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A KERA Intern's Trial By (Gun)Fire

Javier Giribet-Vargas
A bullet pierced the front end of KERA intern Javier Giribet-Vargas' 2008 Toyota Corolla.

Since I was a child, I’ve dreamed of being a journalistic first responder. Last week, I got to cross that off my bucket list. And for a moment, I thought it was the last thing I’d ever do.

In the days before July 7, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, both African-American men, were shot and killed by police officers. Videos of their deaths spread across social media and sparked protests across the nation.

I’m an intern for KERA, and I’d already covered a rally in June after the Orlando nightclub shootings. So I volunteered to cover the July march through downtown Dallas.

The demonstration began at 7 p.m. in a park called Belo Garden. Activists and religious leaders spoke and condemned the killings. Demonstrators carried protest signs. The crowd chanted, “Enough is enough!” Two groups of police officers watched from opposite corners of the park. I saw no signs of violence or criminal activity during the rally.

A peaceful march began around 8:15. I followed along, and stopped off near Harwood Street at a convenience store to talk with a group of young people filming the protest for YouTube. Back on the street, I hustled to catch up with the march.

It was sundown, close to 9, so I paused next to the Bank of America building. I set my phone down on a metal sign so I could adjust my camera settings. I was in front of five patrol cars that blocked the street from traffic. As it got darker, the street was almost empty. I could only hear cops chatting.

A breeze kicked up. Then came several consecutive loud “bangs.” I was confused at first. I turned around and saw the officers running for cover. It came to me: Those bangs were gunshots.

Credit Javier Giribet-Vargas / KERA News
Officers try to track the shooter on the night of July 7th.

  I should’ve hit the deck. Instead, my first reaction was to hit “record” on my iPhone. I crouched behind a metal sign and aimed my camera at patrol cars racing to the scene.  It wasn’t until I set the camera down that I realized the danger.

Cops tried to aim their rifles, while taking cover behind their cars. Four marchers ran towards the officers, crying in terror. No one knew where the gunfire was coming from. For several minutes, I lay on the concrete praying while protecting my head with my hands, not knowing whether I was out of the shooter’s range.

One officer saw me and yelled, “Run back, get out of here!” I ducked into the nearest police car, and heard the voices on the radio saying “there’s a man down,” and “suspect is in the parking garage.” That’s when I remembered I’d left my cell phone. I couldn’t record anything.

I ran back toward Belo Garden, holding my hands in the air and dashing from one police car to another. When I reached the park, an officer told me I couldn’t be there. Parked in the corner was a news van for KUVN, the local Univision TV station. I ran to reporter Laura Cruces and asked to borrow her phone to check in with my editor at KERA and with KUVN’s news anchor, Ana Maria Vargas.

She’s my mom.

After talking with her, I hunkered down with Cruces and photographer William Castro inside the van until the scene was declared safe. That would take seven hours. The three of us sat there with no food or water. Twitter and the radio kept us updated about the standoff with the shooter and the rumors of bombs in the area.

After police confirmed that the shooter had been killed, I got out of the van. An officer rescued my cell phone – it had recorded much of the night’s action.

But my car was still stuck behind crime-scene tape. I walked the mile back to KERA, arrived at 6 a.m. and crashed on a couch.

I wouldn’t get to reclaim my car, a 2008 Toyota Corolla, until four days later. And when I did, it came with a souvenir – holes where a bullet pierced the front end.