Fifty-two years ago, a shooter with a rifle sat on a high perch, firing as a peaceful procession moved through downtown. The nation was struck by the violence that killed President Kennedy then, and it’s shaken again today as the country reels from the aftermath of another sniper attack. On Thursday, a peaceful rally and march organized to protest this week’s shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—two black men in different parts of the country who were killed by police—ended in a mass shooting. The victims in Dallas were primarily police officers—out of the fourteen people shot, twelve of them were police. Five of those officers—four Dallas police officers and one Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer—were killed.
With breaking news situations—especially ones as chaotic as this—the initial details are often vague or, in some cases, completely incorrect. Even now, much of the information we have is incomplete and will almost certainly be filled out in the hours, days, and weeks to come. Here, then, is the best information we have at the moment.
What was the march for?
The rally on Thursday night was to protest the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, who was killed by police in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, and Philando Castile, killed by a police officer near St. Paul, Minnesota during a routine traffic stop as he attempted to produce identification. Our national dialogue around police using violence against African-American citizens under dubious circumstances has been ongoing, of course. But the close proximity of the deaths of Sterling and Castile—as well as the video that emerged from both shootings—galvanized sentiments surrounding the issue.
What was the atmosphere at the demonstration like?
Prior to the shooting, the rally and march seemed to be peaceful. Although the Dallas area isn’t a complete exception, the relationship between the Dallas Police Department and the citizens it serves and protects has been warmer than in many other cities. Complaints of excessive force in Dallas have dropped 64 percent between 2009 and 2014; arrests and officer-involved shootings are also down, as BuzzFeed notes. During the event itself, Dallas police seemed to express support for the demonstrators on social media.
— Dallas Police Dept (@DallasPD) July 8, 2016
Men, women, boys & girls gathered @ Belo Garden Park for the demonstration re: recent police involved shootings. pic.twitter.com/gah2Q3tqG6
— Dallas Police Dept (@DallasPD) July 8, 2016
What happened when the shooting started?
The shooting started around nine in the evening, and a WFAA camera captured two minutes of raw video as the shots began. What was a calm procession turned into a mass of terrified people seeking cover.
— WFAA-TV (@wfaachannel8) July 8, 2016
The hundreds of people involved in the march quickly scattered as gun shots rang out. In those moments, you also see police preparing to respond and helping citizens to safety. That’s something that demonstrator Lynn Mays explained to reporters:
Lynn Mays was at the scene when the shooting started. He said an officer saved his life. pic.twitter.com/Kc4aXlg9GT
— Caleb Downs (@Calebjdowns) July 8, 2016
It’s hard to fully know what happened in the moments after the shooting started—that’s the sort of thing that will probably come into clearer focus with time—but the sniper attack eventually turned into a shootout between police and whoever was doing the shooting.
Who were the shooters?
Initially, it was reported that there were multiple snipers, but it isn’t clear if that is accurate. We know that one of the suspects, Micah Johnson of Mesquite, was involved in an hours-long standoff that ended when Dallas police fitted a “bomb robot” with an explosive, detonated it, and killed the 25-year-old former Army reservist early Friday morning.
Most of what we know about Johnson comes from the police. According to Dallas Police Chief David Brown, Johnson told police that he acted alone; that he “wanted to kill white people, especially white cops”; that he planted explosives throughout downtown; and that he wasn’t affiliated with any groups.
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) July 8, 2016
Police sweeps, however, did not locate any explosives. Three additional suspects were taken into custody, but there has been no information about who they are or if they were involved in the shooting in any way. As far as his motives and affiliations go, a report from The Daily Beast says that Johnson’s Facebook page “liked” the New Black Panther Party and the African-American Defense League, though the page is currently down. As to his specific motives, the police word on that is likely to be the last, since Johnson was killed during the standoff.
And as for the other people taken into custody, we know that suspects got into a black Mercedes. We know that they were apprehended on I-35. We know that one of them is a woman. And we know that Mayor Mike Rawlings told reporters that “now is not the right time” to reveal more information.
What about the guy in the camo shirt who was on the news last night?
This is one of the reasons we ought to urge caution when it comes to identifying suspects. As the scene was unfolding, a few photographs of a young black man at the demonstration with a rifle over his shoulder began circulating. The Dallas Police Department quickly tweeted out one of those photos and identified him as a suspect. On CNN, anchor Don Lemon invited a visitor to the city who had snapped a shot of the man from behind on the air to speculate about if the man had participated in the attack.
He hadn’t. That man, Mark Hughes, was the brother of an event organizer. He was openly carrying a rifle—which in Texas that has been legal for years—but when the shooting started, Hughes was on the street, not in a parking garage or an elevated area. His brother, Cory, appeared on Dallas’s KTVT and explained that Hughes had given the rifle to a police officer when the shooting started, and that he was not involved in the incident in any way. Video evidence confirms that’s exactly what happened.
Video originally shared on Facebook shows man identified as a suspect by police surrendering his gun https://t.co/9CqRNYvsaW
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) July 8, 2016
Hughes was interrogated by officers for thirty minutes and released. At the moment, the Dallas Police Department’s tweet identifying Hughes as a suspect is still up. According to interviews he gave after the interrogation, DPD has not yet apologized to Hughes for putting his face out as a suspect.
This has obviously been an emotional day for police. Twelve of their own being shot is a nightmare; five shooting deaths in one city on one night makes Thursday the deadliest day in American law enforcement since September 11, 2001. Still, the circumstances of the demonstration can’t be ignored as we look at the bigger picture. People were marching because relations between police and black Americans are extremely tense right now. Today, we are mourning five police officers in Dallas. Last night, hundreds of people in Dallas gathered to mourn a litany of black Americans who’d been killed by police, particularly the two whose deaths this week captured headlines. All of those deaths are tragic, but putting the face of an innocent black man out as a suspect and leaving it there for hours after he’s been cleared is certainly doing nothing to deescalate tensions.
What happens now?
In a few hours, or maybe a few days, we’ll likely know for sure if Johnson acted alone or not. We’ll also learn more about the officers who died and the civilians who were shot.
We’ll see a lot of statements made from politicians, especially because we’re in an election year. Some of those statements will surprise us: Newt Gingrich, widely considered a strong possible pick for the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, told reporters today that “it’s difficult for whites to appreciate how real” the dangers presented by police from black Americans can be. Others are less surprising: outspoken Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told reporters that he “blamed people on social media” for the shooting, and considered it “hypocritical” for people demonstrating against police violence to seek protection from police when the shooting started.
And we’ll learn more about Johnson. Because of where he was and the circumstances under which we learned his name, comparisons between Lee Harvey Oswald and Micah Xavier Johnson—which has been stylized frequently as “Micah X. Johnson,” a framing with certain racial connotations—are inevitable. (Search Twitter for the two and you’ll see plenty of people putting those names alongside one another.)
And like what happened in 1963, what happened on Thursday means that the word “Dallas” is once more going to be used as shorthand to describe something violent and horrible. After Kennedy was killed, members of the Dallas Cowboys were scared to travel, fearing retaliation for the president’s death simply because they had “Dallas” in their name. In 2016, #Dallas has become a hashtag that refers to violence. All of that is unfortunate for a city that’s come such a long way toward building a safer, more collaborative model for policing, but it’s just another loss on a day where so many are mourning, reeling, and in shock.