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3 February 2017updated 02 Sep 2021 1:45pm

In 2014, a white cop shot a black teenager – and Black Lives Matter came to life

They Can’t Kill Us All is a courageous chronicle of how police violence sparked a political movement.

By K Biswas

“Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before, ever, ever, ever,” said Donald Trump, out on the campaign trail in 2016. “You take a look at the inner cities,” said the man who is now president, echoing decades of dog-whistle Republican sloganeering that conflates race with urban disorder, from the Goldwater candidacy through the Nixon and Reagan eras. “You get no education, you get no jobs, you get shot walking down the street.”

When told that his soon-to-be successor thought America’s black populace was living through the worst period in its history, Barack Obama replied: “I mean, he missed that whole civics lesson about slavery or Jim Crow.” Yet inner-city racial violence blighted the final years of the Obama administration: notably, one unarmed black person was fatally shot every ten days by those charged with protecting the public. As a young protester tells Wesley Lowery in They Can’t Kill Us All, “Having a black president didn’t keep the police from killing Mike Brown.”

On 9 August 2014 a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fired six shots into Brown, a black, unarmed 18-year-old who, minutes earlier, had walked out of a convenience store in Ferguson, Missouri, carrying a box of cigarillos worth $34 which he hadn’t paid for. His lifeless body lay cooling on the asphalt in a quiet residential side street for four and a half hours. Rumours about the shooting circulated in the majority-black city, triggering local protests. The subsequent heavy-handed response from an almost all-white police force unleashed a wave of unrest. Amid broken windows and boarded-up shopfronts in the shadow of a torched QuikTrip petrol station, Lowery, a Washington Post journalist only a few years out of college, found himself pressed up against a drinks dispenser by riot-gear-clad officers at a McDonald’s he was using for the “bathrooms, wifi and electrical outlets”.

Images and reports from Ferguson produced by Lowery and others sparked a renewed national debate around policing and racial justice, giving impetus to the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter”, and a new social movement. It was born of an innocuous phrase in a “love note to black people”, written by the Californian campaigner Alicia Garza after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman – the self-appointed “neighbourhood watchman” who shot and killed the black teenager Trayvon Martin as he walked home, unarmed, from a 7-Eleven in Florida. #BlackLivesMatter took flight in Ferguson. Overnight, the town became a “mecca for progressive and black America”, providing both a snapshot of the stalled advance of black civil rights and a timely reminder for a new activist generation of the structural and institutional racism underpinning the African-American experience.

Organisers offered “freedom rides” to Brown’s memorial service from America’s largest cities and the protest marches mobilised strong support across social media, inspiring young black people to document their own altercations with law-enforcement officers and build informal, inclusive networks. In a country where police violence is, as Lowery writes, “a pervasive fixture of daily life”, the ability to harness local incidents and project them on to the national stage marks BLM’s success in reframing public conversations around racial injustice. The vocal opposition to harsh “stop-and-frisk” laws and high rates of black incarceration voiced by both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during their presidential campaigns can be attributed to the group.

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They Can’t Kill Us All courageously charts the “black and brown bodies disproportionately gunned down” by the police, and takes the reader to flashpoints across the US, including in the author’s home city of Cleveland, Ohio. At the heart of the “struggling Rust Belt metropolis”, Lowery stops at the places where police fatally wounded Tamir Rice, aged 12, who had spent the hour before his shooting at a playground throwing snowballs and pretending to fire a toy weapon, and Brandon Jones, an 18-year-old with learning disabilities, whose killing garnered little news coverage (“My son shouldn’t be in my dining room in an urn on the shelf,” his mother cries).

The author’s familiarity with the region sheds considerable light on generational struggles, neatly weaving proud local civil rights traditions into the present-day narrative of a city coming to terms with grief. He offers his own recollections – from adolescent interactions with “Cleveland’s finest” to the warnings passed down from black parents to their children (never, ever run in the presence of a police officer; say “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am’’) – to help make sense of the police’s inability to accept responsibility for taking innocent life. ‘‘All I wanted was someone to be held accountable,” pleads Tamir Rice’s mother, after a prosecutor concludes that her son’s death was an “absolute tragedy” but not strictly a “crime”.

Traversing America’s east coast, from riot-damaged neighbourhoods in Baltimore to South Carolina college campuses, Lowery talks to a new generation of political organisers with “poise, confidence and a wisdom far beyond” their experience, blocking freeways, co-ordinating high-school walkouts and sporting boycotts, and symbolically tearing down Confederate flags. Schooled in the history of black struggle, they understand that healing America’s racial divisions requires more than increased cultural exposure: the “Michaels Jackson and Jordan” strategy of the late 20th century.

Motivations for those drawn to the “Movement for Black Lives” vary. Some have had run-ins with the law; some are driven by their religious faith (like Brittany Packnett, who was brought up in a household that worshipped “a table-flipping revolutionary Jesus with brown skin and Afro hair”); some have suffered hardship. Alexis Templeton, who believes it was through the Ferguson protests that she overcame depression and met her future partner, tells the author, “Mike Brown saved my life.”

What leads these young campaigners to stand against police lines is in part “helplessness”: the knowledge that even though their cause is just, a “sceptical majority-white media” cannot be relied on to spread the message effectively. Lowery calls out the
“fundamental arrogance” of an age of journalism that believes it was “somehow responsible for the success of the civil rights movement”. “Was the lens of whiteness required for the nation to accurately recognise the black experience?” he asks.

Elsewhere, he castigates his peers in the press for their “addiction to the exciting”, sacrificing accuracy and nuance on the “altar of immediacy”. Rather than reporting the news straight, the media often sow confusion and play a role in ratcheting up events – whether by anointing leaders of largely “leaderless” protest groups, or mistakenly referring to victims as “criminals”, or parachuting news vans in to active crime scenes and demanding that residents “condemn the violence”. “They’re just out here to see if there will be riots,” one Ferguson resident remarks of the television cameras outnumbering shoppers at a local strip mall. “But they don’t care about the struggles we’re facing in our daily lives.”

However, Lowery’s job also involves cultivating sources, scouring local groups for “vital gossip” about ongoing investigations and doorstepping bereaved families. He struggles to reconcile his own “role in the chaos” with what he learns. Proud of his professional accomplishments (he makes a copy of a front-page report from Cleveland for his mother), he is also quick to highlight his own failings: using “practised shtick” when talking to grieving relatives, allowing emotionally charged language to slip into his tweets, damaging his credibility when he treats one police department with “kid gloves”. His grasp of journalism’s capacity to campaign prompts him to persuade the Washington Post to establish Fatal Force, a database tracking every police shooting of civilians on US soil, which earned Lowery and his colleagues a Pulitzer Prize last year.

The messages continue to cascade into his email and voicemail in-boxes (“depositories of death”), finally piercing “the layer of emotional detachment I had learned to acquire”. He confesses to crying at his desk as he watches a video of yet another shooting, this one in Minnesota, and running to the newsroom bathroom to throw up before ringing the victim’s girlfriend at the hospital. “He’s gone,” she sobs down the phone.

A century and a half after slavery, and 50 years since the end of legal segregation, They Can’t Kill Us All impressively brings us up to date with America’s fraught history of racial injustice. It remains to be seen whether the social movements that emerged under the country’s first black president can emulate their civil rights predecessors in confronting police brutality, especially during a Trump administration determined to renew the focus on law and order. But many young activists feel they have nothing to lose. “I voted for Barack Obama twice,” the St Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe tells Lowery, “and still got tear-gassed.” 

They Can’t Kill Us All: the Story of Black Lives Matter by Wesley Lowery is published by Penguin (248pp, £9.99)

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage