At vigil in Dallas, a city in mourning looks for healing

As police officers spoke about their comrades who were killed by a shooter targeting white cops, a desire for Americans to work toward progress on race relations was palpable.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Supporters hold lighted signs that read 'LOVE' during a July 11 candlelight vigil at Dallas City Hall following the deaths of five police officers at the hands of a shooter.

Their voices wavered, but remained firm.

These Dallas police officers, standing in a line of blue, were some of the closest to the five who fell last week. And Monday night, at the candlelight vigil under the city’s outward-angled City Hall, they shared their friendships and gave voice to a nation’s pain.

Senior Corporal Marcie St. John, longtime partner to Sgt. Michael Smith, who served Dallas for 27 years before being gunned down by a shooter last Thursday, remembered the many nights they spent downtown together on the job. Often on those nights, their conversations turned to questions of life’s meaning. 

“One of the things Mike and I talked about were choices,” Corporal St. John said. “The choices one makes in life, the choices of good versus evil, the righteous versus the unjust.” And though her partner always chose the righteous path, she said, as cops, “It wasn’t always an easy path. And quite honestly, sometimes it was a downright difficult test.”

And now another test, another choice. Even now, in the midst of a nearly disorienting mingle of rage, sorrow, and even despair – and in the midst of a nation on a bitterly divided path, even to the point where many Americans hardly recognize one another – choices must be made.

“This tragedy has been a sucker-punch to the department that I have served for more than 24 years, and a department that I still love,” St. John continued. “It has knocked the breath out of us. It has. We are sad, we are overwhelmed, we are in disbelief, we are in mourning, and, yes, we are angry. But we do have choices. We can choose to let the anger fester inside of us dragging us down to a darker place. Or, we can take our agony and anguish and direct it toward good, toward fostering an environment of hope.”

St. John’s words capture the mood of a city, and a country, that repeatedly has had the wind knocked out of it. After a tough week for America, punctuated by three days of shootings, both the weariness and a desire for progress is palpable. After cell phone videos captured the shooting of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, by police, thousands of people turned out to protest across US cities, including in Dallas, where activists staged a peaceful protest Thursday that turned into chaos when Army veteran Micah Johnson opened fire, killing five police officers and wounding nine other people.

President Obama and former President George W. Bush, striving for a moment of national unity, both planned to meet with the victims’ families Tuesday and speak at the interfaith memorial service for the fallen officers. Mr. Obama has spoken about the need for both police and activists to “listen to each other” and work together and said that while “there is sorrow, there is anger, there is confusion” in the US, “there’s unity in recognizing that this is not how we want our communities to operate. This is not who we want to be as Americans and that serves as the basis for us being able to move forward in a constructive and positive way.”

'We need a solution'

Angie Franco dabs her eyes as she listens at the vigil. Her husband, a Marine, has often been away from her and their children. She says the tragedy has struck a dark place this week.  

“We need a solution,” the nursing student quietly says. “We definitely need to defend our police officers and first responders. I understand there are some bad apples everywhere. But they stand and take the bullet for us,” Ms. Franco says, nearly in tears. “And to know these men stood strong and proud and stood up against….” Her voice trails off.

Solutions to the country’s racial tensions will not be easy, however, says Jason Craig, who works for Air1, a Christian radio station in Dallas. “It’s going to be a while, it’s definitely going to take a while for some real change, but definitely it’s possible.”

“But as someone who supports their city, and personally, as an African-American male, you can see both sides, and your heart breaks for all the chaos that is happening now, and every one out here who is hurting,” Mr. Craig continues.  

Many of the top brass within the Dallas Police Department, including Chief David Brown, are black. There are, however, very few black people at the candlelight vigil on Monday, a gathering that is overwhelmingly white.

“We’re all on edge,’’ Chief Brown told reporters at a press conference earlier Monday. “My brain is fried. I’m running on fumes. . . . We’re asking cops to do too much in this country.’’

In other US cities on Monday, a number of Black Lives Matter protests continued to disrupt traffic, including in St. Paul, Atlanta, Chicago, and Inglewood, Calif.

In Memphis, Tenn., hundreds of protesters stopped traffic on the I-40 bridge across the Mississippi after marching past police headquarters. Interim Police Chief Michael Rallings, however, joined them, locking arms with protesters and de-escalating the confrontation by marching with them.

Chief Rallings’s actions stand in contrast with some elected officials, who since Thursday have blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for inciting hatred against police. So far, no evidence has linked Mr. Johnson with the movement, but he reportedly told negotiators he was angry about the shooting deaths of black men at the hands of police and was targeting white police officers.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) called protesters "hypocrites" for expecting officers to protect them. El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen called the coalition “a radical hate group,” and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the slogan was “inherently racist.”

'Nothing mattered to him except you were human'

There were no overt political voices at the vigil, however. And Senior Corporal Jaime Castro even added levity to the moment, remembering his “fallen brother in blue,” Senior Corporal Lorne Ahrens, 14 years on the job.

“I’d like to start here and tell you what it was like to patrol the streets of south Dallas with a true hero,” Corporal Castro said, still busting chops with his fallen friend. “I’ll never forget the day when we first met. The first thing that I thought when I saw him was, how the heck is this guy going to get in and out of the squad car? He was huge. My second thought was, he’s going to have a ton of suspects run away from him, because he’s never going to catch them.”

“Boy was I wrong,” he said as the crowd laughed, noting how he himself was usually the one whose suspects got away when Officer Ahrens had his in cuffs.

Officer Josh Rodriguez remembered his partner Patricio Zamarripa, who served five years. He recalled how a homeless man, who appeared to have mental issues, once came up to them and complained that someone had taken his chips. Officer Zamarripa bought him lunch.

"The man sat close to Patrick as if it were a sense of security to him,” Officer Rodriguez said. “It was as if he felt that as long as he was close to Patrick, no one would harm him again," he said. "That act demonstrates who Patrick was: he was giving and selfless and compassionate. He saw no color, nothing mattered to him except that you were human. And that is why he is loved so much, because of the genuine love and the goodness that he had for other people.”

Cindy Freeling, a nutritionist and gluten-free cooking instructor, stands with 13 other members of the North Texas Light Brigade in front of the City Hall plaza fountain, after the speakers and the victims' families leave in procession. Each member of the Brigade is holding an illuminated red-pink letter that together reads: “Love One Another.”

“We do all need to come together – it’s obviously been a very trying and debilitating time, not just here but really around the world,” Ms. Freeling says. “It’s heartbreaking listing to these stories, it’s hard not to get so emotional, listening to their friends and colleagues. But we try to put out positive messages, that people need to love one another,” she says, noting that the group also attends rallies supporting climate science, GMO labeling, and LGBT rights.

“And I think this tragedy has made everybody maybe look a little more around us, and hopefully people can look into their hearts more,” she continues. “It is a choice, a choice to see that we all need to get along. Violence cannot be the answer.”

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