Three years ago this month, a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the agency left his body laying in the street for hours as the local community absorbed the grim display.
Images of the spectacle quickly spread across social media and television, helping ignite a protest movement that focused America on the pervasiveness of police violence. Few reporters covered the story as thoroughly as Washington Post national correspondent Wesley Lowery, the paper’s lead reporter in Ferguson, who followed fast-moving events for nearly two years as each new black death by violent encounter with law enforcement fueled more demonstrations.
“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,” Lowery writes in the introduction of his recent book, “They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement,” that chronicles the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the young activists who made it.
Part of the Washington Post team awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for its innovative reporting on fatal police shootings, Lowery will travel to Atlanta next weekend to discuss his book at the AJC Decatur Book Festival. He’ll participate in a keynote panel with NPR host Brooke Gladstone and New York Times editor Carolyn Ryan, who will talk about reporting in an era of fake news and a 24-hour news cycle. AJC editor Kevin Riley will moderate.
Lowery recently told the AJC he wrote his book because it seemed the day-to-day coverage of the protests left many readers with questions about why so many young, black Americans were taking to the streets.
“I felt like no matter how many articles I wrote about the protests or the motivations or profiling the people, looking at different cases, I would still get the same questions from readers,” Lowery said. “I’d get an email saying: ‘I don’t really understand this or isn’t this overblown? Or who are these people?’”
When an editor asked him to fly to St. Louis to cover the protests just a couple days after Brown’s death, Lowery had no idea what he was about to encounter. A national politics reporter at the time, he assumed he would be in Missouri a couple days, file his story and get back to his congressional beat in Washington, D.C. But events in Ferguson altered that plan as protests escalated and a group of idealistic, young activists found their voice in the process forging a new mass movement.
Lowery himself made headlines when police briefly arrested him and another journalist while they were covering the chaotic events, and he writes of the “sharp sting of the plastic zip tie” as it wrapped around his hands.
Just a few years out of college when he landed in Ferguson, Lowery’s book takes readers on a reporter’s journey to cover the movement and understand the forces shaping it. He places the protests and riots in Ferguson against the backdrop of history, explaining that most of the more than 100 race riots since 1935 were sparked by some sort of incident involving the police.
He profiles many of the young protesters who came of age during the idealistic early years of the Obama presidency only to grow disillusioned as young black men like Travon Martin were killed and conservative forces clamped down on voting rights. Facebook and the instant communication of social media and smartphone cameras made ignoring the deaths of young black men impossible, and these new activists were savvy in organizing and spreading their message to thousands of followers.
“Ferguson would mark the arrival on the national stage of a new generation of black political activists — young leaders whose parents and grandparents had been born as recently as the 1970s and 1980s, an era many considered to be post-civil rights,” Lowery writes.
Some protesters came to activism as a spontaneous response to Ferguson. Many had personal encounters with police or family members who had been treated unfairly through profiling or abuse. As Lowery learns, there is no formal power leadership structure to the movement.
Lowery, who is biracial, is sympathetic to the protesters and gains close access as he seeks to understand them, but he tries to maintain a journalistic detachment and healthy skepticism of claims made by both sides, protesters and police.
He notes that organizers draw inspiration and feel a connection to earlier civil rights leaders. Clifton Kinnie, a St. Louis-area high school senior at the time of Brown’s death, organizes students near Ferguson and later receives the Ambassador Andrew Young Distinguished Leader Award. When he meets Young, he tells him: “We’re just continuing your fight, we’re fighting your fight.”
Young replies: “No, no, no. This is all of our fight. You all are just the next ones up. You all are the next leaders.”
After nine black worshippers are fatally shot in June 2015 during a prayer service in Charleston by a white supremacist, Bree Newsome was devastated. A descendent of slaves from South Carolina raised in the church, she devised a plan to shimmy up the flag pole outside the capitol in Columbia and remove the Confederate flag as police ordered her to come down. A couple weeks later, state leaders voted to remove the flag for good.
“It was personal to me, as a matter of faith, to show defiance in the face of fear,” she told Lowery months later. “I was feeling the struggle, the struggle of millions of people over hundreds of years.”
Drawing from his scrutiny of police violence, Lowery realized how little was known about these events. The government’s data collected by the Justice Department was incomplete and spotty. There had been little analysis of police shootings and their outcomes.
“Before Ferguson, most of the nation — and many of us in the media — knew very little about the process for charging a police officer with a crime,” Lowery writes. “If a shooting was unjustified, most of us assumed, the officer would be charged.”
Lowery and his colleagues at the Post filled in many of the gaps in the understanding of police shootings since Ferguson. The newspaper tracked all fatal police shootings in 2015 and put them in an online database. There were 991 that year — about twice the number reported annually by the Justice Department.
At the time, FBI Director James Comey said if a news outlet like the Post can get clean data, the federal government ought to be able to. He vowed to fix the system and make it more transparent. But President Trump famously fired Comey in May and now that project is in doubt.
The energy and attention surrounding race and policing since Brown’s death created optimism that meaningful reform was on the way. But the election of Trump changed that. As a result, activists re-calibrated strategies, Lowery said, and many now see working within the system of electoral politics essential to achieving their goals.
And Lowery and other journalists continue their reporting.
“I think that what last November taught and reminded many people who work in this space is that inevitability is not promised,” Lowery said. “There is no inevitability. We thought this would be the year where the federal government would start tracking police shootings and we could stop doing it. Here we are still tracking them with no belief whatsoever that the federal government is going to start doing this.”
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