UUs at Dallas protest say it was peaceful until shooter began firing

UUs at Dallas protest say it was peaceful until shooter began firing

Racial justice and support for police are not mutually exclusive, say UU activists.

Elaine McArdle
Dallas Police Officers at a rally prior to shooting.

Before a sharpshooter began targeting police officers at a Black Lives Matter march in Dallas protesting police brutality on July 7, UU marchers say police were respectful and interactions between police and protesters were peaceful. This photo was taken about 90 minutes before the shooter attacked. (© 2016 David Wilson)

© 2016 David Wilson


As protests against the recent shooting deaths of two black men by police continue this week around the country, three young Unitarian Universalists who were at a protest in Dallas, Texas, last Thursday, where five police officers were murdered by a gunman, want people to know the protest had been peaceful, and that support for police and for racial justice are not mutually exclusive.

“The message [at the protest] was essentially to stop or deter police brutality, primarily against people of color, and to lift up the disenfranchised and hold police accountable,” said Cameron Young, 26, a white man who is director of lifespan religious education at Westside UU Church in Fort Worth, Texas. He attended with his girlfriend and other friends. “It was very, very peaceful.”

Until the shooter began targeting police, “Everything before that was completely peaceful,” said Tearyne Glover, 29, a black woman who is a religious education facilitator at First Unitarian Church of Dallas. “The police were respectful; they were there to be our security.”

Approximately 800 people marched in Dallas on Thursday, July 7, to protest the shooting deaths by police of Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 5, and Philando Castile, outside St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 6. At about 9 p.m., a shooter who later said he was targeting whites, especially white police officers, began firing into the crowd, sending people running. He was killed early July 8 by law enforcement. Since the massacre, some people have blamed the Black Lives Matter movement and called it anti-police, although many others disagree. For Glover and other UUs at the march, it is a particularly painful—and false—insinuation.

“Some people on Facebook are saying Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization, and I’m saying, ‘No, I was there, people are not in favor of this,’” said Ben Nelson, 29, a white member of First Unitarian Church of Dallas, who served in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army Reserve and is a member of Veterans for Peace. “I went in with a skeptical attitude, I had my reservations, but I was overwhelmed by the positive attitude of the protest.”

“It is awful it would happen at this protest because there were good relations between the police and the protesters. Everything was as good as it could be until that moment,” added Nelson, who wore his Veterans for Peace T-shirt to the protest.

“Somebody on Facebook called me a bona fide inverse racist with blood on my hands,” said Young, who was a young adult caucus leader at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, in June. “There are those with a propensity to blame the movement itself for the violence that happened. This moment was unsettling and made me think about my position and stance, but I realize it’s okay to weep for these police officers and also weep for these young men killed by brutality—those two aren’t mutually exclusive. I can still hold utmost respect for the police officers who protected our rights to demonstrate last night but still continue to try and demand accountability.”

All three UUs—and there were at least several more, according to Young—participated in the protest from the beginning and were there when the shooting began. They heard gunshots or smelled gunpowder but none saw the officers hit, and none were injured.

“The thing that really pisses me off is [the shooter] used us to trap and target the police,” Glover said. The situation “is really tragic because [the shooter], he didn’t even like Black Lives Matter. He didn’t like us; he didn’t like the police. So in my personal opinion, when we didn’t get sufficiently angry enough, he just started popping off cops.”

Nelson said protesters had started to head back to the march’s starting point. “Suddenly there was a stampede,” Nelson said. “I didn’t hear any gunshots, I think because there were so many people screaming, but I did smell gunpowder.”

With many families with young children there, he said, “I kind of went into army mode, checking on babies. I didn’t imagine somebody was shooting with automatic weapons a block away.” As people ran through the streets, he eventually reconnected with Young, and they found themselves at the door of the Dallas Morning News. Invited inside by a reporter, they and some others stayed there on lockdown for several hours before being able to go home.

As the police standoff continued, Glover found herself at the Hyatt Regency Dallas Hotel with a group of people, including women with children. When hotel workers were reluctant to let everyone in—the hotel was on lockdown—Glover persuaded them to let in parents with children to use the bathroom and get water.

“Becoming a UU has been very important in my life,” said Glover, who joined First Unitarian Church two years ago. “I thought of the Principles we have, that I would be fine for a while if I didn’t get water or get to the restroom, but it felt important for me to try and organize and reassure people that everything would be okay.”

Glover said that although she is black, she speaks in a certain manner that gives her privileges that others may not have. “That’s why I try to tell people, you can’t just say Black Lives Matter when they sound and look like me, it has to be for all black lives,” she said. Regarding ongoing efforts for racial justice, she said, “If you are white and see something happening, say something. Because unfortunately, your word has a lot more clout than a person of color. Other white people will agree with you.”

The Rev. Dr. Daniel Kanter, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Dallas, was among fifty or so clergy who were present for an interfaith service the day after the shooting, at Thanksgiving Square in downtown Dallas. Ever since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, he said, “We’ve been known as the city of hate. I think we turned that corner, really, with the leaders and the mayor and religious leaders calling on us to be the cooperative city of love. Not stepping back from holding each other accountable to do the work we have to do around racial disparity, but today was a lot about prayer and gratitude for the police.”

Kanter said some initial press reports as the shooting was unfolding blamed protesters, which turned out to be false. “The police were in good relationship with protesters,” he said. The shooting of the officers “really complicates a lot of things, but what I’ve been saying is, the Black Lives Matter movement is the backdrop for the shootings, not the center of it.” When the shooting began, “the police responded so quickly they saved a lot of lives, so we owe that to them.

“The bottom line is, we can’t live in an eye-for-an-eye culture of revenge and hatred,” Kanter said. “We have to hold people accountable and address these racial tensions, but also we have to unify together and let the heart lead right now, and not despair or hide.”

The Rev. Mark Walz, minister of the UU Church in Oak Cliff in Dallas, did not attend the Friday service because he held a special service at his church, which drew about thirty people. He said congregants are feeling “great pride” in the way the Dallas chief of police, David Brown, called for the community to pull together, continued to support the right to protest, and resisted calls to militarize the police force. “We do know we have a lot of work to do,” Walz said. “What we are seeing is the symptom of not holding each other as sacred. Until we hold each other sacred every time, we are not going to outgrow this.”

UUA President Peter Morales released a statement Friday expressing heartache for the murdered officers and reaffirming his commitment to racial justice, which he had also expressed the day before in a statement condemning the police killings of Sterling and Castile. “No one who opposes systemic racism in America can condone or excuse acts of violence like these murders of police officers. My heart aches for their families and loved ones,” he said. “As we come together, we must also recommit ourselves to addressing the deep divisions and injustices in our world that give rise to violence.”