gonna be done with Facebook posts.”