In morning light Dallas tries to process ambush: ‘I don’t know what safe is’

Originally published July 8, 2016 in The Dallas Morning News. This story was part of a packet that was a finalist for breaking news reporting for both the American Society of News Editors and Texas Associated Press Managing Editors competitions. It was also part of coverage that was named a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news reporting. A shared byline with News reporter Sarah Mervosh.

The sun rose over Dallas on Friday and, still, helicopters roared, police lights flickered and numbed hearts, not yet fully conscious of the tragedy to which they bore witness, ached.

Daylight brought gray clouds that settled in above downtown, shielding the city from an unflinching sun that would have felt like too much, too soon. And as the city awakened, or rather, emerged from a dark night in which many people did not sleep, the first memorials were born.

Six tall candles and a decorative American flag were propped up against a building blocks from El Centro College.

Outside Dallas police headquarters were white roses. A teddy bear. Candles that pledged support and burned with chemical sweetness.

Flags at City Hall were lowered to half-staff. In the lobby, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas Police Chief David Brown issued grave reports into at least 18 TV cameras.

This was Dallas, once again the center of a national tragedy after working for decades to shed the noxious moniker of “the city of hate,” bestowed after Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy at Dealey Plaza in 1963.

Overnight, the Omni Dallas Hotel’s lights had turned blue to support police officers.

Reunion Tower went dark — the first time the lights were dimmed for a tragedy since 9/11.

And those who call Dallas home tried to process what had happened.

Lessons on a street corner

On a downtown corner, going on 2 a.m., Kevin Thomas Jr. held his father’s hand. They stood at Jackson and South Lamar streets, waiting for news.

The boy, who is 7 and looked younger in his T-shirt and camouflage cargo shorts, wanted to be close to his father as the night wore on.

“I brought him here to teach him to stick up for his rights,” the father, Kevin Thomas, said of the march. “For the experience.”

Then shots were fired and the lesson morphed and here they were, still out in the middle of the night. Because they couldn’t go home. Not yet.

As they stood on the corner, a Dallas police officer came up to them and held out his hand. “You want a sticker?” he asked. It shined in the shape of a badge and said “junior officer.”

The boy took it without saying much. Slipped it into the pocket of his shorts. Turned again to his dad, leaning in now for support. Kevin Thomas bounced his son back and forth, back and forth.

“He’ll never forget” the father said of what they witnessed, holding hands with his son once more. “He’ll understand the severity of what’s going on in the nation.”

Watching and waiting to go home

Not far away, dozens of people were stranded at the Greyhound station while police tried to negotiate with a suspect nearby.

Some waited on a bus to take them far away from the crime scene. Others just wanted to get in their cars parked nearby and go home. A police barricade, however, sealed them from their vehicles.

On the bus station’s TVs, local newscasters ruminated on the slow trickle of late-night updates. Children napped on the floor. An attendant mopped. A group of people looked up to see the screen.

“A protester got shot, too,” said Marlo Harris of Fort Worth. “They ain’t saying nothing about that.”

Harris parked her car at the downtown McDonald’s before marching against police brutality. She’s a spoken word artist and has created work on the issue before. The march, she said, was peaceful before the gunshots.

Then, everyone sprinted for safety. She almost tripped over an abandoned bicycle and worried she’d be trampled. Someone told her to get into the Greyhound station and then get to the floor.

With her was Sarah Hawkins, a McDonald’s employee who didn’t make it to her shift because she had to take cover in the bus station.

“I didn’t think all these things would come to Dallas, ” Hawkins said. Looking at the TV, she said, “I think it’s going to be worse.”

Keeping faith in the city

Just before 5 a.m., a TV in the corner of BuzzBrews diner in Deep Ellum shouted headlines of gunshots and grief.

But waitress Machele Jordan wouldn’t watch.

“If I watch it, I’ll be working bad. I’ve got to make money,” she said. “It’s scary. I can see the skyline, right there.”

She still had an hour to go before her shift ended, then she’d be free to catch up on the news. Jordan’s family had already called to make sure she was safe, but the only news she had was from glances at Facebook.

“I’m here. I don’t know what safe is. It’s OK, though,” she said. “Now, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I want to go into a bubble.”

When she was a kid, Jordan said, she made friends with white kids on purpose. They could get into mischief without dire consequences. She said kids who looked like her were likely to face tougher punishment.

But she likes Dallas cops, especially the ones who come in to eat after a long shift. She’s nervous about what will come next, but as the first tints of an orange sun inched into the sky, she vowed to keep faith in her city.

“If everyone catches some sleep,” she said, “we’ll see what it’s like when the sun rises.”