Desperate pleas for unity and calm reverberated around the US after five police officers were killed and seven injured when at least one sniper opened fire on a peaceful protest in Dallas, telling police he wanted to kill white officers.
The shooter, 25-year-old Micah Johnson, an army reservist who served in Afghanistan, was killed after lengthy negotiations with officers during which he articulated anger at recent police killings of African American men and told negotiators “he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers”.
The shooting, in which two civilians were also injured, marks the deadliest assault on police since the 9/11 attacks and threatens to plunge the already fraught discussion over race and policing in America to new depths of discord. On Friday evening, Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings confirmed that Johnson was the sole gunman. Initial reports had suggested multiple snipers.
Detectives uncovered “bomb making materials, ballistic vests, rifles, ammunition, and a personal journal of combat tactics” at Johnson’s home, police said in a statement.
The attack in Dallas followed the police killings of two black men earlier in the week, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, both captured on graphic cellphone video prompting protests around the US, including the march in Dallas.
US attorney general Loretta Lynch said the events had left Americans “feeling a sense of helplessness, of uncertainty and of fear”.
“These feelings are understandable and they are justified,” she said in an address to the nation on Friday. “But the answer must not be violence. The answer is never violence.”
Barack Obama, in Poland for his last Nato summit, condemned the “vicious, calculated and despicable attack” on Dallas police. “Let’s be clear, there are no possible justifications for these attacks or any violence towards law enforcement,” he added, mindful of how some on the right have sought to accuse him of failing to support the police.
The presidential election campaign, meanwhile, was upended by a mass shooting for the second time in a month. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were forced to postpone campaign events, as they did after the massacre of 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
In Dallas, police chief David Brown told reporters that the shooter appeared to have opened fire from an elevated position above the march and deliberately targeted officers at around 9pm. Three suspects had been held in custody but authorities provided mixed information about their importance to the investigation.
Rawlings said the shooter had opened fire from the same building but had moved levels at various points. He said around 20 people in the crowd were dressed “in protective equipment and with rifles slung over their shoulders”.
“When they started running, we started catching, and that’s when started to interview them,” he said. It was only later, “as we started to unravel this fishing knot”, that authorities realised a single shooter had opened fire.
Video footage caught by local broadcast media and protesters showed the crowd running and screaming once the rapid gunfire broke out. One clip showed an injured officer lying in the street, while another captured one of the shooters opening fire from near a large pillar, seemingly ambushing an officer from behind.
The shooter was later holed up on the second storey of a downtown garage and entered into negotiations that lasted for several hours during which he also opened fire on officers.
Brown told reporters at an early morning news conference: “The suspect said he was upset about Black Lives Matter,” during the negotiations. “He said he was upset about the recent shootings, he was upset at white people. The suspect said he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.
“The suspect said that he was not affiliated with any groups and he stated that he did this alone,” Brown said.
After negotiations failed, officers deployed a police robot to detonate an explosive device which killed the suspect, Brown said.
In an address later on Thursday, Brown said investigators had found that “this was a well-planned, thought-out, evil tragedy by these suspects”.
Police estimated that about 800 protesters and 100 officers were at the rally. Early in the evening, officers were posing for photographs with demonstrators and the event had remained peaceful.
Charles Wilson, a 55 year-old Dallas resident who was present at the rally on Thursday night, said he was close by when the shooting started. “It sounded like firecrackers but it wasn’t firecrackers, it was bullets, and the cops started saying: ‘Go the other way, go the other way!’” he told the Guardian.
“It was just sporadic shooting, lots of bullets. I didn’t know who they were shooting at but there was a lot of bullets.”
Police estimated at least 12 officers discharged their weapons during the firefight.
On Friday morning, about 11 hours after the shooting began, a large swath of downtown Dallas close to Dealey Plaza, where John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, was closed off with police blocking roads and helicopters circling overhead. At a vigil in the city’s Thanks-Giving Square, local faith leaders called on the city to unite and pray together.
Meanwhile ATF agents and local police were at the house where the shooter seemingly lived with his mother. The road was blocked off at both ends by police, and a crowd of neighbours and media gathered in a field opposite the home, a large two-storey structure on a well-kept street in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite.
A neighbour, Jowanda Alexander, said that she met Johnson once, about five or six months ago, when he came round to complain about her daughter, saying she was “messing with his mailbox”. She said that he was polite: “When he came he didn’t come aggressive, just real gentle and he seemed real nervous.” Alexander described the area as a nice, diverse place.
Johnson, an enlisted US army reservist, deloyed to Afghanistan in November 2013 and served there until July 2014, according to his service record, released by the US army on Friday. Police described the shooter as a “loner” and, bizarrely, pointed out out that he had shown an appreciation of the rapper Professor Griff, a founding member of the hip hop group Public Enemy, and an outspoken proponent of Afrocentrism, on Facebook.
Three of the dead officers have been named in local reports as Brent Thompson, 43, a Dallas Area Rapid Transit (Dart) officer, and Dallas police officers Patrick Zamarripa and Michael Krol. Some of the seven injured officers were in a serious condition.
The two civilians wounded included Shetamia Taylor, who was shot in the leg while attending the protest with her sons. Her injuries were not thought to be life-threatening.
On Friday, Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, tweeted: “I mourn for the officers shot while doing their sacred duty to protect peaceful protesters, for their families & all who serve with them.”
Trump, her Republican rival, condemned “a coordinated, premeditated assault on the men and women who keep us safe”, while also making reference to “the senseless, tragic deaths” of Sterling and Castile.
In a glimpse of how he might pursue the issue on the campaign trail, Trump added: “Our nation has become too divided. Too many Americans feel like they’ve lost hope. Crime is harming too many citizens. Racial tensions have gotten worse, not better. This isn’t the American Dream we all want for our children.”
Brown, the Dallas police chief, echoed the calls for unity.
“All I know is that this must stop, this divisiveness, between our police and our citizens,” he said.
He described officers who responded to the attack as “some of the bravest men and women I know”, adding: “You see video footage after video of them running towards gunfire from an elevated position, with no chance of protecting themselves.
“Please join me in applauding these brave men and women who do this job under great scrutiny, under great vulnerability, who literally risk their lives to protect our democracy.
“We do not feel much support most days,” Brown said. “Let’s not make today most days. We need your support to protect you from men like these.”
John Lewis, the US congressman and former civil rights leader, said the week’s events underlined how “the scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in American society”. Lewis, who marched with Dr Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, at the height of the civil rights movement, added on Twitter: “I was beaten bloody by police officers. But I never hated them. I said, ‘Thank you for your service.’”
The Texas governor, Greg Abbott, said in a statement that his “thoughts and prayers” were with the families of those officers who had been shot. “In times like these we must remember and emphasize – the importance of uniting as Americans.”
Seventy-two law enforcement officers died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001.
The overnight deaths were the first fatal shootings of US police at demonstrations since unrest spread following the police shooting of the unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.
Two officers were wounded by gunfire while guarding the Ferguson police headquarters during a protest in March last year. A 20-year-old man was charged with crimes including first-degree assault and has pleaded not guilty.
In December 2014, two New York police officers were killed in an ambush-style attack by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who then killed himself. Before the shooting, Brinsley, who had mental health problems, had mentioned on social media high-profile cases of black men being killed by police.
On Friday police said officers had also been targeted in the midwest and the south of the country.
An attack in Tennessee occurred hours before the shooting in Dallas. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation says the attacker told authorities that he was frustrated by the recent killings in Louisiana and Minnesota.
Police have not disclosed a motive in Friday’s attacks in Georgia and Missouri, which have been described as ambushes.
In a fourth attack early Friday, a motorist fired at a police car as the officer drove by. In all, four officers were wounded but are expected to survive.