“There are few things as exhilarating as parachuting into an unknown place with a bag full of pens and notebooks in pursuit of ‘the story,’” Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery writes in the opening of his book ‘They Can’t Kill Us All’: Ferguson, Baltimore, and A New Era In America’s Racial Justice Movement.
Lowery—who had gone to Ferguson, Mo., to report on the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teen shot and killed by Police Officer Darren Wilson, and the protests that followed—was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, along with his fellow Washington Post journalists, for work tracking police shootings in the United States. And yet, while reporting on Brown’s death and the ensuing protests, Lowery and other reporters were arrested alongside peaceful protesters and became part of the story.
“Earlier, on the day I was arrested, I tweeted digital video and photo updates from the spot where Brown had been shot and killed, from the burned-out shell of the QuikTrip gas station torched in the first night of rioting, of the peaceful crowds of church ladies who fathered that afternoon on West Florissant—a major thoroughfare not far from where the shooting occurred that played host to most of the demonstrations—as well as the heavily armored police vehicles that responded to monitor them,” Lowery writes.
He had gone back to the McDonald’s that journalists were using as a base camp to charge phone batteries and frantically tap out stories, only to be told by police that they had to vacate the premises. Lowery packed up his things, but the police thought he was moving too slowly and arrested him, grabbing another journalist—the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly—to arrest on the way out.
Police officers ignored Lowery’s questions about why he and Reilly had been arrested and instead promised the two journalists a night in jail. There are other poignant details here, too: the officer smugly declaring that the police would invent trumped-up charges to press against the journalists; the elderly church minister, a peaceful protester who had also been arrested, singing hymns in the police vehicle on their ride to the jail.
Because Lowery’s fellow journalists witnessed his arrest and put the footage—which went viral—online; and because of Lowery’s position as a journalist and pressure put by his employer, the Washington Post, Lowery and Reilly were released after 20 minutes in jail. But regular citizens of Ferguson, powerless and unprotected, were not so lucky. “Resident after resident had told more stories of being profiled, of being harassed,” Lowery remembers. “These protests, they insisted, were not just about Mike Brown.”
Wilson, of course, was not indicted by the grand jury for killing Brown. When remembering this moment, Lowery muses: “What does justice look like for those who are killed by officers who, according to the way our laws are written, have committed no crime but who through tactic or restraint could have avoided taking a life?”
Lowery spent three months reporting on Ferguson, and then the following eight months “crisscrossing the country, visiting city after city to report on and understand the social movement that vowed to awaken a sleeping nation and insisted it begin to truly value black life.” Lowery spoke to hundreds of people connected to Brown, the Ferguson protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Duane Finnie, a childhood friend of Brown’s, had this to say to Lowery: “People are tired of being misused and mistreated, and this is an outlet for them to express their outrage and anger.” They are the ones who knew Brown as “Mike Mike, the quiet kid who got his hair cut up the street on West Florissant and who was often seen walking around” the neighborhood—not the hulking superhuman demon or thug portrayed by Wilson and the police force and elements of the media. This is Lowery’s gift: an innate ability to excavate the human factor and allow an individual’s voice and story to be heard.
Lowery notes that it was not the shooting of Brown but the community’s response to the act of police violence that “drew the eyes of a nation.” Lowery also carefully articulates the effects of Trayvon Martin’s death, Eric Garner’s death, John Crawford’s death, and the deaths of so many other black men, women and children in building the groundswell of the Black Lives Matter movement that coalesced in the Ferguson protests after Brown's death: “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.”
Lowery’s detailed reportage and keen analysis are made even stronger through historical contextualization and his vivid, visceral prose. In the grand tradition of long-form investigative journalism, Lowery carries us through the story by crafting suspenseful scenes using dialogue, plot and character. Indeed, as Lowery reckons with the many layers of media representation, the book also becomes an analysis of the experience of being a black journalist reporting on these issues: the feeling of being a minority in the newsroom trying to give voice to marginalized voices and stories.
Lowery’s chosen book title comes from a sign left by a protester near the site of the shooting of Antonio Brown, “who was the last in the string of black men killed by St. Louis police in 2014.” The sign said simply: “They can’t kill us all.” But our triumph, Lowery’s book tells us, is not just in that there are too many of us for them to kill. It is that we will work. We will agitate. We will not be destroyed. We will come together, bear witness and tell these stories until the change we work for has come.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.