Review: They Can’t Kill Us All, Wesley Lowery

I’m in a strange, post-news-outlet state where I follow individual reporters more than I follow entire news outlets. This is possibly symptomatic of my increasing distrust of institutions in the wake of the recent election? And troubles me because of the echo chamber conservative news media insist that I (but not they) are in. I am not sure what the solution is. (Weirdly, the only outlet besides NPR’s Code Switch that I specifically follow on Twitter is the National Review, for like, ideological balance.)

So Wesley Lowery has long been one of my most trusted reporters on the Black Lives Matter movement, and I was excited for his book. They Can’t Kill Us All follows the development of the movement from Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, an event I was surprised to discover only occurred in 2013. It feels like we’ve been talking about black death for a million years, but as a national conversation, where white people were forced to stop ignoring racially biased policing,1 that’s somehow only been three years.

They Can't Kill Us All

For all three of those years (coming up on four), Wesley Lowery’s been on this beat, and if you weren’t paying attention to the development of Black Lives Matter, They Can’t Kill Us All is a terrific way to catch up on what’s been happening. Lowery writes not only about the deaths that became hashtags — Michael Brown, Charles Scott, Tamir Rice — but about the rapid, meteoric growth of activism around police shootings. His reporting at the Washington Post, including his idea for the Police Shooting Database, won the Post the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

Lowery also talks about the process and ethics of reporting on traumatic death, how you walk up to grieving family members on the worst day of their lives,  make them trust you, and get quotes out of them to convey to the country what has been lost.

A journalist’s portrait of the deceased is often used by the casual reader to decide if the tragic outcome that befell him or her could have happened to us, or, as is often implied to be the case in those killed by police officers, if this tragic fate was reserved for someone innately criminal who behaved in a way we never would.

Lowery isn’t trying to explain how this movement fits into America’s past or to predict what impact it will have on our future — it’s a book of journalism, not historical analysis. But Lowery’s a great reporter, honest about his errors and aware of the limitations of his form. If you’ve been following Black Lives Matter all along, there’s not a ton of new information in They Can’t Kill Us All, but it’s a terrific overview of how the movement developed.

  1. Ugh, I don’t know how else to qualify this. Many white people continue to close their eyes to racially biased policing. Lots of people of all races have been talking about this for years, but it just hasn’t been picked up national media in the same way that it has over the last three years. Y’all, words are hard.
  • Jeanne

    The St. Louis airport, two hours north of where I grew up, is the closest place to fly in when I have to go home, so I spent five years flying in and out of there a lot, right before and after the Brown shooting and during the big protests. The airport is right next to Ferguson, and many of the employees live there. It was tense, and I didn’t enjoy being in the position of trying to explain the protests to my mother’s elderly acquaintances, who were critical of the way the protests would tie up traffic and potentially make us all miss our flights.

  • Aarti

    Oh, don’t have a huge distrust of institutions! I watched Spotlight this weekend for the first time, as I mentioned to you, and I feel like we really NEED to trust reporters and the media to do their jobs and to do them well and present us with actual facts. Otherwise, god knows what will happen. I think certainly there were misleading things, but it’s probably really hard to be mainstream media when people can choose to listen to totally blatant lies all the time and just believe the story they want to believe.

    That said, I too follow individuals on Twitter to get news. I am not sure what will make the most sense going forward.

    Also, this book probably fits in very well with my recent spate of only reading fairly depressing non-fiction that makes me feel angry and compelled to action. I’ll definitely look for it!

    • We do, we doooooo need to trust reporters and the media. But Spotlight also reminded me how entirely the whole system can fail — my favorite moment in that movie is when Michael Keaton’s character admits that EVEN HE ignored this story, that the systems that failed these abuse survivors included the system of which he is now a part. I’m not ready to throw any of the institutions out, but I know that I’ve become much more suspicious of their good faith as I’ve gotten older. 🙁

  • I’ve been feeling a little miffed by the media since the elections (and that’s putting it mildly). But I’m beginning to slowly come around. I love the sound of this book and am going to look for it. A compelling piece of journalism on this subject is just what I need – it’s way past due for more books on this topic to be published.

    • Absolutely! I recognize that it’s hard for books to get written about a movement that’s still so new, and about which we can’t really draw any longterm conclusions yet, but I also think it’s so valuable to have books like this that lay out all the facts. In the storm of black deaths, it can become overwhelming, and even worse, you end up forgetting what’s come before because you’re perpetually focused on whatever the next crisis is going to be. So this book is definitely really great for that reason.

  • This is completely depressing… but important. My brother (who is black – yes, I know that I am not) has experienced some of this first hand. Nothing as serious as these cases, but still hurtful and damaging. Sometimes it all just feels impossible (but I know that’s not a good attitude!). Thanks for reading and writing about it.

    • I know it’s not a good attitude to view everything as impossible, but some days it’s hard to avoid. I’m trying to keep on trucking, and some days are easier than others. Sending hugs to you and your brother.

  • I wish I knew what the answer was to your current distrust of news institutions. I find it difficult to believe that the reputable ones will go out of their way to file false reports. Yet, the focus on headlines only thanks to social media makes it so easy for even reputable sources to sensationalize their headlines as clickbait. The problem is that very few people actually click on the article to read the story, so we have millions of people receiving their news via headlines and 140-characters snippets. It does not help that some sites still require a subscription to read the story. I know I sound curmudgeonly and old when I say that social media has not done society any favors (it actually slays me to say that given how much I adore social media). That and the fact that the more traditional news sources have done a poor job adapting to social media in a way that keeps their integrity and gravitas intact.

    • Oh gosh, I definitely don’t think the reputable ones are filing false reports, so much as not fact-checking adequately the claims that they’re quoting. I also think that the focus on clicks has guided how people report the news, and I absolutely believe that the media was complicit in making Trump seem like a viable candidate early on. By the time they realized they needed to take him seriously, it was too little too late. So. Yuck.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Sounds like a good book. My reaction to the 2013 date was completely opposite to yours, wow, it’s been that long already? It sadly seems like it just happened and keeps happening over and over and over. The good thing is, we are hearing about police shootings more, bringing the ugly into the light of day where it can’t hide. Though as you say, there are still far too many white people who are somehow managing to ignore it or twist it into something that justifies their racism.

    • Yeah, it’s been really frustrating to me to watch people tie themselves into pretzels to deny that the police have ever, ever done something wrong. To me it seems so clear that we need increased accountability and transparency around the YOU KNOW EXTRAJUDICIAL KILLINGS being carried out by state actors. Like it seems really basic to want heightened scrutiny on that?

  • Laila@BigReadingLife

    Yep, I need to read this.