Welcome to the first installment of 16th Minute, a new series where we check in with ordinary people who momentarily went viral.
Mark Hughes has a sense of humor about what happened to him last summer. On July 7, 2016, Hughes was wrongly identified by Dallas Police and news organizations around the world as a suspect in that day’s sniper attack at a Black Lives Matter march in the city, and when I meet him in the office of the tax prep company he owns in nearby Arlington, Hughes asks me with a straight face: “Are you familiar with the July 7th event?” Then, pointing to his desk neighbor: “You know, he was the one who was actually doing the shooting.”
It’s hard to imagine how Hughes would have survived the past year without cracking a few jokes. Almost everything about his life has been affected by the day his photograph was emblazoned on local news, CNN, and the Dallas Police Department’s official Twitter account, with the words “This is one of our suspects. Please help us find him!” above his photo.
Hughes had seen groups like Open Carry Tarrant County, whose members—and leadership, which is white—carry long-arm rifles on the street in front of his tax-prep business, in accordance with the law. And as he made plans to attend the march he decided, for the first time, that he should do the same. Philando Castile, the Minnesota man whose shooting death had been captured on video prior to the march, had his right to carry a gun violated by the officer who shot him. Hughes decided that meant he had a responsibility to assert his own.
“Does the Second Amendment not apply to us, to bear arms?” Hughes asks. “Here in Arlington, I see the groups on these streets. They’re just displaying their rights publicly.”
Hughes read up on the laws regarding open carry, bought a shoulder strap for his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in order to be compliant with the law, and headed to Dallas. Hughes was nervous when he first stepped out of his car with the gun over his shoulder in front of police, but after his first encounter with an officer who stopped him went peacefully, he relaxed. He and his brother marched, and then the chaos started. Hughes didn’t hear gunshots, but he saw people running, and started running, too. Within minutes, his brother realized that the fact that he was carrying a gun while shots were being fired could put him at risk, and urged him to get rid of it.
“I was like, ‘Why am I gonna give my gun up if they’re shooting?’” Hughes recalls, but when he understood the gravity of the situation—that he was a black man carrying a rifle in a racially-charged environment in which shots had been fired—he flagged down an officer, convinced him to take the gun, and decided to go home and get his rifle back a few days later. Hughes and a friend tried to get to his car, but the area where he’d parked had been closed following the shooting, so his friend pulled out her phone to hail an Uber—and that’s when they learned that Hughes was now the most wanted man in America.
“I still get chill bumps thinking about it,” Hughes says. His friend’s sister called her and told her to get away from Hughes—that they were going to kill him. “She was yelling it, so I could hear her. She said I was all over the news.”
She sent him the photo from the Dallas Police Department Twitter account, and he quickly realized how many angry police officers were in the area and looking for him. He took off the camouflage shirt he was wearing in the picture “to buy some time,” then decided that his best bet was to find the nearest squad car and explain the situation. He approached an officer who hadn’t seen his photo, told him what was going on, and was promptly cuffed, taken to police headquarters, and held for hours. The lack of respect he felt from the police bothered Hughes. He didn’t want to wear handcuffs (“I hadn’t done anything wrong”), but being cuffed against his will was only the first indignity he’d suffer that night.
“I walked in the room,” Hughes remembers, “And about 50-some officers were all looking at me like, ‘Got you.’”
Hughes was interrogated for more than an hour. Still seething at how he was being treated when he hadn’t done anything wrong, he ended up in a shouting match with a detective who, he says, asked him, “How long have you and your brother wanted to kill police officers” and who told him that “multiple witnesses” saw him shooting the gun. (Ballistics tests confirmed that the rifle had not been fired.)
Then, eventually, he was released—but the Dallas Police Department left the tweet with the photograph identifying him as a suspect and urging citizens to help find him online for most of the next day. A year later, the department still hasn’t issued a statement clearing Hughes of suspicion, or even offered a private apology to Hughes for leaving his photo online for so many crucial hours after the shooting.
That tweet has turned Hughes’ life upside-down. He listed his house for sale, sold two of the businesses he owned, and spent months looking over his shoulder as people who recognized him from the photograph still believed he had something to do with the shooting. It’s also taught him who his friends are. And it’s given him an opportunity to make a difference in the exact ways he wanted to when he decided to attend that march on July 7.
Hughes had been following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement as it developed across the country. He and his brother followed the protests around Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, and kept an eye on their own community, as well, when things like the infamous McKinney pool party occurred. And when he went to bed on the night of July 6, after learning of the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, he was already angry at the killing of a man after he’d already been wrestled to the ground.
The next morning, his mood got worse. “What was the first thing I see when I turn on CNN? Philando Castile,” Hughes recalls. “So I call my brother and say, ‘Which one are we going to? Baton Rouge or Minnesota?’” They started, of course, with the march in Dallas that night.
After it happened, Hughes was initially terrified. He checked into a hotel with his wife—with whom he was celebrating his 10th wedding anniversary on July 8—and their three kids. They stayed there for the first few days, then CNN offered to fly them to New York so Hughes could appear as part of the network’s “Black, White, and Blue” town hall event in the wake of the shooting. He questioned Paul Ryan on the air about how he planned to ensure better mental health care for veterans like the one who was responsible for the shooting.
When he returned to Texas, he decided to put his house on the market—but after a short time considering it, Hughes decided not to sell. “I’m not going to let those people run me from my home,” he remembers thinking. “That’s supposed to be a sacred place.” Two of the businesses he operated—a snow cone shop in Fort Worth and a mobile snow cone truck—were less sacred, and he decided to let them go. People who believed he was involved with the sniper would leave notes on the stand, or take pictures of him when he arrived at work.
“It went from being, ‘That’s the snow-cone man!’ when people saw me to, ‘That’s the Dallas shooter!’”
He kept his third snow cone business, in nearby Crowley (just south of Fort Worth), and found that after taking an initial loss, he ended up getting support from people who weren’t his usual customers. “People started coming up just to have a conversation like, ‘Dang, man, we support you.’ Some of them would come up not even to buy a snow cone, just to say, ‘It’s gonna be alright.’”
That meant a lot to Hughes. He saw people step in to defend him on social media, and stand up for him as people made assumptions, spread misinformation, or attacked his character. That was important, because along with the negative attention, Hughes began to realize he had an opportunity.
He had gone to the march to stand for racial justice, to insist that black folks shouldn’t be treated as dangerous criminals based on how they looked—and then, because of how he looked, he had been assumed to be a dangerous criminal. Hughes realized that he was an example of exactly the same thing he’d been protesting, but he was alive, breathing, and unhurt—which meant that he had a platform.
In the initial days after the march, he used that platform to defend himself on the internet, but he quickly realized that doing so wasn’t actually helping the cause.
“I felt myself up late, reading stuff and constantly responding,” he says. He compares himself to how a celebrity handles the attention on social media, then stops, like he knows how tacky it sounds to make that comparison. Hughes is clearly proud of how he’s navigated his moment of brief infamy, which can veer into a touch of vanity. “I had to take a step back and say, ‘Mark, the platform, it’s bigger than you now. You can’t lash out in anger anymore, because you have people looking to you to lead, who are willing to follow.’”
A few days before I met with Hughes, a 15-year-old boy named Jordan Edwards was killed by a police officer in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs. The shooting death was shocking—Edwards was a passenger in a car that was leaving a party, and as the car was driving away, an officer took out his rifle, aimed at the car, and fired, killing the boy. One of the first phone calls Edwards’ family made was to Mark Hughes.
The family reached out to ask for help. There’s no playbook for what to do when your child’s name suddenly becomes a hashtag, but they knew they wanted an attorney. Hughes connected them with Lee Merritt, the lawyer who represents him in his still-pending litigation against the Dallas Police Department, and offered his advice and condolences.
“I get calls like that weekly,” Hughes says. He hears from families seemingly any time there’s a Black Lives Matter issue in the Dallas area. At first, he struggled with how to help—What is there to say to a family that’s reached their boiling point while mourning a loved one?—but he found his way into a leadership role. “I realized that you can’t do everything, but you can always do something.”
When a viral video showed a Fort Worth woman named Jacqueline Craig and her teenage daughter being attacked by a police officer and arrested after calling for help with a violent neighbor, Hughes was there. When student-athletes at DeSoto High School found themselves under fire for taking a knee during the national anthem, Hughes was with them.
As the situation around Jacqueline Craig worsened—she and her daughter continued to face charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct—Hughes, his brother, and other activists went to her neighborhood in Fort Worth. And once again, Hughes brought his gun.
“It turned out the way I thought it was gonna turn out,” Hughes says with a laugh about his second time openly carrying a gun in the street. “We wanted to show his presence in the neighborhood that said, ‘You can’t put your hands on our children, nor can you treat our women that way. Fort Worth PD, if you’re not gonna do your job, we’ll do it for you. We’ll make our presence known so that before you put your hands on another black woman or another black kid, they’ll know that we’ll go to bat for them.’”
Craig’s neighborhood in Fort Worth is nice—classic suburban Texas, full of red brick houses and two car garages, and mid-aughts Toyota Corollas and Chevy Blazers parked in them. And when Hughes, his brother, and a few other black men with guns started patrolling, the police quickly showed up. The first officer on the scene, Hughes says, was “a coward.” He was nice to their faces—the cop asked the men how they were, then went back to his car. But as Hughes and the others arrived at Craig’s house, they were met with nearly a half-dozen other police cars—and the officers driving them had their AR-15’s pointed directly at the men.
When he talks about it, Hughes sounds like he’s begun to come to grips with the question he’s been asking for the past year, even as he recalls having his life threatened by men with guns pointed at his head.
“I was sitting there thinking, ‘What law have we broken?’” Hughes says, recalling the sight of Open Carry groups in the street. “Not one time have I ever seen that and they had guns pointed at them. But when we do it, we have to be scared for our life. What laws did we break?”
Hughes was cuffed once more, and suffered an additional indignity—police checked the guns to ensure they hadn’t been stolen—before they let the men go. Hughes had his suspicion confirmed: He doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to carry his rifle in public without having his life threatened and his dignity attacked. And that actually seems to bring him some peace and clarity, because he knows he’s willing to do it, anyway.
“I’m very spiritual, and biblically it says that nothing you go through is for you,” Hughes says. “It’s always for the betterment of other people. Your testimony is what will get other people through. I think that people see that I’m not there for the cameras. They’ve seen that I’ve been tried and tested, and I’m really out there, actively, in the community.”
This feature is part of Fusion’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.