Book Review: They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, Wesley Lowery (2016)December 28th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato
A crucial look at the birth of the Movement for Black Lives.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for discussions of racism and violence.)
It wasn’t until hours later that our arrest began to sink in. I’d arrived in Ferguson two days earlier thinking I’d be there for just a couple of days. I’d write a feature or two, and then I’d go back to DC and to writing about politics. But as I paced the carpeted floor of my hotel room in downtown St. Louis that night, it became clear that I wasn’t escaping Ferguson anytime soon.
Resident after resident had told more stories of being profiled, of feeling harassed. These protests, they insisted, were not just about Mike Brown. What was clear, from the first day, was that residents of Ferguson, and all who had traveled there to join them, had no trust in, and virtually no relationship with, the police. The police, in turn, seemed to exhibit next to no humanity toward the pained residents they were charged with protecting.
Ferguson would birth a movement and set the nation on a course for a still-ongoing public hearing on race that stretched far past the killing of unarmed residents—from daily policing to Confederate imagery to respectability politics to cultural appropriation. The social justice movement spawned from Mike Brown’s blood would force city after city to grapple with its own fraught histories of race and policing. As protests propelled by tweets and hashtags spread under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” and with cell phone and body camera video shining new light on the way police interact with minority communities, America was forced to consider that not everyone marching in the streets could be wrong. Even if Mike Brown’s own questionable choices sealed his fate, did Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland all deserve to die?
Journalist Wesley Lowery had just moved from the Boston Globe to the Washington Post when the shooting of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson rocked Ferguson, Missouri – and then the world. Though he had his heart set on covering politics, Lowery was quickly dispatched to Ferguson, where his arrest just two days into the protests drew national attention. Along with Ryan Reilly from the Huffington Post, Lowery was escorted out of a local McDonald’s where he’d been working; despite the officers’ smug attitudes (“Oh, you’ll be charged with a whole lot of things.”), Lowery spent just twenty minutes in a Ferguson holding cell before being released.
What began as a short business trip snowballed into Lowery’s new beat, covering law enforcement and justice. Once Lowery and his colleagues started paying attention, they found cases of police brutality, excessive force, and corruption cropping up all over the country. Some weeks, the young reporter barely had time to catch his breath in between assignments, so frequent are police shootings. (According to statistics compiled by the Washington Post, police fatally shoot roughly 1,000 civilians per year. Local police departments are not required to record these numbers, nor is there a federal database to track them.) Lowery and his team would eventually win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their coverage of police shootings.
In They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, Lowery traces the birth of #BackLivesMatter – or the Movement for Black Lives, as it’s now called – from Ferguson, Missouri to Cleveland, Ohio; from North Charleston, South Carolina to Baltimore, Maryland; and to Charleston, South Carolina, where Dylan Roof killed nine churchgoers at the historic Emanuel AME church – before circling back to Ferguson once again. At each stop, Lowery confronted the specter of black death: Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson, among others. Too many.
Some may object that the Emanuel AME shooting doesn’t fit the narrative; Roof was a deranged gunman, an evil villain, while the police fundamentally mean well, even if they sometimes make mistakes. Yet this criticism misses the crux of the issue: we are a nation rooted in white supremacy, and our institutions reflect this. Enter Bree Newsome and her work of civil disobedience/performance art, which was ultimately responsible for the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse (in which Reverend Pinckney’s body was, ironically, lying in state) – permanently.
Incidentally, many of the activists that Lowery interviewed identify George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin as the turning point in their consciousness. Along with the deaths of Oscar Grant and Jordan Davis, this was the “conception” of the movement, with Ferguson being its “grand birth.” That Martin and Davis were both murdered by white or white-passing vigilantes rather than cops doesn’t disrupt the message, which is that black lives are routinely devalued, criminalized, viewed as inherently threatening, and must be policed at all costs.
Lowery’s writing is solid and compelling; he does a good job of connecting the dots, as scattered and numerous as they are. While he only explores a few shootings between 2014 and 2015 in detail – presumably just those he covered himself – overall he paints a detailed and nuanced picture of the burgeoning Movement for Black Lives.
Lowery became a part of the story early on, pretty much from jump street, with his arrest. I’ve noticed that some reviewers are critical of Lowery’s propensity to insert himself into the story, at least very much beyond the arrest. But I find this unfair, for two reasons. Lowery is part of the story, and not just for his arrest. By virtue of being a black man in America, this story is about him, as well as all the other marginalized groups unjustly targeted by the police: blacks and Lantixs, LGBTQ folks, the physically and mentally disabled, those living with mental illnesses, and sex workers, just to start. From black men who are stopped and frisked at a disproportionately high rate, to prostitutes who are afraid to report crimes lest they themselves be charged and incarcerated, the story of police abuse and the carceral state is one that so many citizens know all too well.
Additionally, this implies that Lowery makes the story all about himself, which just isn’t true. Rather, he shares his own background and experiences as a means of grounding the story and letting his audience know where he’s coming from. And he does the same for many of the activists he profiles in these pages: DeRay Mckesson, Brittany Packnett, Clifton Kinnie, Justin Hansford, Shaun King, Bree Newsome, Kayla Reed, Johnetta Elzie, Tony Rice, and Alexis Templeton.
My only complaint – and it’s a minor one – is that the narrative sometimes feels as if it’s being pulled in too many directions at once. Lowery peppers on-the-ground reporting with profiles of activists, personal and professional anecdotes, and hard data, as well as commentary on the media, the rise of citizen journalists, and the power wielded by athletes. While it makes for an engaging read, it can feel a little scattershot at times. However, I appreciate how he refuses to be confined to a narrow, simple box: he links Roof and the Confederate flag with the dehumanization of black bodies by police and the public alike, to great effect.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is next on my list, and I’m interested to see how the two compare; my guess is that it will be more scholarly and grounded in the social sciences, a nice complement to Lowery’s more immediate journalism. Either way, and even though it might not be everything to everyone, I highly recommend They Can’t Kill Us All. Even if you followed Ferguson and the movement it birthed on Twitter, there’s lots of insightful and insider information to be found here.
Table of Contents
Introduction: THE STORY
Chapter 1: FERGUSON: A CITY HOLDS ITS BREATH
Chapter 2: CLEVELAND: COMING HOME
Chapter 3: NORTH CHARLESTON: CAUGHT ON CAMERA
Chapter 4: BALTIMORE: LIFE PRE-INDICTMENT
Chapter 5: CHARLESTON: BLACK DEATH IS BLACK DEATH
Chapter 6: FERGUSON, AGAIN: A YEAR LATER, THE PROTESTS CONTINUE
Afterword: THREE DAYS IN JULY
About the Author