Ambush Anniversary A Reminder of Another Unprecedented Time

Four years ago today, a gunman opened fire downtown, at the end of a peaceful protest against police violence. That gunman killed five police officers, wounded several people, and ultimately died in a parking garage later that night.

Dallas officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Patrick Zamarripa, and DART officer Brent Thompson were killed in the line of duty. Micah Johnson, the shooter, was killed by police after a standoff.

Today, city leaders and others sought to memorialize those officers.

“My thoughts and prayers are with their families today & all our brothers and sisters in blue,” said Dallas city council member Jennifer Staubach Gates.

Everyone banded together in the days following the ambush – something Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said today reminded him of what the city is capable of.

“In the days and weeks after the murders, the people of Dallas displayed incredible grace, a generous spirit, and a rare resilience that makes this city special,” he wrote. “Today, Dallas faces new, unprecedented, and immense challenges. The people of this city and this country are called to confront longstanding systemic racial injustices, to reassess cultural norms, and to rethink policing strategies and the role of the social safety net. Many of these conversations are overdue. And at the same time, Dallas has to respond to the rapid spread of a deadly and highly infectious virus.”

“But I am confident that this city will find solutions and emerge stronger than ever. The people of Dallas are the city’s greatest asset, and they have shown they can get through difficult times.”

Mayor Eric Johnson

For some, the choice to rally around the officers was muscle memory. For others, it was difficult explain to others that their sorrow at what happened and their desire for law enforcement changes were emotions that could co-exist.

Below is something I wrote that Sunday, when the thoughts were raw and the wounds fresh.

JULY 10, 2016: Dallas is my home. It’s not where I was born, and it’s not where I grew up, but it’s where I grew my career, where I fell in love and got married, where I am raising a child.

I am in downtown at least once a week, usually to worship with my friends. When I worked for the Dallas Morning News, I frequently walked in the areas where people found themselves crouching and hiding Thursday night.

I’ve covered plenty of horror in my career – you don’t spend time writing about crime without seeing some pretty sick stuff. I spent a large part of that night parsing through and sharing the credible information, my reporter skills kicking in like a well-worn switch that automatically flipped.

But I found myself still awake at 2 a.m. … and 3 a.m. … and 4 a.m. At the time, I didn’t know what compelled me to stay up, refreshing news pages and watching Twitter. It wasn’t until today, as I was driving to run a few errands, that I realized the feeling: I was afraid to go to sleep. I needed to know the outcome, I needed to know as much as I could, I needed to know that the immediate harm was over before I could go to sleep because I couldn’t bear the thought of waking up to something worse than what I had been watching unfold that night. 

It has seemed weird and surreal, these days since Micah Johnson decided the larger violence he had planned could be moved up because of opportunity. On one hand, feeling an ache in my heart and a raw nerve in my body as I read about the men who died, the men and women injured, the terror visited upon this city. On the other, going about the business of living in Dallas, taking my child to his swimming lesson, going grocery shopping, scheduling meetings. You could step away from social media and the TV for stretches and engage in the daily routine, but be reminded instantly as the national evening news hit your TV and the anchors were standing on corners and parking lots you drove past or walked just a week before. 

I am also conflicted about my feelings in regards to Johnson. It would be all too easy for me to say he is evil. Was his act evil? Yes. But I’m wholly uncomfortable with what saying he is evil does for the larger conversation about race in America. Writing him off as an evil man makes it far too easy to avoid talking about the journey that brought him to that parking garage Thursday night. 

Today, on our way to church, we took Tiny to pay our respects at the memorial set up in front of Dallas police headquarters. On the car ride over, he had told me he thought he might salute when he got there, because it “seemed like a good idea.” I told him it would be a wonderful gesture. As we walked to the memorial and negotiated the live trucks and cables that covered much of the sidewalk, he held a bouquet of flowers we picked up on our way over. After he placed them on the memorial, he turned toward the building, looked up, and saluted. I tried very hard not to cry.

But I can’t hate. Hate never made love. And the one thing I love most about this city of mine is that there is love.

It was at church today that I finally began piecing together my scattered thoughts. In a lectionary chosen months before, there was a prescient timeliness. It was the parable of the Good Samaritan. “Who is your neighbor?” we pondered. In the story, as we all know, the good religious person and the person well versed in the Levitical law chose to ignore their fellow Jew, crossing over to the other side of the road. It was the hated Samaritan (if you want to know how hated, let’s just say the enmity between the Israelites and the Samaritans was long and storied and at one point involved the Samaritans defiling the temple by scattering human bones through it) who helped the injured man, tending to his wounds and arranging for his care at an inn later. 

As we thought about the fact that Jesus was telling his followers it wouldn’t always feel comfortable to help someone you may disagree with, I thought about Thursday night. Undoubtedly there were differences in opinion between the officers assigned to provide security for the march and protestors at the march. But that was pushed aside as the bullets began raining down, and officers moved to both find out who was shooting, but also protect those civilians. Five officers died doing that. Seven more were injured. In a time of fear and confusion,  neighbors were born.

This notion that it isn’t easy to be a neighbor to someone you disagree with indeed made me uncomfortable. Why? Not for the reasons you might think it would make a white lady of comfortable means.

It made me uncomfortable because it hit me that the person it would be the hardest to show mercy and love to is Micah Johnson. I don’t know that I’m there yet. My head tells me that many things led to that terrible night, and when you don’t know someone’s whole story, you should step back and wait for it to unfold. But my heart resents like hell what he’s done to my city. My heart resents like hell that he took advantage of the fact that Dallas police didn’t suit up in riot gear and take a confrontational stance with demonstrators that night, but instead recognize their First Amendment rights and move to protect them and make sure they can demonstrate safely. I resent like hell that I have to worry about the officers who have become family to our church, who stand in the middle of a street surrounded by tall buildings and parking garages to direct traffic before and after services.

But most of all, I resent like hell that I resent like hell, because it’s holding me back from remembering that Micah Johnson was hurting; remembering that this nation was built on the backs of subjugated black men and women; remembering how fiercely the white hands that held their thumbs on the scales of justice, life and liberty for so long made a ripple that still forms waves today.

I hope that one day I can remember all of this about Micah Johnson. Right now, I just pray that will happen someday, and pray for his family, who are also suffering both the loss of a child and brother and facing the horrific act he did. I’m not there yet. It’s OK if you’re not either.

But I can’t hate. Hate never made love. And the one thing I love most about this city of mine is that there is love. There is love in Lakewood, where I watched for the better part of a year as people fretted over a homeless man, trying to make sure he was warm and fed in the winter. There is love in my neighborhood, where neighbors check on neighbors.There is love in Fair Park, where I spent my year volunteering in a school there and watched teachers fret and love on students. There is love in your neighborhood, too, I’m sure of it. There is love all over this city, and I hope like hell you experience it someday if you haven’t.

At the close of service today, we lit candles and reflected on the fact that tragedy will not define us – our love will. We prayed (and cried) for not only the officers who died and the wounded officers and civilians, but also for the families of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. I said a silent prayer for Shetamia Taylor, who brought her sons to see what a peaceful protest could do and ended up shielding them from gunfire. She was shot in the leg, and watched as another officer was shot and killed in front of her.

I prayed for my son, that he grow to be an adult who understands his privilege and uses it to help, not harm. That he grows to be an adult that realizes that not doing anything is also harm.

Dallas is my home. It’s not where I was born, and it’s not where I grew up, but it’s the place that holds the dearest pieces of my heart.

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, deputy editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at [email protected].

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