Wesley Lowery's Life Matters

Review: Wesley Lowery, 'They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America's Racial Justice Movement'

Black Lives Matter protest
Black Lives Matter protest / AP
December 10, 2016

A book called They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America's Racial Justice Movement could accomplish a lot of things. It could help us understand, on a factual level, what happened in cases like those of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott. It could teach us what the law says about these situations and how police are trained to handle them. It could try to suss out which of these deaths were unjustified and whether we should blame racism or plain old bad policing. It could make an argument as to how our laws and police procedures should change. It could force us to grapple, on an emotional level, with what life is like in communities that are beset both by crime and by adversarial relationships with the police—and what it's like to lose a loved one to police violence. It could document the rise, as well as the successes and failures, of the protest movement that sprang up in these cases' wake.

The book we actually have with that title feints in all of these directions, particularly the last. But it lands few blows. It contains little in the way of hard-nosed analysis, either of specific incidents or of policy, and it rarely packs the emotional wallop that a book on this subject could have. These priorities take a back seat to the author himself: Wesley Lowery, the twenty-something Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner. That award was for the paper's ambitious attempt to document every police killing in the country last year, which began as Lowery's idea.

They Can't Kill Us All doesn't begin with grim statistics from that project, or a horrifying story of an innocent man gunned down by police, or the sobs of a grieving mother. Instead, it begins with Lowery and his buddy Ryan Reilly (of the Huffington Post) getting arrested in a McDonald's while covering the Ferguson protests. Apparently they didn't leave fast enough when police instructed them to. They spent all of 20 minutes in jail.

The next section commences with Lowery on a sailboat with some former colleagues from the Boston Globe. The trip was important, you see, because that's where he was when Michael Brown was killed.

In the next chapter he painstakingly spells out how he read about the shooting on the Instagram feed of a friend, St. Louis reporter Brittany Noble. Her entire life story is apparently pertinent, from how to pronounce her first name (three syllables) to her résumé (some small-market TV stations and then the CBS affiliate in St. Louis) to her relationship status (engaged). After all, it was Noble, Lowery writes in what's probably the worst string of words in the entire book, who "landed the first major scoop of Ferguson: the emotional reaction of Michael Brown's mother as she arrived at the scene."

It goes on like this for most of the 200-odd pages. Lowery "parachutes" (a word he returns to numerous times) into a city where policing and race have spectacularly collided, touches base with victims' families and local activists, and soon enough is on another plane.

There are compelling stories here, but they are too often overshadowed by Lowery's own. He has a "tantrum" because he's burnt out and doesn't "want to get on a plane to South Carolina"; he explains how he approaches grieving subjects before explaining what happened when he actually did. He doesn't get sent to cover the Freddie Gray case right away because the Washington Post has a local team that normally handles events in Baltimore, but eventually they do let him go, because "several of the Post's top digital editors had an upcoming meeting with Snapchat, a new image-sharing mobile app."

There's no problem with writing in the first person, or with explaining one's approach as a journalist in certain circumstances. There's just way, way too much of it here, especially in a book that covers such a dead-serious topic in so little space. It pulls the emotional punches of the narrative, and it crowds out some important issues entirely.

Lowery's summaries of these incidents are usually cursory. He makes little effort to describe standard use-of-force practices and why they exist, leaving readers to guess which aspects of the murkier cases might be problematic. In one case he gets an important detail wrong: Freddie Gray's knife was spring-assisted, but it was not a "switchblade," and the legality of a weapon in that gray area was a big issue.

If there's one thing the book does well, though, it's giving a voice to the protest movement. Lowery has extensive sourcing within the highest ranks of Black Lives Matter and similar organizations, and once you get past his annoying habit of inserting himself into the story, you can learn something about what motivates these folks. Many have compelling backgrounds and have been deeply involved in their communities for years.

Lowery doesn't seem particularly interested in asking them any hard questions, though. I've often wondered, for example, whether the leaders of the Ferguson protests felt at least a little horrified when the shooting of Michael Brown turned out to be justified. Lowery doesn't cover up what really happened between Brown and Officer Darren Wilson, but neither does he push anyone very hard for answers, mostly preferring to ham-handedly defend the protesters in his own voice now and again.

To him, the issue of whether controversial police shootings were justified seems like a distraction. At one point late in the book, for instance, Lowery writes that "the protest chants were never meant to assert the innocence of every slain black man and women." This is a straw man. No one says cops should be able to gun down everyone who isn't "innocent"; the critics' claim (and the law) is that cops can use lethal force when they reasonably believe it's necessary to protect life and limb. "The protests were an assertion of their humanity and a demand for a system of policing and justice that was transparent, equitable, and fair," he continues. This fudges the truth: many protests were indeed organized around the idea that a specific shooting was not justified. And yes, it matters whether the central idea of a protest is correct, even if there are other, deeper issues we should address.

Also left unexplored is the "Ferguson Effect," the marked increase in homicide rates that followed protests in several major cities, apparently in part because cops felt undermined and stopped enforcing the law. This is an incredibly hard issue, because the effect appeared even in Chicago, where the protesters were absolutely right on the merits: the shooting of Laquan McDonald should not have happened. If activists have given any thought to the tradeoffs here, Lowery doesn't tell us.

Those of us who obsess over the nitty-gritty details of public policy will be especially disappointed by the end of the book, because Lowery never thoroughly lays out what the protesters want and what their critics say in response. Any references to solutions are only in passing. They include a paragraph about Campaign Zero, a "policy-oriented activist arm" of the movement, as well as a comment about a source who could "rattle off the agreed-upon antidotes" of body cameras, transparency, and retraining officers in de-escalation. (All good ideas, by the way.)

I'll wrap up the way Lowery would. When I initially proposed this review in an email to Free Beacon editor Matthew Continetti, I had something very different in mind. I wanted to engage with this book: I wanted to understand more deeply how the police look through someone else's eyes; I wanted to evaluate arguments about what's happening and how to fix it; I wanted to drill down into the substance of any disagreements that this white conservative son of a cop might have with Lowery and those he profiles. Instead I find myself merely underwhelmed.


Published under: Book reviews