Mark Hughes shed his possessions one by one – first his AR-15 rifle after the shooting began, then his camouflage shirt when his picture coursed through the Internet.
He was trying to fend off suspicion as the rattle of gunfire convulsed an otherwise nonviolent demonstration in downtown Dallas. The shots killed five police officers and wounded seven others, opening a new chapter in the searing national debate over race and policing – a chapter into which Hughes, 25, was mistakenly written as authorities declared him a suspect in the shooting.
At stake in the incident are questions about guns, racial bias and the harm that can be done by social media.
As the city reeled from news of the shooting, and as authorities searched for those responsible, the police department posted a photo of the Arlington, Tex., native on Twitter with the message, “This is one of our suspects. Please help us find him!” The photo showed Hughes in his camouflage T-shirt, marching with the AR-15 slung over his shoulder. He was participating in a demonstration Thursday evening against police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota.
That Hughes was permitted under state law to openly carry a rifle did not assuage his brother, Cory, who advised him to hand his weapon over to police as soon as he heard that shots had been fired.
“Give it to him, bro,” he said as he hoisted the gun from his brother’s shoulder in a moment captured on video and posted to Twitter early Friday morning. The video shows Hughes relinquishing the weapon to an officer in an amicable exchange and the officer telling him how he could retrieve it.
It was only later that he learned that his photo was circulating on social media and on cable news. Law enforcement distributed copies of the photo at a news briefing broadcast live on the Periscope app, in which Dallas Police Chief David Brown described Hughes as a “suspect” and a “person of interest.”
“We’ll bring him to justice,” Brown pledged.
Local media broadened the photo’s reach. At one point, it was being attached on Google to news reports about the possible motives of the eventual suspect in the case, Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, who was killed after a standoff.
When a friend called Hughes, telling him she had seen his photo on CNN and that he had been identified as a suspect, he took off his camouflage shirt.
“I literally thought I was about to get killed,” he said in an interview on Friday.
The police department’s message on Twitter was reposted 40,000 times in 12 hours. But the response it drew changed drastically as the video of Hughes handing over his weapon – and another showing him in a crowd reacting to the shootings – began to circulate on social media, countering the notion that he was involved. By early Friday, Twitter users were begging the police department to delete its post, which they labeled as libelous and potentially fatal for Hughes. Indeed, Hughes said he and his brother received death threats over social media.
In a later tweet, the police department said “the person of interest whose picture has been circulated just turned himself in.”
Hughes said he submitted to questioning for over an hour, as a detective told him there was video evidence and witness accounts suggesting he was responsible.
Michael Campbell Jr., an attorney for Hughes, was incensed by the way his client was treated by law enforcement.
“He did not have a lawyer with him when he was talking to police,” he said in an interview. “The police took his phone, they searched his phone, warrantless. So there were several tactics used by DPD that violated his constitutional rights, OK?”
He said he planned to discuss with his client “what further legal remedies are available for Mr. Hughes” and his brother, since both were detained.
In a video posted to his Facebook page, Cory Hughes said police ran forensic tests on his hands and searched his phone.
“I’m really just kind of shaken up, because this was a peaceful protest,” he said. “We really came out here, man, just to have a voice and for the world to hear us, and at the end of the day, we never wanted anybody to be hurt. We came out here because we’re tired of being hurt.”
The Dallas Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Justin Williamson, a spokesman for the Texas State Rifle Association, said it would be a mistake to blame the state’s open-carry policy for the faulty identification of Hughes.
“You’re making the assumption that by carrying a gun, you’re not expecting it to be peaceful,” Williamson said. “I think that he chose to carry a gun because he could and it’s his right.”
But Mark Hughes said only certain citizens enjoy the state’s permissive gun laws.
“Here in Texas, it’s an unwritten code,” he said. “You see one group of individuals, they’re able to walk up and down the street with their assault rifles hanging from their waist, but the moment another group does it – people of color – we’re victimized. . . I’m getting questions about why would you bring a gun to a protest. Well, because it’s my right.”