Last June 17, when organized anti-Trump protesters showed up outside a Donald Trump rally in Dallas, Breitbart, the conservative online news service, described some of the protesters with the headline: “Dallas Anti-Trump Protesters Are Entitled, Vile and Stupid.”
Well, at least Micah Johnson, the shooter who killed five Dallas cops three weeks later, didn’t shoot Trump. For that, we may have longtime civil rights organizer Peter Johnson to thank.
Micah Johnson had asked Peter Johnson — no relation — at an organizing meeting before the Trump rally if he could bring his guns to the Trump protest. Peter Johnson said no.
The demonstration was put together by a handful of veteran Dallas protest leaders including Peter Johnson and former legislator and Dallas City Council member Domingo Garcia. “Domingo and I had said we’re not going to do this until we’re guaranteed that we can control it,” Johnson told me at the long conference table in the front room of his tidy ranch-style home in southwest Dallas a couple of Sundays ago.
“When we were planning the Trump protest,” Johnson said, “a group of young men came to my office, calling themselves the New Black Panthers. Kids. And one of them was the shooter.”
The night after the anti-Trump protest, Johnson, who is in his seventies and still carries internal wounds from a beating he took on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, suffered a stroke. That’s why I was at his house on a Sunday. We have known each other for 31 years.
He told me he blames the stroke on the day he spent organizing the Trump protest. “It was extremely hot. I had been out there all day long.”
Walking again, talking, sharp as ever but with a feeding tube in his gut because of a swallowing problem, Johnson is proud of the way the Trump protest went down: “It was peaceful. We had it controlled, with no incidents at all.”
But he was baffled a month later, the week after the police shootings, when Gromer M. Jeffers, politics editor of The Dallas Morning News, called him asking questions about Micah Xavier Johnson, who had murdered five police officers and wounded seven more in downtown Dallas on the night of July 7.
“Gromer called me and said, ‘Peter, we want to talk to you about Micah Johnson.’ I said, ‘Gromer, I don’t know him.’ Gromer said, ‘Yes, you knew him. He came to your office.” Jeffers told him Micah Johnson had asked him about bringing a gun to the Trump protest.
Then it came back to him. He did remember Micah Johnson sitting at his conference table and asking about bringing guns. “We were talking to these kids about protest and peaceful protest. I said, ‘You just can’t bring guns, son.’ I never discussed it with him.”
So now at this distance in time, knowing who he was and is, I asked Peter Johnson if he could put Micah Johnson into any kind of context for me. I knew he couldn’t explain Micah Johnson, the man, because he didn’t know him. I was reaching more for some sort of answer that might help me understand what’s going on.
“In all the inner cities around America, from Harlem to Watts,” he told me, “there are tens of thousands of Micah Johnsons that are fed up.
“One of the things that black America knows is that police officers who kill unarmed black people aren’t going to be prosecuted. If you want to be angry with somebody about Micah Johnson, you need to be angry with the grand juries for not indicting police officers and angry with the prosecutors for not prosecuting them."
“I grew up in the country. See, what you plant, that’s what grows. If you plant tomatoes, you can’t get okra out of it. What has been planted in the minds of American black people is that white police officers can kill you.
“The only difference today from yesterday is video. This is something as a people we have always known, that we have accepted as reality.
“Now you have a generation of nihilists. It’s a philosophical term which means basically that they don’t give a fuck about living, dying, going to jail, not going to jail. We have a whole generation of nihilistic young men and women. They don’t see a future in America.
“Their anger and their despair have turned into nihilism. Nobody, the chief of police, the mayor, the religious leaders with their kumbaya, holding hands and singing, have discussed the fact that what created this is the inability to prosecute Dallas police officers and American police officers for killing unarmed black people.”
I asked him if that despair among young people could be organized into a productive coherent political movement. Johnson, who was at Martin Luther King Jr.’s side for much of the Civil Rights Movement, told me, no.
“The despair is too deep. I could come into black Dallas 50 years ago and organize the black community to boycott Safeway in spite of the [conservative] negro leaders, because the deep, deep despair and hopelessness did not exist.
“One of the great things, even after Martin Luther King’s death, there was a sense of hope in black America, that we can change things, that we can make it better for us as a people," he said. “That does not exist today.”
He talked about “illusions of progress” like the city’s star-crossed attempt to build new housing and retail on Bexar Street in South Dallas, deep in the heart of the city’s most crushing poverty. “The ugly reality of living on Bexar Street has not changed,” he said. “If anything it has gotten worse."
His examples are detailed, and not encouraging. “I was talking to a grandmother in southeast Dallas. Her grandson quit school this past semester — 15-, 16-year-old boy," he said. " A dope kingpin over there bought him one of these really expensive 10-speed bicycles. Pays him a hundred dollars a day to ride all through the neighborhood with a telephone that the dope dealer bought him. Hundred and fifty dollar Michael Jordan shoes. All he has to do is call the dope dealer’s houses and let them know when the police are in the neighborhood.
“This old woman has never seen that kind of cash money. She gets food stamps and public housing. Now she has $100 a day in cash coming into her home, so she is reluctant to even get control of this 15- 16-year-old little boy, because she has real money that she can see, that she can hold in her hand."
This is not a Dallas problem, he said. “It’s hard to get white people to understand this despair that exists all over black America. Not just here.
“I am going to have a meeting in a couple days with a bunch of families, primarily mothers who have had children killed by the Dallas Police Department. The city of Dallas has paid a black family that I know maybe $800,000 or some large amount of money because the police department shot their child for no reason at all, standing in his door without a gun, unarmed.
“The city writes checks. You have people so desperate for money, and the city says, ‘Well, if you don’t sue us and if you shut the fuck up, we’re going to give you some money.’
“So you have these families who have accepted these big checks from the city. But the hatred, the fear of the Dallas Police Department, the mistrust still exists.”
At the conference table when I spoke to Johnson was another visitor concerned for Johnson's health, Dr. Emmanuel Matadi, a veterinarian who is a leader in the Congolese diaspora movement of people driven from their country by the numbing slaughter and atrocities going on in that Central African nation.
Dr. Matadi showed me a stack of color photographs of what he said were recently slaughtered Congolese adults and children, some beheaded, some sliced open with fly-covered intestines spilled at their feet. His own family are among the murdered.
This is a man who has seen chaos take the throne. He knows where chaos comes from and how it achieves dominion.
Matadi, with his experience in Congo, and Johnson, with his experience in America, agreed that the despair of young, black, urban poor Americans may make them resistant to traditional organizing, but they are, both men said, extremely susceptible to exploitation and ignition.
Micah Johnson is not far removed morally or psychologically, they said, from a suicide killer wearing a bomb vest or from a machete-wielding soldier crazed on meth.
“Not far at all,” Johnson said. “He is among a whole lot of other kids I know who are already dead, spiritually and intellectually. They are already dead.”
Matadi said, “Think if Peter did not stop him. We could be talking about the incident with Donald Trump. You see what we are talking about? That was a chance.”
Micah Johnson, Matadi said, came that day to Peter Johnson, to “somebody who has experience, who has power and who knows what protest is really about.”
What if Micah Johnson had fallen into the hands of someone that day who was not at all like Peter Johnson, if he had gone to a person, instead, who lusts for chaos? “‘You will be the hero,’ they would tell him,” Matadi said. “‘You will be the hero.’”
In Dallas we can’t imagine what could have been worse than five cops killed and seven wounded. But maybe we’re just not using our imaginations. What if all of that had happened and worse? What chaos then?
Then spit at them, call them entitled, vile and stupid. Go ahead. So what? Too late. Watch this on TV. It’s on there all the time now, a new chapter every week. You see how it really works, right? You don’t call people names when the shooting starts. You run.