Correction: An earlier version of this review said conclusively that at the time of his fatal encounter with police, Eric Garner was selling unpackaged cigarettes. At the time, the NYPD police suspected as much. The text has been corrected to reflect that Garner was allegedly selling unpackaged cigarettes.
Barbara Ransby is Distinguished Professor of African American Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies and History at University of Illinois at Chicago where she directs the Social Justice Initiative. She is author, most recently, of “Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson,” and is working on a book about the Black Lives Matter movement.
By Wesley Lowery
Little, Brown. 248 pp. $27
As a young black Washington Post reporter, Wesley Lowery was covering the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the police killing of Michael Brown when he was seized by two officers, shoved against a soda dispenser, restrained with a plastic zip tie and jailed briefly 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. His book, “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 allegedly 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. I only wish that Lowery had one more chapter to explore the dynamic landscape of movement organizations. He introduces us to a number of movement personalities and certainly to the victims, but what is absent is the constellation of organizations that emerged, or stepped in, to sustain and extend the spontaneous protests that erupted in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere. Lowery mentions organizations in passing — but those organizations and others are essential to how we understand the significance of this political moment. Groups like the Black Lives Matter network, Black Youth Project 100, Dream Defenders, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice and Black Out Collective worked tirelessly in the months after the Trayvon Martin murder, and with renewed energy after Ferguson, to build a mass movement against the various forms of state violence affecting black communities. More recently, the Movement for Black Lives coalition, which organized a major conference in Cleveland in the summer of 2015 and coordinated the Vision for Black Lives policy platform released this year, is an important actor in the political drama that is still unfolding.
Lowery’s book should be read alongside historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s “From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation” and Marc Lamont Hill’s “Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond,” both of which offer analyses of how we got to Ferguson and how we might map our way forward, and a broader profile of the leadership of the movement as it has evolved since Ferguson.
As a young man who has seen up close the bloody misuse of power and the fire and fury it engenders, Lowery has remained steadfast in his role as witness and truth-teller. His example of integrity under fire and professionalism under pressure should be an example to his junior and senior colleagues alike. We desperately need tough and tenacious reporters unafraid to speak truth to power as we wade into the multiple uncertainties of the next four years.