Thursday Night Started Off Beautifully In Downtown Dallas. Then The Gunfire Came Raining Down.

Thursday night started with a peaceful protest and march in Downtown Dallas, then escalated within the blink of an eye into a scene of terror as gunmen targeted fire at Dallas police.

I was there when the bullets started to fly.

I had been there for hours, actually. I arrived at the protest 30 minutes early to get a feel for the scene and to talk to the organizers of the event, Dominique Alexander and Jeff Hood. As the crowds began to gather around them in Belo Garden Park, both men expressed their frustration with the current state of policing in America, but also were clear in their desire that the night’s demonstration — held in memory and in protest of the recently slain Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota — remain peaceful.

For more than an hour and a half, their event was the model of that. Surrounded by people of all creeds and colors, Alexander, Hood and a number of other community activists addressed their crowd as a sense of unity and solidarity rang throughout the small park.

There were hugs. There was discussion of possible solutions to the issues of excessive police force and outright murder. There was frustration, too. But, most of all, there was a mind to the future.

With his powerful opening speech on the injustice of police shootings throughout the nation, Alexander spoke for many of us: “I’m tired of marching,” he said. “My ankles are feeling the pain.”

But march this crowd of hundreds would. After an hour of speeches, the crowd began to walk east down Commerce Street, many with their arms locked in a human chain of frustration. Chanting “Black Lives Matter!” and “Whose streets are these?” we marched for some 45 minutes — down past Main Street Garden Park, then left onto Harwood Street, then left again on Main Street and then back down toward where we started from.

It had been a beautiful night to that point. The cops were respectful. And though a handful of people brazenly mocked the police as they passed (“Don’t shoot!” was a common refrain), the vast majority of these demonstrators were peaceful. It was infectiously moving, even — so much so that many of the curious onlookers lining the streets raised their fists in a show of support for the demonstration.

As the march moved on past its starting location and on toward the Old Red Museum, the crowd, with no more marching planned, showed its first signs of imbalance. Above chants of “Fuck the police!” and “Black Power!” Hood and Alexander struggled to regain control of their crowd. But they eventually did, and they disbanded their fellow protesters into the night — but mostly back toward Belo Garden Park, really — as the night looked like it was ready to fizzle toward its apparent end.

Then four shots rang through the streets, echoing off the surrounding buildings.

Chaos took over. People were ducking in every direction, scrambling to get to cover. I ran right alongside with them. Shots were going off. We were all, every one of us, frightened for our lives.

Seeking shelter, I ran up the ramp to the second floor off the Bank Of America Plaza parking garage. Curiosity and a sense of obligation to report from the scene led me to the edge of the building, where I glanced down at the scene unfolding below on Main Street.

I was horrified by what I saw.

Video by Sidney Johnson.
An officer was down, right in the middle of the street, clinging for cover behind a squad car with another officer tending to him. A few feet over to the right, the same thing was playing out behind another black-and-white.

It was a scene I thought I’d never see.

Before I could even really process it, another officer rushed up the ramp and ordered me and the four others I was with to get down to the street. Police had now blocked off all roads around the building, he said. He wanted to escort us away from the area.

Gunfire kept sounding out. Worse, we had no idea where it was coming from. I heard 10 or 15 more shots once we were down on the road before police led us to safety into the nearby Greyhound Station, right across from where the police told us the shooters were being held up.

But there was still more gunfire. I heard 60 shots in total, I think. We were all in a panic. Everywhere I looked, people were crying and in disbelief of what they’d just witnessed. Some said they’d seen officers fall to the ground right in front of them. Mostly, we all tried to console one another. Complete strangers embraced in an effort to comfort each other from physically shaking as each shot went off.

Soon, armored police ran through the station with guns drawn and in riot gear, hoping to find a better position behind the large buses inside. They urged everyone to stay put. And so we kept turning to one another for support.

One protester who told me his name was Jabari claimed he was at ground zero when the shooters opened fire.

“When you see rifles come out, you’re not trying to get details,” he said. “They were in this parking lot garage, and you could see the rifle poking out.”

We swapped stories like these for a few more minutes before some of us felt comfortable enough to leave through a side door and head to a more secure position.

I made my way to the JFK memorial a block away to collect my thoughts. The coincidence of sitting here, at this memorial, while snipers were shooting at officers and civilians, was not lost on me.

Neither was how quickly this night had changed. Not even an hour previously, we’d all been walking in unison. Now, we were spread out throughout the city, some of us still hiding underneath cars or behind buildings or just flat-out running to safety. Others of us were standing around, gawking at the still-ongoing activity.

By now, it was past 10 o’clock. There were enough police on the scene where some were able to be dispatched to crowd control duties. I and a number of others were ushered down Commerce Street, even farther away from the action, as still-more officers raced past us in the opposite direction.

Eventually, I came to a bus stop and met a retired Navy seal named Craig Johnson, who too had been right in the thick of things earlier. He claimed he even saw the shooters setting up before they opened fire, but that the police hadn’t listened to him when he tried to warn them.

“I told them [the officers] to look up before shots rang out,” Johnson said. “It started from the top; there were two of them.”

As I continued walking away, the amount of officers I saw around downtown started to overwhelm me. I swear, it felt like the whole Dallas Police Department was there. Just as eye-opening were the calm demeanors of the civilians I walked past. They huddled in various parking lots and street corners, just conversing, sharing information they’d witnessed or heard or saw on their smartphones about what just happened.

But that’s the thing: What just happened?

We’re all going to be trying to make sense of that for some time, I’m sure. But I do know this: Those gunmen ruined a peaceful and necessary demonstration. They destroyed a wonderful sense of cohesion that I’d seen between everyone in attendance — black, white, brown, no matter.

This night could’ve been a model for peaceful First Amendment expression. Now it will be remembered as one of the most horrific nights of violence against police in American history.

But we have to remember too what Alexander, Hood and all of their fellow event organizers pulled off first. We have to remember that this night started off in a constructive manner.

We have to do that if we’re going to prevail.

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More video:

Video by David Wilson.
Final three photos by Pete Freedman. All other photos by Sidney Johnson. 

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