For a while Friday night it seemed like the Next Generation Action Network's planned protest was going to be a bust. There were more members of the media than protesters at Main Street Garden Park downtown, the gathering site for Dallas' first organized anti-police brutality protest since the July 7 shooting deaths of five Dallas cops.
"I came down from Fort Worth to support the cops, but nobody's here," Dirk Thomas said. "We might as well just jump on that train and head home." Thomas' buddy, Mark Wysatta, had already knocked back a few by the time he and Thomas showed up at the park. He was in a more antagonistic mood than Thomas, urging Robert, a Vietnam vet and Black Panther who declined to give his last name, to "call Black Lives Matter" next time he needs help from law enforcement rather than Dallas police.
Robert, clad in a red beret and getting around with a little help from a walker, took Wysatta's advice in stride.
"Well," he said after being asked about Wysatta, "you shoulda seen how they messed with me when I came home from Vietnam."
Robert came out to the park, he said, because it was a nice day and he wanted to see how everyone was getting along in the weeks after the shooting.
"It's not a black thing, it's not a white thing, it's a people thing," he said. "Being a Christian, I know that it's never right to take another person's life. One day, they will have to answer for what they've done wrong."
Dominique Alexander, the head of Next Generation Action Network, took the megaphone to get people ready to march at about 7 p.m., a half hour after the rally's scheduled start time; there were probably between 100 and 150 non-media people in the park.
Alexander and his fellow pre-march speakers set the tone for what was to follow. Mourning of the five police officers, those who have been killed by police and protest could all exist in the same space, Friendship-West Baptist Church Pastor Freddy Haynes said.
"We are big enough in our hearts to care for and grieve with the families of the police officers that were slain," Haynes said. "And our hearts are focused enough to remember why we were marching [on July 7]."
When the crowd left the park and headed down Main Street toward El Centro College, the epicenter of the shootings, there was very little visible police presence. Marchers largely kept to the sidewalk, but did briefly stop traffic on Main as they crossed Ervay Street in front of Neiman Marcus.
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Mark Hughes, the man named a person of interest in the shooting three weeks ago, was among the marchers. That night, he'd brought his rifle, carrying it openly as Texas law allows. Friday, he was unarmed. Dallas police haven't given him his gun back or apologized, he said, but he wasn't about to miss a chance to get back out on the streets to fight injustice.
"I had to be here," he said, before turning back to documenting the march on Facebook Live.
As the march got to El Centro, Alexander stopped the crowd to pray for the officer who died protecting protesters on July 7. His prayer was followed by an exhortation to show up at city hall for the August 10 city council meeting and flood the council chambers with a demand that Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, the city council and Dallas Police Chief David Brown respond to the still unmet concerns of Dallas' black community.
The march turned around after reaching El Centro and ran into police for the first time. Briefly, it appeared things could go bad. Uniformed cops on the scene were ready for a fight, decked out in riot gear and toting rifles, they irked the crowd.
Hughes, his brother Corey and others briefly engaged the cops before acceding to the demands of their fellow marchers to focus and get back on the sidewalk. No arrests were made, barely any voices were raised and the protest headed peacefully back to Main Street Garden.