"They Can't Kill Us All: The Story of the Struggle for Black Lives”: Wesley Lowery Individualizes the Black Lives Matter Movement’s Human Story
Posted on 6th October 2022 at 08:32
By Sebastian Grace
Lowery’s book elevates the young, powerful, and necessary voices of today’s civil rights movement.
“They Can't Kill Us All": The Story of the Struggle for Black Lives is a hard-hitting whistle-stop tour through the countless numbers of unarmed, black dead at the hands of the police that litter the recent history of the civil rights and racial justice struggle in the United States. As he notes, "The story of Ferguson remains the story of America.”
In a review for the Guardian, Sukhdev Sandhu argued that Lowery's book "doesn't quite bring the protestors to life" despite his "aspiration" to tell the story of Ferguson, Missouri and what the events there spawned throughout America. He writes, "The people Lowery encounters come across as soundbite sources rather than fully fleshed-out individuals.”
On the contrary, Lowery's descriptions of the minutiae of his subjects' lives and existence alongside their work pounding the streets give the book its unique and transformational power. Most who cover protests parachute in and loftily write about the systemic nature of the problems at best, or at worst, discuss the liability of those involved for burned-out police cars and "vandalism" in the "riots" to appease comfortable center-right viewers of network TV, litigating the victim and not the shooter.
Instead, Lowery writes from the trenches, side by side with the mostly young, mostly inexperienced activists and organizers he describes. As a result, one must set aside most stuffy, scholarly concerns of journalistic independence and neutrality to appreciate the work's totality. "They Can't Kill Us All" was produced through the trials and tribulations so many encountered during those few years of protest, after all: an arrest, time in a cell and becoming a target of supposedly errant tear gas.
He touches on many of the pertinent racial issues of our time: overzealous bias-ridden policing, abandoned communities, entrenched bureaucratic systems of deceit and the failures of the Obama administration to enact the change many had hoped for from a historic presidency. Lowery writes, "The headlines of the Obama years often seemed like a yearbook of black death," adding later, "Any facade of a post racial reality was soon melted away amid the all-consuming eight-year flame of racial reckoning that Obama's election sparked."
As a result, Lowery represents a new generation of reporters on the "race beat": civically engaged, an advocate to his core and technically literate, comfortable reporting on multimedia platforms like Snapchat and the live streaming app Periscope. He brings all three to “They Can't Kill Us All," accompanied by a fire and a spirit that drives the page-turning narrative. As Dwight Garner wrote in his New York Times Review, "His book is electric, because it is so well reported, so plainly told and so evidently the work of a man who has not grown a callus on his heart."
Lowery is widely known for taking the urban battles against racial injustice he describes in "'They Can't Kill Us All" to the newsroom. In a 2020 Opinion piece for the New York Times, he explained that the "failure of the mainstream press to accurately cover black communities is intrinsically linked with its failure to employ, retain and listen to black people."
"They Can't Kill Us All" gives him the room to move away from coverage of black and brown neighborhoods that only focuses on the crime of the day and continue with the essence of the reporting for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize: the Washington Post's "Fatal Force" project. This searchable database uses data visualization to show the number of people killed by police since the start of 2015 (more than 1000 in the past year, if you're interested.)
As Taraneh Azar writes in her review of Lowery’s book for the Huntington News, “Lowery follows incident after incident, delving into the history informing and aftermath stemming from each death chronicled. He tells of all the players — friends, organizers, police chiefs — that were involved.” He individualizes the Black Lives Matter movement’s human story and describes protest after protest and name after name, gunned down, choked: Ferguson; Mike Brown; the University of Missouri; Trayvon Martin; Baltimore; Johnetta Elzie; Edward Crawford; Tamir Rice and Shaun King.
By trying "to reconcile my own role in the chaos," Lowery's book is essentially an amazingly well-sourced memoir, detailing the personal toll of his commitment to the stories he tells - a necessary obligation, not only to do the subject area justice but the thousands of families afflicted, as well.
Lowery is told in the book, "One day, one month, one year from now, after you leave, it's still going to be fucked up in Ferguson." "They Can't Kill Us All" is an attempt to recognize this struggle, elevate the voices of some of the Black Lives Matter movement's most integral members and bring power through attention to their fight. Long may its mission continue.
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