Downtown Dallas is known for tragic landmarks. Now it has one more.
On Thursday night, a group of protesters gathered by the old Dallas County Courthouse, itself a scene of community tragedy, although one not as well known as Dealey Plaza and other places related to the Kennedy assassination. Here, in 1910, a group of vigilantes stormed the courthouse and hanged Allen Brooks before a crowd of thousands.
The Reverend Michael Waters, senior pastor of Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Church in southern Dallas and one of the organizers of the demonstration to protest police violence, was describing this horrible incident to the group that had just rallied in Belo Garden nearby, then marched through downtown. Both rally and march had been peaceful.
“I was asked to come up and share those words,” Waters says. “I had not planned to do that. I got up and spoke about Allen Brooks’ lynching in 1910, and after that had concluded, I asked if I could have the crowd take a moment of silence. ... Very few people continued to chant, but for the most part everyone complied.”
Afterward, the crowd began to disperse down Commerce Street, walking casually back to Belo Garden.
“Then the gunfire erupted,” Waters recalls.
Micah Johnson, a 25-year-old Army Reserve veteran, had come downtown to make his own demonstration. He brought a gun and murderous intent — to kill as many white police officers as he could — and they began to fall as rattling gunfire echoed throughout the streets. The attack eventually became a standoff at the parking garage of El Centro Community College, and again, grim history was made in downtown Dallas.
Now, whenever people look up at the brick parking garage, their minds will turn to thoughts of a lone gunman named Johnson and nearly a dozen police officers caught in his sights, of the four Dallas and one DART officer who died. They'll think of a police robot rigged to kill, for the first time on U.S. soil. And they'll think of a city thrust into the limelight for the worst conceivable reason.
What will be forgotten are the ordinary people of Dallas who, in the hours and days after the attack, struggled to return to normal life, away from the surreal landscape of a battle. That meant enduring the hassle of the downtown investigation, wading through the tension on the street, tolerating the attention seekers, rolling eyes at the media invasion and being jerked around by the rumormongers.
To heal, Dallas would turn to the city’s other landmarks, the personal ones known only to its people, who needed them and each other: consoling friends on porch steps, gripping hands at vigils and houses of worship, buying lemonade from kids donating proceeds to police and tipping a few back at local taverns.
These are some of their stories, tales of the aftermath and how Dallas is rising above.
Sherie Williams was heading home from the Black Lives Matters protest when she heard about the attack. Soon after, she learned her sister Shetamia Taylor and her four sons had been caught in the crossfire.
Taylor, of Garland, threw herself on top of her 15-year-old son Andrew and remained in that position for five minutes, until police came to her. She then realized she had been shot in the leg, one of just two civilians wounded that night.
When Williams and another sister found Taylor and her son in the emergency center at Baylor Hospital, her small room was covered with blood. The 15-year-old, who was not injured, was in the room and inconsolable. “He was like a jitterbug, emotions all over. We walked in, and he just ran up to us and grabbed our necks,” Williams says. “He was still upset. He didn’t understand what was going on.”
By chance, Williams was visiting from her home in Minneapolis. Thursday’s demonstration was a response to deaths last week of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, a Minneapolis suburb, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They had been shot by police officers, and their killings capped months of rising tension over how police employ force in black communities.
Her sister, blood-soaked and watching television in the E.R. while awaiting a five-hour surgery, expressed deep concern for the families of police officers who had been shot.
“It’s just sad,” Williams says. “It’s sad that our society nowadays is coming to a point where the police are scared of the citizens and the citizens are afraid of the police. So now you have this chaos. Everybody wants to do a gun battle when we all just need to come together and stay prayerful and talk."
That impulse to gather and pray spread across the city, and at some unlikely places.
A dozen blocks to the east at the nightclub RBC, Thursday night's show was supposed to be a memorable one with rapper Denmark Vessey, who flew in from Detroit to headline.
Callie Dee, the Fort Worth promoter who organized it, first heard reports of the shooting just before she arrived. "I made it before they started closing down the roads," she says. The show was canceled, but people remained indoors, milling around.
Rap artist 88 Killa got on stage to inform everyone that they would be holding a prayer circle on the patio. DJ Sean P. led the prayer. "Normally, we pray at shows and it's a private thing. I didn't see the downside in unifying in these tough circumstances," says Sean P. "Afterward, 88 Killa encouraged us all to use our platform to speak the truth. It was a good moment in the midst of pain and tragedy."
Dee says she's never experienced anything like it at a show before. "It was really refreshing, and not something you would normally see in a bar," she says. She shot a video on her phone and posted it.
Around midnight, RBC closed. Dee and a friend wandered around Deep Ellum. "It was super dead; there was really nobody out," she says. They stopped in at the Two: Tone drum and bass show at Wits End, but performances at Club Dada and Three Links were already over. "Everybody was inside. Usually, you go down the street and people are hanging out on the sidewalk ... but the people there were definitely inside."
It was only when Dee got back to her car that the emotions of the night caught up with her. "I took a moment to check my phone and saw all the notifications of people who commented on my video [and] I started crying right there," she says. "Then I came home and hugged my kids."
The sun rose on a city in shock. By Friday morning, Johnson was dead. Police had confirmed he was the lone gunman, contrary to their first reports. Five officers had died, and seven more were wounded. Dallas police ended the standoff by delivering a pound of C4 explosives to the parking garage and detonating it. Johnson was a veteran who served in Afghanistan, and his stated motive was to "kill white people, particularly white officers," police Chief David Brown told reporters at a press conference.
The details were a patchwork of American nightmares: gun violence, urban decay, racial hatred, militarized police, inseparable social differences, indiscriminate violence. It was a scary morning.
Not many people think of Thanksgiving Square, built in 1976, as a crucial Dallas landmark. Aside from office workers in need of a place to perch for lunch, few visit the spiral tower and water sculpture. But this is Dallas' official grieving spot, a civic location that becomes most useful during the hardest of times. The need to gather, the coping that comes from sharing grief, brought about a thousand people to the square in an interfaith prayer vigil at noon on Friday.
Mayor Mike Rawlings reminds the crowd that he was there weeks ago, mourning shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, and Orlando, Florida. “This time the terror has hit us right here in downtown Dallas, just a few blocks away,” he says.
All the major players were there: Rawlings, state Senator Royce West, Chief Brown and Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes. Bells tolled. The mournful linked hands and bowed their heads. “Our officers are going to need to hear from you — more than just today — that you appreciate their sacrifice,” Brown says.
"Like many of you, I have been up most of the night," Jakes says. "About 2:30 in the morning I texted a friend of mine and I said: I am sleepless in Dallas. But then I realized that they were sleepless in Ferguson, that they were sleepless in Baltimore, that they are sleepless in Louisiana, that they are sleepless in Milwaukee. Then I had to confess to the fact that many of us do not recognize pain until it's on our front porch."
"Race is complicated,” Rawlings says. “As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and retain the ability to function.’”
Ports in the Storm
Jonathan Everidge nursed his cocktail, eyes trained on the TVs above the bar, watching as CNN reported live from two blocks away. "It's beyond weird," he says, sounding deflated. "It's surreal."
It's 5:30 p.m. on a Friday at City Tavern downtown — prime happy hour in a dark, wood-paneled bar that, by this time of day, is usually filled with suits and the downtown office crowd. But not today. With entire blocks still a crime scene after Thursday night's shooting, downtown feels more like a sleepy Sunday than a typical Friday. Nevertheless, the City Tavern is filling up.
"It's mostly locals," says bartender Alicia Alexander. "Everybody kind of checks on each other and wants to be together when things happen."
At this bar, one could live five miles away and still not be considered a local — many of the customers reside in apartment buildings nearby. For many of them, their backyard was cordoned off by yellow police tape.
Everidge lives across the street, he says, and walked his dogs through the peaceful protest early on Thursday night before hunkering down at home, blissfully unaware of the flurry of gunfire outside until his phone lighted up with text messages. Later that night, he ventured to the bar to check in with his friends and neighbors. "We didn't know where else to go to," Everidge says. "It's family."
When he got to the bar and found a somber, unfamiliar crowd, he decided not to stay long. He'd come out for the company, not the booze. "I have alcohol at home," Everidge says.
In times of uncertainty, when the world feels heavy and there seem to be more questions than answers, there are a few things people tend to seek out – the comfort of loved ones at home, spiritual guidance at church and the warm embrace of the neighborhood bar.
Early morning Friday, as the city was just starting to feel the weight of what had happened, Mate Hartai posted a passionate rallying cry to local bartenders on Facebook. Hartai, the beverage director at HG Sply Co. and a popular face behind the bar at Remedy, felt a sudden call of duty. "Our greatest gift is that, regardless of what happens, people come to us," he wrote. "In times of joy, sadness, celebration, mourning and all the shades of human emotion. They come to us. Now it's our time to do our job."
A bartender, he argues, is the everyman's psychiatrist, comforter and wingman. And, in times of turmoil, a shoulder to cry on. "People need to know their role in this," Hartai says. "We can't let ourselves give in to the panic. Our job only becomes more important in times of tragedy. We can calm and comfort people away from a rash decision like no other profession."
Hartai's call to arms was shared nearly 400 times on Facebook, obviously striking a chord with people in a city that spends more money on drinking and eating out than any other city in the U.S. "You have a job to do," Hartai wrote. “Help your city heal."
On Friday afternoon, as people gathered on City Tavern's tiny sidewalk patio to smoke cigarettes and greet neighbors, the shooting was a frequent topic of conversation. It was pretty hard to avoid, considering police had shut down the nearest intersection after spotting a suspicious package.
Jeff Windhorst, who lives around the corner in Manor House, sipped a beer on the patio — his sleepy black lab Chela at his feet — after police evacuated his building. For Windhorst and some of his neighbors, City Tavern is literally a port in the storm. He has holed up here during ice storms and thunderstorms, and he was at the bar on Thursday night, when staff locked customers inside until the gunfire subsided.
When it became apparent they wouldn't be going anywhere for a while, Windhorst says, the bartender poured everyone a shot and they waited, together, for the all-clear. Now, Windhorst was back at City Tavern, sipping a beer while once again waiting for the next all-clear. A neighbor passed by and told him police had cleared his apartment.
"Well," he says, looking down at his napping dog, "I guess I'll go see what CNN says about my building."
Saturday in War-Torn Belo Garden
By Saturday afternoon, downtown Dallas had a strange energy. The banalities of day-to-day life resumed.
Residents were going for runs or walking their dogs in Belo Garden, just steps away from the battle zone. Sunscreen-lathered tourists paced the streets. The only obvious evidence of the ongoing investigation into the shooting were police manning the blockades to sealed streets and the presence of dozens of news cameras on street corners. Well-wishers approached the officers to shake their hands in appreciation.
The investigation and sealed streets meant that many business were shut down, including the McDonald’s at Commerce and Griffin streets which sheltered those fleeing the gun battle. Purple Onion, a diner at Field and Main streets, was just about to close when the first shots crackled on Thursday. They were able to remain open because their end of Main Street was not blocked off, though the owner said business was slower than usual this weekend.
Inside the Omni Hotel, where many protesters sought refuge Thursday — some even hiding in maids’ closets after hearing reports that the gunman was headed in that direction — tourists wearing sun hats checked in for summer vacation. A concierge declined to speak on the week’s events, calling for Omni President Jim Caldwell. “We’re operating business as usual,” Caldwell says sternly. “We’re very busy.” The Omni went on lockdown immediately once the shooting began Thursday, he says, although the hotel did shelter protesters in the lobby and in the parking garage. Caldwell characterizes reports that people at the Omni were hiding or concerned about a threat within the hotel as “bad information.”
Gregory Bernard Smith II, a construction superintendent visiting from Little Rock, Arkansas, was continuing to protest with a megaphone on the corner of Lamar and Jackson streets on Saturday morning. “We just want peace, not war,” Smith says, as about 10 onlookers record him with their phones. “We want to be served and protected. Not controlled and patrolled.”
Smith says he realizes many people may be reluctant to protest after what happened on Thursday, but he feels it’s important to continue to spread Black Lives Matter’s message. “The actions of one man do not reflect the actions of many,” says Smith, who has also recently protested in Georgia and Arkansas. Smith was on the front lines of Thursday’s protest and says he has "shed as many tears for the fallen officers as for the black men" who have died at the hands of police.
Dallas' downtown is also home to plenty of homeless people. Although there seemed to be fewer panhandling, those who did were not met with downward glances as usual. Instead, their testimony was being sought by media and tourists alike, since many of them are witnesses.
Adam Madejski, a 50-year-old homeless man with long gray hair who says he attended the rally and saw the first cop go down about 100 feet away from him. Madejski described watching several other cops crowd around their wounded colleague and try to comfort him with assurances that he would be OK.
Downtown is Madejski’s territory, and this year alone he has been arrested there for criminal trespassing, evading arrest and presenting a false ID. Perhaps the reason more homeless people aren’t as emboldened as him to continue panhandling is that business owners downtown are on edge and enforcing the loitering laws more strictly.
One homeless haunt is the 7-Eleven at 1010 Ross Ave. Video and photos obtained by the Observer show a tense scene there on Friday, as young black men and police squared off, even as the standoff continued blocks away. There were reports of throngs of people looting the store and stealing alcohol.
Major Max Geron, a 24-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, wrote a description of the events at the 7-Eleven. "To compound issues a continuation of the demonstration sprung up in front of a convenience store," he wrote. "The crowd there quickly grew from 30 to 50 to 150 to 200 angry demonstrators shouting things at assembled officers who stood in a skirmish line between the store and demonstrators. We worked to funnel additional resources there as well as divert some DART buses to provide transportation away for those who needed it."
He wrote the mood was ugly: "Some got on [the buses] and some stayed to hurl insults at officers. One officer later told me: 'I tried to tell them that we were there to protect them and the guy said, "Protect us hell! You guys are the targets tonight!" and started laughing.'"
On Saturday, the store’s manager appeared anxious. He declined to speak with the Observer about what went on Thursday and Friday. He then marched outside to shoo a couple of homeless people camped out in front of the store, sending them down Griffin Street and toward a bus stop. There, a white man in a Dallas Cowboys shirt lectured an elderly black man about the Bible.
“Hell is structured,” he says.
Headaches and Heartaches at Headquarters
By late Saturday afternoon the police cruisers parked outside Jack Evan Police Headquarters had been covered with so many notes, flowers, helium balloons and handwritten signs that they looked like piñatas.
Dallas police headquarters became a nodal point for the event and attracted a hodgepodge of solemn police supporters, well-manicured television journalists, grimy cameramen, strange attention seekers and curious gawkers. A fleet of television satellite uplink trucks lined up outside, antennae aimed at the same point in the sky.
Becky Braccio came with her husband and her Chihuahua to give Starbucks gift cards to any police officer she saw. "It's quiet and peaceful out here right now, and I feel like it's a good reflection time," she says. "It's solemn, but you try to be positive when you can."
Chandler Davis, a University of North Texas student and Army veteran, began a uniformed stand at attention at the memorial at 12:20 p.m. His friend and fellow student at UNT, David Flannery, was on hand to help Davis stay hydrated.
"He's here to serve as a visual example of the armed forces' solidarity with the Dallas Police Department," Flannery says of Chandler, who served 10 years in the Army. "There's a link between serving overseas as a combat soldier and serving in the United States as a police officer. You're both standing in the line of fire."
Many of the adults at the memorial had their kids with them. "I wanted them to understand what we'd been through," says Jennifer Carroll, who brought her 5- and 6-year-old sons Finley and Logan on Saturday. "Being from Dallas, growing up in Dallas, it is hard to imagine something like this happening to us, happening in the great state of Texas. I'm amazed that all the cities that are around us are so filled with love and the outpouring of support. I wanted to make sure that my boys saw it."
With cameras come the absurd. Bishop William Wilson and Pastor Stephen Manyama arrived downtown carrying a 10-foot cross that they'd built at Home Depot. Wilson, who's in his 70s, and Manyama, who's in his 50s, came to Dallas from Birmingham to make their display.
"Pastor Stephen and I feel impelled by the Spirit to pray for peace between the races in our nation," Wilson says. As they began to carry the cross, other people joined and took up the cross for them. They carried it through the streets and laid it on the growing memorial in front of Dallas Police Department headquarters.
By 6 p.m. the jitters lurking just beneath the city’s façade came to the fore. The SWAT team pushed media and the public toward one corner of the building. Panicked, excited broadcasters got on air to report the headquarters was “in lockdown.” Social media exploded in rumor: shots fired, a man running amok in a parking garage, the attacks in Dallas continuing, and WFAA (distinguishing itself as the least reliable Twitter feed in town) claimed gangs from Houston were descending to cause chaos.
At the scene, aside from the breathless television reporters, things went on as normal during the security event. The steady ebb and flow of families continued apace, with members of the public allowed to approach the cruisers by the main entrance to pay respects or try to gain air time.
Meanwhile, the police had swept the parking garage and didn’t find any mysterious, dark-clad figure. To be safe, they deployed dogs to hunt around for anyone. As the K9 teams were sweeping the empty building, parking attendant Getu Bekele was serenely working the lot across from Gilley's. "Oh, it's been good and busy," says the Ethiopian man, who lives in Dallas.
Wearing a blue ribbon pin and florescent vest, he stopped every vehicle trying to turn into the lot. "It's five dollars," he'd say. But if the passengers showed him some flowers or a sign, he'd let them in for free. The crowd down the street or the news helicopters hovering overhead didn’t faze him. "There are helicopters all the time here," he said. "There’s always something."
Sunday Morning on a Killer's Street in Mesquite
Sunday morning was subdued in the Mesquite neighborhood that housed the latest most infamous man in America, Micah Johnson. No TV crews crowded the sidewalk, and no law enforcement officers rummaged through the two-story brown brick home he once shared with his mother. Not anymore. There was only a quiet, empty street in this cookie-cutter residential neighborhood.
Neighbors call it a “working class neighborhood,” the kind where people “get up, go to work and mind their own business and try to live life.” On this Sunday, they mowed their lawns, played basketball in their driveways behind their one- and two-story homes or relaxed in the shade of porches and trees.
Mo Cham was sitting on a lawn chair watching a couple of workers repair his roof. He has lived in Mesquite for five years, in the neighborhood for four of those years. “I used to live in Pleasant Grove, and that was hell,” he says. “Every once in a while you’d hear gunshots. But my experience in Mesquite has always been nice. You don’t see people just standing around, none of that stuff.”
That’s part of the reason why he and other neighbors simply thought someone had died when they noticed law enforcement and TV news crews descending on Helen Street, which serves as a border between the neighborhood and the open pasture of overgrown grass across the street from the killer’s home.
Lupe Ortega was taking care of a friend’s husband in the neighborhood while she went to Wal-Mart to pick up a few items, and she kept hearing helicopters outside Friday afternoon. She went outside and saw two of them in the air. “Maybe somebody is hiding in the little river over there,” Ortega recalls a friend telling her.
When she left her friend’s house, Ortega drove her usual route home, but the TV news crews and law enforcement officials were blocking the streets. Everyone else was taking pictures. She found out what happened on her street that night. “Well, I just said, ‘God have mercy,’” Ortega says. “It’s something else. It’s going to get worse. You just can’t ever tell. You can’t even tell who you’re sitting by at church.”
Ortega was attending a service at Cornerstone Baptist Church located across the street from the neighborhood where the killer lived. Majestic on the outside with white stone and a tall steeple with a cross perched atop it like a beacon, Cornerstone has come a long way since its days in an old store building on Oak Lane in Dallas in the late 1930s.
Cornerstone’s sanctuary is a large open space with a balcony above the podium where choir members sing their songs like angels peering down upon the sinners in one of Michelangelo's paintings. The pastor opens by addressing the events of this past week for a few minutes before he moves on to his sermon of why evolutionists are wrong.
“I think what we’ve seen take place in our city this past week is what we should expect,” the pastor preaches to a diverse crowd. “These things should not take us by surprise based on our society and our culture and the direction that we are heading. And all of these things are going to continue to happen, they’re going to continue to progress unless some changes are made.”
Outside Johnson’s house, just another two-story brown brick home among many, the camera crews and police are long gone.
The killer’s mother, Delphine Johnson, arrived dressed in her Sunday finest, a white dress with jewelry and sunglasses, and quickly disappeared inside her home, carrying what appeared to be a Bible. (She and her husband would break their silence in an interview with the website The Blaze on Monday. “I don’t know what to say to anybody to make anything better. I didn’t see it coming,” father James Johnson said. “I love my son with all my heart. I hate what he did.”)
Moments later another car pulled up, this time unloading a man who claimed to be her pastor. He, too, was reluctant to talk and looked as if he wants to disappear. “Everyone is the son or daughter of someone,” he says, heading inside.
Police on the Pulpit
The Reverend Michael Waters swayed as he faced the congregation at Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Church. The 50 congregants, predominantly African-American, were there to hear a sermon from the man who was speaking at the Black Lives Matter protest when the massacre began.
The church, a small brick sanctuary in Cedar Grove, looks a little like a ranch house. The sermon was simultaneously boisterous, reverent and passionate. Waters sang softly as others in the congregation launched into boisterous prayers and gospel songs.
Waters stayed still, eyes closed, as others exhorted the crowd. These included his wife, Yalise Waters, who had fled the scene of the shooting as well, as waves of panic sent hundreds of people scrambling for safety.
“I ran into the courthouse, and I ran into the Omni hotel – and I can tell you that God is an awesome God!” she shouts from the clear plastic pulpit, one arm raised high. “Despite how tired you are of the hatred, how tired you are of the fight, God is an awesome God!”
She paused for effect. “I’m going to invite you,” she says, “to get over yourself.”
The church had guests from the police department. Chelsea Whitaker, an intelligence officer with the DPD, took the stage in plainclothes. She wasn’t there to pretend there isn’t a gulf between the black community and police in Dallas. This is something she deals with from the inside.
“I’ve stopped some of our young black men in Dallas with AK-47s. I’ve been in white trailer parks where people called me a nigger,” she says. “I get it. I’ve been pulled over. I’ve had to show my badge to prove that I’m a real cop.”
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She related a story about a white Dallas police officer, who asked her why her hair was braided: “I asked him, ‘Brother, what do you mean?’ He says, ‘A lot of times when I arrest people, their hair is like that. I thought it was gang related.’ He was dead serious. Now, there’s not a racist bone in his body, but there are plenty of ill-informed bones.”
Progress came after she calmly explained that he should do some research into black culture to be a cop in Dallas. “He came back like two months later,” she says. “This boy’s been reading about African kings and whatnot.”
Waters started his sermon softly. But he soon launched into a booming, two-tracked message that condemned both the hatred of police officers displayed by the shooter — and others on social media who crassly cheered him on — and those who despise peaceful protesters of excessive police force, while making no allowance for social justice. “We have had a harrowing and horrifying week in Dallas and nationwide, when we have been bombarded with death in real time,” he said. “It all hurts. It is all heart-breaking, and none of it is more painful than the other. It all hurts the same.”
Throughout the service, the minister and other speakers repeatedly called to the city to “celebrate” its police officers, as well as to embrace them in their grief. “We stand with them at this time, for our communal loss,” he says. “This is personal. We are not detached from this. … The book of Matthew proves to us that we can desire for peace and for justice. And we can do it at the same time.”