Book Review: They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, Wesley Lowery (2016)

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

A crucial look at the birth of the Movement for Black Lives.

four out of five stars

(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.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: March: Book One, John Lewis (2013)

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

“The Boy from Troy”

four out of five stars

The first in a planned trilogy, March: Book One follows the life of Congressman John Lewis (GA-5), one of the “Big Six” leaders in the civil rights movement and a former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Book One covers Lewis’s early years, where his love of education often conflicted with his duties on his family’s Alabama sharecropper’s farm. After high school, Lewis attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University (“the boy from Troy who wants to desegregate Troy State,” as MLK referred to him during their first meeting), where he became involved in non-violent protest and helped organize the Nashville sit-ins, which were successful in desegregating local lunch counters. The scenes of students rehearsing the demonstrations – and all the abuse it entailed – are especially harrowing. Along with dozens of fellow protestors, Lewis was arrested (the first in a long string of arrests; as of October 2013, when he was arrested for marching in favor of immigration reform, Lewis has been arrested some 45 times) and sentenced to a $50 fine or 30 days in the county workhouse. Lewis and his colleagues were ultimately released under the orders of Nashville Mayor Ben West.

Lewis recalls these events to a group of young visitors just hours before the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, which he and his family are to attend, thus firmly connecting past and present. The artwork by Nate Powell is pleasing and certainly gets the job done, though part of me wishes that these scenes from the past had been rendered in color instead of black and white, making them come alive, so to speak.

Though it includes harsh language (understandable given the context), I think that March is suitable for middle school readers on up. The “n word” is dropped with some frequency, but it’s important for parents to discuss the hateful legacy of this (and other slurs) with their children. Additionally, March can be a useful tool for introducing the history of the civil rights movement to middle and high school students. While it is rather light on details – this is a graphic novel, after all! – March can help teachers meet students on their level and engage them with topics in which they might not otherwise take an interest. March shouldn’t be the beginning and end of the lesson, but rather a starting point. It certainly made me hungry to know more.

I found the early scenes of Lewis tending to his family’s chickens particularly touching and poignant. Lewis had an especial affinity for those birds destined for his dinner plate; he talked to them, named them, came to recognize and appreciate their distinct personalities, and even sermonized to and baptized them. When his parents killed one for meat – chopping his head off, or breaking her neck – Lewis remained angry with them for days, and made himself scarce during these meals. Thus it was no small disappointment to see him readily dismisses the ethical implications of exploiting sentient creatures for food – not to mention, devalue the fierce bonds he formed with these beings – with a clichéd line about the circle of life.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)