What began as a peaceful protest in Dallas against police brutality ended in a barrage of bullets late Thursday night, after at least one gunman killed five police officers and wounded seven others.
The protest, organized by members of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in Dallas in response to the recent killings of black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castileby police in Louisiana and Minnesota, began at 7pm in Belo Garden Park in downtown. Demonstrators marched through the streets, and when they took what was supposed to be their final turn onto Main Street at about 8:45pm, gunfire erupted near the crowd.
Hundreds of people began running for their lives, taking cover in the nearby Omni Hotel and between skyscrapers.The shooting lasted until early Friday morning, when police cornered and killed a suspect in a downtown parking garage.
VICE News spoke to four activists who were on the ground during the incident. Here's what they witnessed.
"The energy was so peaceful, but this was a protest of anger," said Mubarrat Choudhury, a 19-year-old University of Texas student. "Two murders of black men occurred — people were furious. We had community leaders speaking out against the atrocities, and DPD blocked off a good amount of the roads so the protesters could go on the streets conveniently."
"Everyone who was at the protest, the everyday civilians and the cops, were supporting the people at the rally," said Tro'juan Henderson, a 27-year-old local activist and poet. "There was sadness for the people who have lost children and family, but there was no violent energy."
'We were just out in the open and the shots kept on going off — I did not think I would make it home.'
"The protest was so positive and peaceful, and there was a huge emphasis on embracing the emotion, and doing something with it," said art teacher Meredith Ku King, 30. "We did a BLM march months ago, and there were fewer people, and the police were yelling at us, being intimidating and confrontational. This time, they were very helpful and understanding. It felt like progress — until it didn't."
The march was moments away from ending on a hopeful note when the first shots rang through the streets.
SOMEONE GOT SHOT I CAMT STOL CEYINTN pic.twitter.com/oZ9wuXqtbP
— ? (@bhuwkls) July 8, 2016
"I stepped out to call my friend, and all of a sudden — POP POP POP," Henderson said. "One of the officers thought I was running at him, and he said 'back up or I'll shoot!' It was an in the moment thing, but I think it was a little extreme. I remember sitting behind a wall and seeing a hand laid out on the floor — I thought someone had fallen, but it turns out it was one of the dead cops."
The panic spread through the protesters like wildfire, and, within seconds, hundreds of people were screaming and running for cover.
"We were just out in the open and the shots kept on going off — I did not think I would make it home," Henderson said. "I saw a mother cover up four of her sons, and a dad running with his daughter. We thought it was calming down, then the SWAT team came."
Henderson was one of many protesters caught between police blockades, which he said made it nearly impossible to escape.
"We hid behind the wall, and had no idea what was going on. It got a little heated between protesters — people blaming each other. But for the most part, everyone was supportive," Henderson said. "All the public transit was shut down. I couldn't get on a train or a bus, and the freeway was blocked. The only choice for me was to stay downtown — I didn't get home until almost 3am."
"It was one of the most chaotic things I've ever seen," said 43-year-old law clerk Larry Anthony. "We saw cops with full metal vests and assault rifles telling us to get down. We ran into the nearby Omni Hotel and barricaded ourselves in there. We saw a couple of bodies of slain cops. This was never what the protest was about."
'I've been in a war zone, but I've never seen anything like that, where it's massive hysteria and chaos.'
Protesters and rally organizers in the Omni Hotel were attempting to remain calm and dispel rumors on social media. Then, someone said they heard a shooter had entered the hotel. Immediately, Anthony said, people began screaming and running, flipping tables, breaking glass, ducking underneath the bar, and trampling over one another.
"I've been in a war zone, but I've never seen anything like that, where it's massive hysteria and chaos," said Anthony, a military veteran who served in Iraq. "When you see people running, you're going to run. You could smell the gunpowder."
Dallas police are still investigating the incident, and it's unclear whether there were other gunmen beyond the one who was killed. Police said Thursday night another man was taken into custody after a shootout, but details remain scarce.
Many local activists, including Henderson, are trying to remain hopeful about the future of the Black Lives Matter movement in Dallas. He and others said they anticipate the attack being unfairly blamed on the group, heightening existing safety concerns.
"Honestly, I didn't even feel safe going to this one. I wanna be there for the people mourning, and breathless, and tired, but I have a family to make it home to," Henderson said. "Sometimes these protests are the only place for us to all stand together, but we always have to worry about our safety."
Follow Adam Hamze on Twitter: @adamhamz