As a young black Washington Post reporter, Wesley Lowery was covering the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police killing of Michael Brown when he was seized by two officers, shoved against a soda dispenser, restrained in a plastic zip tie and jailed just days after he arrived in town. In the ensuing months, Lowery contributed passionate and rigorous reporting on Ferguson and other police killings of blacks that earned him a shared Pulitzer Prize in national reporting at the age of 25. “They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement,” tells the story of his coverage.
Lowery’s narrative chronicles the events that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. It also documents, with refreshing candor and vulnerability, his efforts to balance life and work, ambition and compassion. Much of the ground Lowery covers is familiar to us by now. But his reflections, observations and personal dilemmas offer a glimpse behind the scenes as a reporter hones his craft and calibrates his moral and professional compasses. Lowery reminds us that journalists are just human beings like the rest of us, with histories, identities, beliefs and biases. And if a black reporter thought he could plop down in the middle of one of the most volatile urban uprisings of the decade and float above the fray, his violent encounter with Ferguson police on his first day on the job disabused him of that notion.
“They Can’t Kill Us All” not only offers us Lowery’s reporting, it also shows how his job affected him. He threw up, cried, paced the floor, and then shook it off and got back to work. Through it all, Lowery was honest with himself, and now, in his book, he is honest with his readers. This candor enhances his credibility as a journalist.
Lowery delves into the life stories of the victims he covered and reminds us that for every Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, there are many more victims whose deaths go relatively unnoticed: Darrius Stewart, Corey Jones, Jamar Clark, Brandon Jones. The list goes on. These stories are more readily available to us because The Post launched a project to do what the federal government and law enforcement were not doing: to keep track, at least for one year, of the fatal encounters between police and civilians.
One of the most touching narratives in the book is the description of the family of Walter Scott, the 50-year-old South Carolina man pulled over by a North Charleston police officer for a traffic violation. Fearful that his unpaid child support would land him in jail, Scott took off running and ended up dead. Lowery spent time with the victim’s family, which reminded him of his own. Scott called his mother by the nickname “Smurf” and loved to watch football with his brother, a committed Dallas Cowboys fan. The family’s routine was church on Sundays and dinner together afterward: a typical Southern black family. Lowery observes that there are no “perfect victims,” but Scott’s death struck him as particularly senseless. Through his reporting, the author invites us to mourn not only Scott’s loss but also the loss of trust in law enforcement by black communities.
Written between the lines of Lowery’s compelling vignettes is a message that many organizations involved in the Black Lives Matter movement have argued. The problem is not isolated incidents, and it is not a few rogue cops. It is a wholesale devaluation of the lives of poor and working-class black people. A black former Fresno, Calif. police officer, Oliver Baines, made it plain in his interview with Lowery. Growing up in Windsor Hills, near Los Angeles, Baines was routinely harassed by police, detained, handcuffed and searched. Until he left his all-black neighborhood, he assumed that the mistreatment he and his friends received was the norm. He later realized that he was being treated as a second-class citizen. “Every weekend my rights were violated for no reason,” he said. After 11 years on the police force, Baines quit and was elected to the city council.
What Lowery does not give as much attention to is the underlying economic hardship in black communities that sets the stage for police violence. It is worth noting that Eric Garner was selling loosies — unpackaged individual cigarettes — and Alton Sterling was selling CDs in a parking lot to earn extra cash when they were killed by police. They were both, as many victims of police violence are, marginal to the formal economy, or trapped in low-wage jobs within it, making them more vulnerable to harassment and abuse.
Overall, this is a beautifully written reporter’s journal that offers an overview of an important chapter in 21st-century African-American history.
Barbara Ransby reviewed this book for The Washington Post.