When George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., in February 2012, Wesley Lowery was a newspaper reporter at Ohio University. Martin’s death, one in the “first wave of black death during the Obama administration,” and Zimmerman’s subsequent nonconviction were a defining moment in Lowery’s understanding of how the world looked upon his own black skin.
“They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement,” is Lowery’s insightful and unnerving inspection of the police and vigilante killings of black Americans since Martin. Lowery rocketed to fame on Twitter after police arrested him (along with the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly) at a McDonald’s in Ferguson, Mo., while reporting on the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.
Lowery has filed dozens of stories on the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore; Sandra Bland in Walker County, Texas; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., and many others. It’s a gruesome, grievous beat — “a traveling tour of families mourning young black men and women killed by police or white vigilantes.”
But the book is much more than a compilation of obituaries. Lowery draws crucial connections between the “centuries-long assault of the black body,” and contemporary black massacre. He turns a critical eye toward journalists who congratulate themselves for orchestrating social justice movements, while conflating peaceful protesters with vandals and looters in their reporting. He deftly discredits the “black-and-white binary of good guys and bad guys,” and exposes the power of public relations, whereupon some victims’ plights generate significant media attention while others, such as that of Stephon Averyhart, killed by police in St. Louis 18 months before Michael Brown, fade into obscurity.
The genesis of activists such as Johnetta Elzie, a “day one” protester in Ferguson; Bree Newsome, who removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol, and Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, who turned a trending hashtag into the organization Black Lives Matter, is meticulously chronicled in “They Can’t Kill Us All.”
In the afterword, Lowery mentions the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (briefly, presumably, because the book was going to press). Their deaths, and the constant reminder of how skin color drastically affects the mortality of black Americans, continue to haunt Lowery. “How do you sleep when you know that soon you’ll need to tell the story of the death of yet another black man?”
Anjali Enjeti’s reviews have appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Guardian, Rewire News, Atlanta Magazine and elsewhere.
They Can't Kill Us All
By: Wesley Lowery.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 247 pages, $27.