On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooter was Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the Ferguson Police Department.
At the time, not much was known about the circumstances surrounding the shooting, apart from the fact that an unarmed black man was shot by a white police officer. In a place like Ferguson, a majority-black suburb with an overwhelmingly white police force and a history of racial profiling, that was enough to set off weeks of protests.
Ferguson was the beginning of something bigger. It became a flashpoint for a burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, which organized its first in-person protest in Ferguson. The momentum it gained there carried over to Cleveland and Charleston and Baltimore and elsewhere. City after city, shooting after shooting, Americans took to the streets, and a new racial justice movement exploded into the national consciousness.
As a result, there’s been a larger conversation about race and policing in this country. But that conversation has been muddled by a lack of perspective. Every incident involving the killing of a black man or woman by law enforcement has to be assessed on its own terms, but there’s also a much broader historical context in which these tragedies occur.
Putting the Black Lives Matter movement in context is part of what Wesley Lowery is trying to do in his new book, They Can’t Kill us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement.
Lowery is a national reporter for The Washington Post who covers justice, race and politics. For two years, he’s crisscrossed the country, chronicling the unrest on the ground in places like Ferguson and Baltimore. His team of reporters won a Pulitzer Prize for their creation of the police-shootings project, a national database that collects real-time information about police killings and analyzes it for relevant patterns.
In his book, Lowery aims to give readers a sense of the world as experienced by the people behind it. He talks to family members of victims, to community organizers, to protesters on the street.
“I think very often readers look at a group of 10,000 people and they try to understand the mass,” he told me, “but in reality I think it is a lot easier to start by trying to understand one of the people. Because if you can understand one person, you can understand 10 of them, and then perhaps you can understand the 10,000.”
Last week, I spoke with Lowery in Washington D.C. about the broader story he wanted to tell in this book and, perhaps more importantly, about the future of the racial justice movement in America.
What becomes of the Black Lives Matter movement now that the election has passed? What will it be in the age of Trump?
That’s an important question, and it’s hard to say. The prediction game is always difficult. I think the forces that have been mobilized and the organizations that have been formed aren’t going anywhere. And so the struggle and the work will continue.
The sense I get from the organizers and activists I talk to is that the sustained assertion of the vale of black life will be all the more important in a period of white backlash. The role and responsibility of these movements will only become more urgent.
I also think the construction of this protest movement, being remarkably intersectional, will allow it to address multiple causes at once. I expect many of these activists to stand up for immigrants, for women, for Muslims.
There's certainly going to be real fears about what the next four years mean for otherwise oppressed groups in the United States of America, and I would be shocked if what we know as Black Lives Matter is not leading the fight in response to that during the next four years.
What’s the big-picture story you wanted to tell in this book?
Having covered this story over and over and over again – a police shooting, a protest breaks out, we’re thrust into a national conversation, and then we all kind of stop talking about it and move on.
I found myself frustrated by the e-mails or calls I would get from readers who, after, I'd written a hundred, maybe a thousand articles on the protest movement, on who these people were and what they were reacting against, I'd get the same questions: Who are these people? And what do they want? And why are they out there? And why is everyone so upset? And didn't George Soros pay for all of this?
I would get the same line of inquiry over and over and over again, and I found that really frustrating, because, as journalists, when we cover something, and we write about it a lot, we like to think that our readers will come along on the journey with us. And it became very clear to me that so many people – so many readers – were only consuming this story is spurts and sound bites, and only when things really boiled over.
So I thought there would be value in going to my notebooks after two years of covering this in an attempt to piece it all together, to tell a comprehensive story about what happened, and why it matters. I wanted to tell the stories of who these people were, who their families were, and who these young people in the streets were.
I think very often readers look at a group of 10,000 people and they try to understand the mass, but in reality I think it is a lot easier to start by trying to understand one of the people. Because if you can understand one person, you can understand 10 of them, and then perhaps you can understand the 10,000.
Ferguson seems to have been the flashpoint for this new racial justice movement, and of course Ferguson is where your book begins. What was it about that incident and that community that made it so combustible?
In the book, I argue that the movement was birthed in Ferguson but conceived in the hearts and minds of young black Americans during various incidents in the years prior - with Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis in particular - and also by the expectations and the disappointment that came with the first African American president.
In Ferguson, though, the reality is that these issues were boiling under the surface and had always been boiling under the surface, given the history and dynamics of St. Louis.
Do you think it’s significant that Ferguson is a suburb and not an inner-city neighborhood?
Absolutely. I think there’s something important to be said about the political thought of blacks in the suburbs. There’s this idea that most people who live in Ferguson chose to live there because they were getting out of somewhere else. This is a suburb – this is not East Saint Louis, this is not downtown.
Like any suburb, Ferguson is a place you seek to get to in order to have better schools, better amenities, better public services. What's interesting is that you see, very often, black people who live in the suburbs or who have made it to the suburbs — the generation that has made it out — be more permissive of inequitable treatment.
My dad, for example, grew up impoverished and in public housing. When he finally got his family to the suburbs, he wasn't trying to be Malcolm X; he was trying to mow his lawn and put a basketball hoop up and have his kids go to good schools. That was his priority – not to shake up the entire community, but to live and exist.
But when you look at a place like Ferguson that, as we now know, based on its Department of Justice investigations, had fines and fees that were being applied very aggressively and in a targeted manner, where you had more arrest warrants out than there were residents in the city of Ferguson on the day Michael Brown was killed. You had all of these legal indignities, time and time again, and that builds up a reservoir of anxiety and pain and anger. And so all it takes is a precipitating incident to break those emotional levees.
And that’s what we saw in Ferguson after the Michael Brown shooting. It's not just about the shooting, although the shooting itself raised questions and was sure to anger parts of the community, but it's about the fact that his body laid there for four and a half hours; it was about the fact that you had a grieving mother staring at her son’s body in the street, surrounded by police dogs and heavy equipment. People felt that Brown had been dehumanized and devalued. Even in death, he wasn’t treated like a human being.
You write in the book that there’s no way to understand the civil unrest in these communities and across the country without “zooming outward and upward from an individual incident.” I think you hinted at the reason why a second ago, but I think it’s worth lingering on this point.
Of course. I think we have this tendency to hyper-analyze the intricacies and the nuances of an individual incident. Inherently, I understand and I get that, and the truth in any particular case obviously matters. We need to know what actually happened. But perception is also largely reality, right? And I think that we have to understand not only what happens in an incident, but how the local residents will perceive that incident based on the context of their daily lives.
The media, and people in general who are accustomed to privilege, trust law enforcement as an institution much more than people people living in communities of color. We tend to assume that the police are in the right; we assume that the police are telling the truth. We have all these built-in assumptions that could not be more different than the lived reality of so many of these people in so many of these communities, who have very legitimate reasons to be suspicious of what they’re told. So I think we have to understand that.
How can we understand why people are angry and in the streets demanding justice and more information and are willing to believe the most extreme versions or theories of what might have happened in one of these incidents if we can't understand the context or lens through which they are seeing this? This is difficult to communicate to readers who don’t share this reality.
You mentioned the importance of perception. How do you think white America, specifically the white America that voted for Trump, perceives the racial justice movement?
I think they're horrified by it. I think that they're offended and insulted by it, and I actually think it's part of the reason many of them voted for Trump. You talk to white men and white women in the Heartland and very often what you hear is how offended they are by the concept of white privilege. Who did something for me, they ask? If you’re just a working class stiff who's been laid off, you get frustrated by these ideas and you don’t wan’t to hear it.
I get this constantly in my e-mail and my Twitter mentions. How dare you talk about police killings? What about Chicago? What about the homicide rates? We’ve seen this historically: any time there’s a massive civil justice movement led by and for people of color, there’s a white backlash to it.
White America feels as though something’s being taken from them. There’s a kind of zero-sum approach to social and economic progress in that way.
Do you think the murder of the five police officers in Dallas did irreparable damage to the public perception of Black Lives Matter, even though it was committed by a lone gunman with no ties to the movement?
I don't actually know that it did much damage to the public perception. I do think that, for those who were skeptical or fearful or who thought that the rhetoric of the protest movement was anti-cop – this provided them another data point. I doubt that the parts of the public that were receptive broadly to this idea to begin with we’re moved by this one way or the other.
It’s interesting to look back the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Anytime there was a riot or a violent protest or a cop killing, people would constantly ask if Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks were to blame. After all, they were stirring up attention and giving voice to ideas that disrupted the status quo.
We forget sometimes that social movements in America almost never win the popular vote; that we see social change almost always by a mobilized minority, and almost never by a consensus majority. The day the Civil Rights Act passed, if it had come up for a popular vote, it probably would've gotten struck down. The same is likely true of the Voting Rights Act.
We think that it has to be this 50 plus one support, when in reality that's not actually what the history of civil rights tells us.
Some of the pushback, as you say, is just unavoidable and to be expected, but I think there’s also an understandable impulse people have to defend law enforcement, and I think those of us who are critical of cops (myself included) often fail to appreciate just how difficult their job is.
Is there a nuanced way to have this conversation with people who are disposed to dismiss it?
I think you're right in that we can be overly dismissive of the difficulty of the job. I also think it's hard because you have to ask a difficult question: Is conversation the goal? Is mutual understanding the goal? Or is change the goal? Tactically speaking, how you answer that questions determines the way forward. Because there is a difference between the public relations battle and the actual policy battle.
Now, with all that said, I do think that there is, at times, a failure to appreciate the nuances and the intricacies of the job. I also think we make a mistake when we assume that we can’t both be critical of policing as an institution and acknowledge the difficulties of the job.
Part of the problem is that if you’re a white person living in a small town in rural America, you can’t imagine the dynamics between law enforcement and African Americans in these communities. You have an experience and a conception of law enforcement that’s utterly alien to someone in Ferguson or the South Side of Chicago. I’m not sure how to bridge that empathy gap.
I wish I had an answer to that, but I don’t. I think you’re right, though, and this does address an underlying issue here, which is that most of us are deeply incapable of placing ourselves in someone else’s skin, in someone else’s experience.
We assume that everyone else's life must be so similar to ours; that the premises of their life must be the same as the premises of ours, or the situations must be the same. And the reality is that they’re very different. This is true within and across racial and socio-economic groups.
The experience of the coal miner in West Virginia is not the same as the Carrier worker in Indiana, even though they both constitute the white working class. So we have trouble not speaking in terms that are too broad. This is clearly a problem.
As it relates to policing, this is one of our biggest divides in sentiment. For a large part of the population, the police are a very welcomed force. For another part of the population, the worst thing that can happen during your day is an encounter with a cop.
I see this in my own personal life. When I get pulled over with a white friend in the passenger seat, the reaction is very different than when I’m pulled over with a black friend. My black friend is immediately pulling out his phone, calling his mom, recording the entire interaction. People can feel however they want about this, but it’s real and it matters.
You’ve suggested that the limitations of Obama’s presidency have crystallized the need for a more sustained racial justice movement. Can you elaborate on that?
When we think back to the last major racial justice movement in the United States, the Civil Rights movement, the major victory, before they killed everyone, was the Voting Rights Act. This was the last major thing that you can claim that King and everyone else had won.
And that was a new tool. It was a new ability to influence the world around you. When black men and black women can't vote without obstruction, how can they amass local political power? How can they take over the school board and make everyone teach black history? How can they run out the racist sheriff or the racist police chief? All of a sudden, there was this new ability – this new tool in the toolbox of black Americans – to achieve equality and, therefore, equity.
Now, because of that, you saw decades of black political activism that was largely focused on winning battles at the voting booth. You saw massive voter registration drives. You saw the first black mayors and the first black congressman and senator since reconstruction. You saw all these firsts, right? And the aim was to win these battles of representational politics in order to reap the benefit of having people who look like us in positions of power.
There’s no greater victory that could be achieved from the Voting Rights Act than the election of the first black president. But once this happened, it became clear it wasn’t a panacea. It became clear that we had forgotten that representational politics was only part of the mosaic of types of activism.
We elected Barack Obama and expected all this change to come to America, but it didn’t happen that way. Obama inherited a world that still had deep issues with equity and deep issues with race. We’re a country still premised on an original sin, and we’re not done paying penance for it. And perhaps we needed to experience our first black president to see these limitations.