Micah Xavier Johnson, who killed five Dallas law enforcement officers Thursday night in an apparent rage over the deaths of black people at the hands of white police, had been attending black nationalist events in the Dallas area for a few years, the co-founder of the city’s People’s New Black Panther Party said Saturday.
Babu Omowale said in an interview that Johnson, 25, had attended several events held by the group, but that he was never a formal member or particularly active.
“I’ve seen his face at local events and social gatherings that we have here in the city, but we’ve never actually spoken to each other,” Omowale said, adding: “We had no idea what the brother’s mentality was, what the thought process was.”
Johnson’s burst of racial violence, which resulted in the bloodiest day for U.S. law enforcement since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has shocked and baffled friends, former colleagues in the Army and others who knew him.
“He was my friend. He was never racist,” said Julius Young, a UPS worker and classmate of Johnson’s at John Horn High School in Mesquite, a Dallas suburb. “That was not that type of dude. That wasn’t what any of us was about.”
On his Facebook page, Johnson posted an image of a fist with the text “Black Power.” He also expressed interest on his Facebook page in the People’s New Black Panther Party, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “virulently racist and anti-Semitic organization.”
Young said he was surprised to hear that Johnson had aligned himself with a black nationalist group. “Micah was never a follower. He was a leader. I never knew him to hate,” Young said.
Young said that over the past year or so since Johnson had been home from deployment in Afghanistan, where he served in 2013 and 2014, he and his friends talked about sports, women and family issues – but never the issue of black people dying at the hands of police.
“We left that topic alone,” Young said. “We just didn’t want to talk about it. There was too much sadness. Too much anger surrounding it, so we just left it alone.”
Young said he never knew that Johnson hated police.
“If he ever said anything, we could have talked him out of it. But he never showed any signs of that,” Young said.
But on a hot Dallas summer night, Johnson’s racially charged rage erupted with volcanic force. His rampage with a high-powered rifle, fired mainly from sniper positions high in a parking garage, also wounded seven other law enforcement officers and two civilians during a peaceful Black Lives Matter march.
Officials said that during a standoff with police, Johnson told negotiators that he was angry over the recent killings of black men by white police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota. He reportedly told police he wanted to kill white people, especially white police officers. The standoff ended with police killing Johnson.
During a search of his home in Mesquite, detectives said they found bomb-making materials, ballistic vests, rifles, ammunition and a personal journal detailing combat tactics.
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When Jake Hunt transferred to John Horn High School at 17, one of his first friends was Johnson, whom he described as “really outgoing, really funny.”
Together with a few other black teens at the school, the boys were sort of a clique – the odd ones, or “outcast” black kids who played guitar and rode skateboards, the kind of kids that other kids made fun of, Hunt said.
“We called ourselves ‘the crew’ – it was supposed to be ironic because we were like the outcasts,” he said. “They would always make fun of me for that: ‘Why are you trying to be white?’ ”
Johnson did not play an instrument or skateboard as Hunt did, but he was an outcast, too, because he was in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in a school where, like many public schools, “If you weren’t a cheerleader or football player or basketball player – you weren’t popular,” Hunt said.
Johnson had an autistic younger brother and helped their mother to care for him, Hunt said. But Hunt said that he never met Johnson’s family and that they never visited each other’s homes.
As senior year wound to a close, the boys talked about what they would do next. Hunt was college-bound, but Johnson was determined to enlist in the Army, so he “spent senior year losing weight so he could get in.”
Hunt doesn’t remember why Johnson was so drawn to the idea – maybe just for “a new opportunity,” or as an alternative to college, which is pretty normal in their area, he added.
After high school graduation, Johnson joined the U.S. Army Reserve. He was attached to the 420th Engineer Brigade in Seagoville, Texas, serving from March 2009 to April 2015 and attaining the rank of private first class. He was listed as a specialist in carpentry and masonry. He did not have a combat role.
At the time of his death, he was still technically affiliated with the military, records show. He was a member of the Individual Ready Reserve, meaning he did not have to participate in regular training or drills but was available to be called up for service.
Johnson served one tour of duty in Afghanistan between November 2013 and July 2014. While he was there, a female soldier in his unit accused Johnson of harassment. She said Johnson required “mental health” help and sought a protective order against him, according to Bradford Glendening, a military lawyer who represented Johnson.
Hunt said he saw Johnson after he returned from Afghanistan, but then the two lost touch. Johnson did not say much about Afghanistan except that it was hot.
“The crazy part,” Hunt said, is that he never had any idea that there was anything wrong. He does not remember ever seeing any warning signs or any changes in Johnson. “He never seemed like he would do anything like that. He was joking just like he was in high school.”
The only noticeable difference was that Johnson had become a lot more muscular. “He just worked out a lot. But he never seemed like he had any PTSD or anything,” Hunt said.
Seeing Johnson’s name and picture on the news was a shock: “He was a good guy. I just don’t know what happened.”
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Some of Johnson’s high school friends and people who knew him from the military took to Facebook in the aftermath of the shooting to express shock and grief – and also loyalty.
“Micah was my very close friend. I refuse to remember him as anything less,” a former high school classmate, Stanlee Washington, wrote on his own Facebook page.
Hunt responded to that post, saying he would go to Johnson’s funeral: “He’s still our friend.”
Gaven Sublet, 25, also was a member of the John Horn High School group of friends, said his grandmother, Dorothy Sublet.
“He was just like any other nice young man. He was friendly. He was a handsome young guy,” she said. The news of the shooting was shocking. “That just really hurt me. I’m 90-something-years old, and I just feel so sad for those families, the young men and the policemen.”
Military veterans were disproportionately hit by Johnson’s rampage: Four of the five slain officers had served in the military.
Those who knew Johnson from the military expressed harsher feelings in their Facebook posts.
“Still can’t believe it . . . He had served with me in Afghanistan. He slept right next to me. So. . .crazy,” Luis Cantu wrote on Facebook. “We all knew he was off but I had no idea he was capable of this. He was a recluse but every now and then he would come out and make waffles for us with his waffle maker. Goes to show you that you don’t always truly know somebody or what they are capable of.”
Bryan Bols, who also served with Johnson in Afghanistan, wrote on his own Facebook wall, too: “I served with him in my old unit. Makes me sick to my stomach.”
Wells Newsome Sr., whose son by the same name deployed to Afghanistan with Johnson, said he had never met Johnson but had theories about his motivations.
“It’s just that these young black men are tired of white cops killing us,” he said, adding that he thought Johnson’s actions had nothing to do with his military service.
“It’s more along the lines of waking up and seeing the news and seeing unarmed black men getting murdered,” Newsome said. “I don’t think Afghanistan had nothing to do with his mind-set. He fought for this country and is still considered a third-class citizen.”
In Mesquite, where Johnson had lived with his mother, Avis Blanton has lived next door to the Johnsons for more than 12 years.
About seven years ago, when Blanton would walk her then-7-year-old son about five blocks to school, Johnson would see them and offer to walk her son the rest of the way to school so she could return home and get ready for work.
“He’d say, ‘Hey Ms. Avis. I got this,’ ” Blanton said. “He was a good kid. He was truly, truly good.”
Blanton said she thinks Johnson “just snapped.”
“Black folks are tired. We are just tired. I am not justifying what he did, but I see why he did it,” she said.
Blanton, who is black and has a brother who is a Dallas-area transit police officer, said she thinks the shootings of African Americans in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Minnesota and elsewhere had “set him off.”
Blanton said the Johnsons were a close family. Although Micah Johnson’s parents were divorced, his father would come to the home every two weeks and mow the grass. Johnson’s paternal grandfather also lived at the home until his death a few years ago.
“They are a loving family. His mother would speak to everyone,” Blanton said.
Blanton said she remembered when someone broke into the home and stole Johnson’s five assault rifles. Johnson, she says, had a license for the weapons.
She said she was not concerned living next to him knowing he had the rifles. “Texas is an open-carry state. Everyone has some type of gun here,” she said.
Blanton said she often saw Johnson walking around the neighborhood wearing a white T-shirt and gym shorts. He would often play basketball, she said, at the local basketball court with youths and men from the neighborhood.
“I think he just got tired. Tired of what this nation is putting us through as a people, as a culture,” she said.
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Omowale, of the People’s New Black Panther Party, said he last saw Johnson a few months ago, when he attended what Omowale described as a “social event” at the Pan-African Connection, a Dallas bookstore that also has a meeting space where members of the movement sometimes gather, he said.
The People’s New Black Panther Party in Dallas, which has 4,000 likes on Facebook, and a sister organization (also founded by Omowale) – the Huey P. Newton Gun Club – hold semi-regular demonstrations in the Dallas area, in which members often carry long guns and dress in military apparel in a display against the oppression of blacks in America and “to let people of color know that it is legal to carry weapons,” Omowale said.
“We want every black man and woman throughout the country to legally arm themselves,” he said. But Omowale said that Johnson never attended any of those events and that he never saw Johnson carrying a weapon.
The People’s New Black Panther Party and its supporters see the police as “basically a military unit inside the black community,” Omowale said, so when they are in public facing off in a protest against a white supremacist group, as Omowale said they did a few months ago to defend a local Nation of Islam mosque, they carry guns.
Omowale and other party members and supporters – some of them bearing arms – took part in the peaceful march through downtown Dallas on Thursday night, before Johnson’s shots sent marchers running for cover.
“A few of the comrades who are part of the community got arrested – and they were basically arrested because they had on military-looking clothing,” Omowale said. “One of the brothers had a flak vest. But all of these things are perfectly legal.”
Omowale spoke Saturday by phone as he and other party members drove to Baton Rouge for a planned rally in solidarity with the family of Alton Sterling, a black man whose shooting by white police Tuesday in Baton Rouge was captured on video and provoked national outrage.
“People are coming in from around the country to support the family of the brother,” Omowale said. “And we’re also going down to educate the people on their gun rights.”
Video: Micah Johnson, the gunman who killed five police officers at a Dallas protest sparked by police shootings of black men was described as a “loner.” Here’s what you need to know about him.
Video: Jim Otwell, who lives in Mesquite, TX, says the last time he spoke to Micah Johnson was in 2015. The Dallas shooter had asked him for help after Johnson said a number of guns were stolen from his home.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Kevin Sullivan, Abigail Hauslohner, Keith L. Alexander