Journalists try not to become part of the stories they cover. That choice was taken from Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery when police arrested him and Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly as they worked on their stories at the McDonald’s in Ferguson where protests had broken out after the killing of Michael Brown. Since then, Lowery has been on the black death beat, from Michael Brown to Tamir Rice to Freddie Gray and on and on. They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement is the story of his experiences as a reporter covering this tragic story and of the activists who are trying to bend the arc of history toward justice.
Lowery gives us a look inside the organizing in response to the grim history of deaths at the hands of police. He sat in meetings, interviewed activists and got to know them and this is the most interesting part of his book. For many of us, the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, John Crawford, and Philandro Castile are familiar. His focus is less on their killings and more on the civic response, the activist uprising that has energized and shifted the focus of civil rights activism, and the generational changing of the guard.
With passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the focus of black activism was on consolidating the gains of the Civil Rights movement, electing more black people to office, promoting education and career advancement. It was not about revolution, but about working to get ahead within the system. Throughout that time, unarmed black men were killed by police with impunity, but their deaths were seldom noted. Video changed that.
The first incident was the assault on Rodney King. It would have been just one more case of a man beaten while “resisting arrest” were it not for the video taken by an onlooker. It is video and social media that has given life to this new movement. Now the killing of unarmed men is not an inside story in a local paper, but tweeted and posted to a national audience, hashtagged and memorialized. Videos provide documentation of police culpability and dishonest, most notably in the killing of Walter Scott when the video captured the police officer planting evidence and refuted the false statements provided by the officers on the scene.
Lowery includes the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmermann since that murder was the impetus for Black Lives Matter. He also includes the murders of the nine worshippers at AME Church in Charleston. Like many people, he sees all of these deaths as part of a whole, the violent devaluation of black lives in a system of white supremacy.
This is a valuable contribution to understanding the new movement for racial justice. We are introduced to the leaders of this new movement and learn how they were mobilized and inspired to activism and leadership. He points out that critics of the Ferguson protests who repeatedly focus on the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” chant as inaccurate are missing the point. The exact facts of Michael Brown’s killing are less important than the critical fact that he was just one more, the tipping point, not the only point. Critics ignore the context of a city that financed its government by harassing black people and fining them for anything and everything including “manner of walking.” Critics ignore the scathing Dept. of Justice report that laid bare a systemic system of racist oppression carried out by Ferguson police for years.
This is a book for activists and those who are interested and supportive of the racial justice movement to safeguard black lives. However, if those who really need to read would actually crack the cover and read it, they would be surprised and perhaps persuaded. Lowery writes like the reporter he is, tamping down his outrage, instead providing text and context for the the movement in a matter of fact tone that in the end, could be more persuasive than outrage. If only people would read it.
They Can’t Kill Us All will be released on November 15th. I was provided an e-galley by NetGalley.
- They Can’t Kill Us All at Hatchette Books
- Wesley Lowery at The Washington Post
- Wesley Lowery’s Tumblr