Protestors march through downtown Dallas on May 31, 2020. (Photo by Miles Hearne)

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‘This Rage That You Hear Is Real’: On the Ground at the Dallas Protests

The first weekend of what will surely be sustained protests brought messages and power and violence. This is what it was like on the ground.

The national tide of protests against police brutality in the wake of the killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd reached Dallas last weekend. Protests continue this week. Gov. Greg Abbott will be in Dallas on Tuesday afternoon to detail the state’s response. But the weekend showed a range of expressions, from peaceful marching and chanting, bursts of violence and tear gas, concluding with a quiet, solemn prayer in Uptown’s Freedman’s Cemetery. Hours later, police would begin brutally enforcing a curfew.

The weekend’s protesters were diverse in race, gender, and age. Many wore masks to guard against COVID-19, carried signs, and wore shirts reading “I can’t breathe”—Floyd’s last words—or “Black lives matter.” In the spirit of intersectionality, Latinx protestors arrived also with signs reading “Tu lucha es mi lucha” and shirts reading “Fuck ICE.”

To the distress of many, violence—tear gas, flash bangs, looting, beatings—arrived upon the shadow of the protests.

Protestors with whom I spoke were against the looting. They expressed desires to make their points peacefully. The following is an account of their attempts to do so—attempts constricted by the police, rioters, looters, and inciters of violence.

Friday  

The Next Generation Action Network solidarity rally, held at the Dallas Police Department’s headquarters in the Cedars, began at 6:30 p.m. Hundreds of individuals, attempting to stand six feet apart, had gathered around the organizers and speakers.

The rally, held in Floyd’s name, was about much more than his legacy. It was also about Botham Jean, a black man shot and killed by a Dallas police officer after she entered his apartment believing it was her own. It was about Darius Tarver, a black man shot and killed by Denton police after being tased while suffering a mental breakdown. It was about Tony Timpa, a white man suffocated by Dallas police after he was arrested, like Floyd. It was about Atatiana Jefferson, a black woman shot and killed through a window by Fort Worth police while she babysat her nephew. The rally was about all police brutality, fatal or not, and its disproportionate effect on the black community.

“I’m sorry that I have to be here once again, for the tragic loss of life of another one of our community members—another brother gone too soon,” McKinney Councilman La’Shadion Shemwell told the crowd.

Hundreds attended Friday’s protest outside Dallas police headquarters before they marched into downtown. (Photo by Trace Miller)

“I’m going to tell you the truth because that’s all I can do—is that, I didn’t really think that we should have a protest out here, today, in Dallas,” he continued. “Because I see what Minnesota is doing. I see what California is doing. And, in Dallas, we don’t really resort to that level. And I kind of felt it would be an injustice to come out here if we wasn’t really ready to get to that level.”

Shemwell encouraged the crowd to channel their anger, sorrow, and indignation into organization. “Don’t let your escalation just get to a point where it escalates to violence,” he said. “But it needs to escalate to a point of organizing.” He challenged listeners to find elected officials with whom they agreed or aligned, or to run for office themselves.

State Sen. Royce West also emphasized the importance of voting. “The way we fight this is, go to the polls,” he told the crowd. “We’ve got to make certain that we are electing district attorneys that are fair, that hold law enforcement and everyone else accountable for their actions. We need to look at whether or not we can have a uniform definition of the use of deadly force around this country.”

West, too, emphasized the importance of community involvement and activism. “Don’t let this rally be the last time that you engage,” he said.

The rally, at the end of the day, was about the four centuries of racism, bigotry, and discrimination endured by the United States’ black community.

“George Floyd is not some strange person to us,” one woman told me. “He’s our brother. He’s our father. He’s our husband. He’s our son. So it keeps happening. And see,” she continued, pointing to my white skin, “your momma never have to worry about you leaving the house. She doesn’t have to say, ‘Come home safe, come home alive.’ It’s very different. … So make sure that you pay attention when people are talking. This rage that you hear is real. It’s very real. … So just know that this is not just a show.”

At 8:30 p.m., protestors lined up behind Dominique Alexander, president and founder of NGAN. They marched up Belleview Street, turned left on Browder Street, and stopped before the Dallas Police Association to kneel and chant: “Say his name! George Floyd!” “If we don’t get it? Shut it down!” “Fuck the police!” They crossed over Interstate 30 along Akard Street.

Meanwhile, tension was building. Police had parked in lots, alleys, and on curbs. Officers stood at each intersection while marchers headed north. A police cruiser also preceded the march, for a short time. And yet, crossing over I-30, it seemed the police presence had evaporated.

Police had coordinated with organizers concerning a route, but nobody to whom I spoke to before the march knew where they were marching or when. (The Observer reports that an organizer gave march-related instructions after the last speaker finished. I didn’t hear that; I did see marchers taking wrong turns and organizers calling them back.)

All of which is to say, by the time the march reached Cadiz Street, marchers were blocking traffic. Wondering where the police were, they began voicing frustration; meanwhile, the police seemed to be scrambling.

After passing City Hall and hooking a left, onto Young Street, demonstrators stopped at Pioneer Plaza, where the vanguard locked arms. The march continued moving to the intersection of Young and Griffin streets, where police were concentrated. Multiple cruisers were headed north on Griffin. Before they could cross Young and continue north, a number of protestors moved in front, blocking the cruisers, holding their signs high, even as organizers and the bulk of the crowd encouraged everyone to keep moving.

As more cruisers pulled up behind the protestors, on Young Street, and police began to get out of their cars and don riot gear, the demonstration split into two. The majority marched on, toward Reunion Tower. A crowd remained behind, protesting in front of the police.

The large and growing police presence understandably agitated the crowd, who had been peacefully marching. A handful of protestors approached the police, some to talk, some to batter against their riot shields. SWAT cars arrived at 9:30 p.m., pulled onto Griffin Street, north of Young, almost running over bystanders.

Protestors were hemmed in on three sides. They could only continue west, on Young. The situation felt desperate. Plastic water bottles and hands thumped against police cruisers. A glass bottle smashed against an armored SWAT vehicle. Protestors chanted, “No Justice, no peace! Fuck these racist-ass police!” Then a policeman lobbed a tear-gas canister. It exploded and people ran screaming. It was 9:34 p.m.

Scenes from Friday’s protest in downtown Dallas. (Photo by Miles Hearne)

Police launched flash bangs and more gas in response to bottles and rocks, which sporadically smashed against cars and shields. A tear-gas canister hit a protestor in the legs. Enraged, he charged the police and was arrested. After the billowing clouds of tear gas dispersed, protestors once again locked arms and sat in front of the police, to demonstrate their determination to continue protesting peacefully. Other protestors threw objects, such as bricks, at the police. Many stood back and watched.

Police ordered the crowd to retreat and disperse. But nobody retreated because police cars blocked or lined all four streets. Protestors yelled that it was an ambush, that they’d be arrested if they retreated. But when, at 9:50 p.m., police launched more gas and flash bangs and began shooting sponge bullets and advancing, protestors had no choice. By 10 p.m., most protestors were falling back a block to the intersections of Young, Market, and Wood streets. A few protestors smashed the windows and slashed the tires of police cars along the way. Later, Chief U. Reneé Hall would say her SUV had its tires cut.

Police continued to advance, lobbing tear gas and shouting, “Go home or go to jail!” Protestors continued to fling insults. A handful of masked individuals smashed the windows of a DART bus. One threw a rock at the driver. Another two people smashed a parking meter.

By 11 p.m., the area was largely silent, although police continued to fire tear gas, now using journalists—instead of protestors—as targets. They gassed an independent videographer, a CBS 11 crew, and me. Stragglers threw insults: “Go kill yourselves!”

“Yeah, your mother would be proud,” a policeman replied into the loudspeaker.

Meanwhile, the marchers who’d reportedly blocked traffic on Interstate 35E before returning to the police headquarters, where they arrived at around midnight. There, they chanted and took turns speaking, airing their grievances and their pain. Police in riot gear stood silently around the headquarters’s entrance. Despite—or, perhaps, because of—the large police presence, the situation remained calm.

Only 45 minutes later, however, the cops all but vanished. Four squad cars squealed, screeched around the corner, full speed, almost hitting protestors on the crosswalk before shooting north on Lamar Street. A number of individuals took off jogging after them. I asked one man what he made of it. He replied that he was there “to start something.” He said he’d seen the news on TV and had come to downtown to light something on fire. He would not give his name.

At 1 a.m. on Lamar Street and Ceremonial, there were at least 20 police cruisers parked on one block. I continued walking north, passing individuals screaming, “Uncle Tom!” at a black policeman (the individuals were not black). Police forced protestors over to Griffin Street. I asked one officer if they were spreading out to guard strategic spots or were responding to a specific situation. One policeman replied that downtown had turned “ugly.”

I didn’t know it then, but just down the street, looters had already smashed into Traffic and Forty Five Ten. Neiman Marcus, too. Rioters were dragging pipes into the street, throwing bricks at windows, lighting dumpster fires. Videos circulating on Twitter showed people beating each other up in the street. Police were responding with flash bangs and tear gas, yelling, “Get off the sidewalk or get arrested!” The scene reportedly continued well into the wee hours of the morning. Meanwhile, more looters crashed through Deep Ellum, breaking glass and damaging businesses.

Farther north, state troopers dressed in riot gear headed toward the melee. 

Saturday

Saturday’s protests began early, at 1:30 p.m., in the heat of the day. They began peacefully with a rally in front of City Hall, which ended around 2 p.m., when protestors took to the streets. They marched through downtown Dallas, returning to City Hall around 3 p.m. The tear gas wasn’t far off. Some protestors started damaging a police car. Others tried to shout them down. Police began clashing with the group again.

By 6 p.m., Dallas police and state troopers in riot gear had blocked seemingly every access point to City Hall.

Suddenly, at about 7 p.m., a march numbering in the hundreds came chanting and waving signs up Commerce Street. Pausing in Belo Gardens, they scooped up protestors scattered by tear gas. They continued through the West End and to a parking lot near the Dallas World Aquarium. They gathered in a circle. Four individuals, apparently leaders, explained that they, as a group, needed to set a curfew so that media and police would not conflate them with rioters and looters later that evening.

Soon after, they started moving toward Woodall Rodgers. The group began the march up to the highway to block traffic; the crowd started walking up the access road, past Klyde Warren Park, and entered Woodall just after Pearl Street, in front of the Winspear. Throwing cones ahead of them, they closed lanes off, one at a time. Originally leaving one lane open, a protestor laid down in it, blocking an 18-wheeler and, by extension, all traffic on Woodall Rodgers.

Some protestors kneeled on the highway, waving their signs at cars. Others shot fireworks. Others took photos. But protestors soon realized they had no exit plan. There was disagreement about whether they should continue toward Central Expressway or exit on Lemmon Avenue.

The protesters split up. Traffic seeped through. Just then, a police car pulled onto the overpass. Two or three officers hopped out and one dropped a tear-gas canister into the crowd. Protestors scattered. Annoyed drivers accelerated. It got everyone off the highway, many marching onto Central Expressway, others sprinting down the Lemmon exit.

As traffic began to flow, a police cruiser caught up with the protestors who’d continued onto Central Expressway and, driving behind, diverted traffic from the far right lanes to safely escort the protestors off the freeway via the Haskell Avenue/Blackburn Road exit. The march, now shrunken, gathered in the parking lot of a nearby Target, where it appeared many had parked cars. Police arrived within minutes but—under a hail of jeers and insults—left soon after. At which point the protestors also dispersed, at about 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, in downtown, the situation was deteriorating. Protestors fractured into groups, looters arrived, and police grew increasingly frantic and brutal. Looting and vandalism, according to WFAA, started in downtown at about 9 p.m., before spreading to Uptown at around 9:30 p.m. I-35E was blocked for about an hour.

DART service downtown was suspended at 10:45 p.m. Most major streets in the city’s core were closed; Dallas police, partnering with state troopers, Allen police, and Irving police were blocking vehicular traffic and limiting pedestrian traffic into downtown. In Uptown, a large crowd, many wearing masks, walked toward Woodall Rodgers. A moment later, a police SUV came around a corner and fired a canister of tear gas. The crowd went running. One protestor told me to “get out of Dallas, right now.”

“Just for tonight, go somewhere else,” he said.

By the end of the night, the Dallas Police Department arrested nearly 90 people, the Dallas Morning News reported. The police also confiscated three guns. A journalist with Blaze TV filmed police conducting drive-by sponge bullet shootings, which appear to hit or nearly hit protestors, journalists, and bystanders alike. And a man who ran at a crowd with a machete—allegedly defending a restaurant he liked, in Victory Park—was beaten unconscious on camera.

Rev. Bryan Carter, of Concord Church in South Dallas, speaks at a protest against police brutality on May 31, 2020. (Photo by Miles Hearne)

Sunday 

Sunday afternoon brought the third day of demonstrations, as well as a stern press conference from the police chief. Chief Hall provided an update on the “rioters” and “looters” who “have become extremely aggressive.” She intended to distinguish between the peaceful protests and the unruly and violent elements. Then she announced a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew “for the next several days.”

Referencing the events of late Friday and early Saturday, as well as last night, Hall said, “What we’ve recognized now is that this is no longer peaceful protesting. Where it started we all agree, that our hearts go out to the Floyd family. But this is not what we’re dealing with. We are dealing with individuals who are vandalizing property, attempting to injure police officers—and the protestors, who are peacefully protesting, putting their safety and lives at risk as well. This will not be tolerated in our city.”

Demonstrations on Sunday, once again, started calmly and peacefully. The Dallas Morning News reported that hundreds gathered at Freedman’s Cemetery, in Uptown, and held a vigil for George Floyd and other black and Latino victims of police brutality. A petition was read, demanding, among other things, a reduction in DPD’s size, the banning of military-grade weapons and tactical gear, investing in community health and safety, and community control of the laws, institutions, and policies—schools, local budgets, economies, police departments—that are meant to serve the most impacted. In the early evening, hundreds more gathered at the Dallas police headquarters for a prayer vigil led by clergy.

As the hour approached 7 p.m., police warned hundreds of demonstrators, marching down Commerce Street, toward Deep Ellum, that they would be arrested were they to violate the curfew. After the crowd fractured, DMN reported, officers followed a group to Pacific Plaza Park and started making arrests and dispersing tear gas.

On Monday, the protests begin anew. The organizers moved it from police headquarters to the Frank Crowley Courts Building, outside the curfew zone.

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