Following Unrest in the Streets in the Wake of Police Shootings

GW and Politics & Prose host a discussion of Pulitzer Prize winner Wesley Lowery’s book “They Can’t Kill Us All.”

November 18, 2016

Wesley Lowery

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery talks about his coverage of police shootings at JMA. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

By B.L. Wilson

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery said that when he set out for Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 he expected to be in and out after three days at most.

Three months later he was still on the ground reporting on the killing of Michael Brown, immersed in a story that has dominated the headlines as similar police shootings of often-unarmed black men happened in city after city.

“We could feel that story in front of us gripping at the fabric of democracy and humanity in these places,” Mr. Lowery said.

The occasion was an interview with Mr. Lowery with former Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida, who is now senior vice president and editor of ESPN’s digital magazine, The Undefeated. The conversation with Mr. Lowery about his ’s new book, “They Can’t Kill Us All,” was cosponsored by George Washington University and the independent bookstore Politics & Prose before an audience of more than a hundred people at the Jack Morton Auditorium.

Mr. Lowery—who is part of a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer for its coverage of police shootings—has written more than 100 stories for The Washington Post about the police shootings and their aftermath. After each incident, Mr. Lowery said, he received calls and emails from baffled readers who didn’t understand the protestors.

“I thought there was a need to turn these activists into something bigger, something more than just characters,” Mr. Lowery said.

He said they often had a backstory like Johnetta Elzie, one of the first people he profiled and one of the most outspoken protestors in Ferguson. The killing of Michael Brown was not her first experience with a fatal police shooting.

“One of her best friends had been killed by the police in greater St. Louis prior to the Michael Brown shooting. She watched how this man…became villainized in the local media. Some of it was accurate. Some of it was inaccurate.

“She made a vow, ‘Not today, not another person.’”

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery (l) was interviewed by ESPN vice president and editor of The Undefeated Kevin Merida about his coverage of police shootings and related protests. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

Mr. Lowery told Mr. Merida that many people mistakenly assume that activists like Elzie are not politically conscious. He recalled an exchange at a Town Hall in Ferguson between a local activist rapper and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who challenged the young man. ‘You need to register, you need to vote. You guys all need to call your City Council members.’”

Mr. Lowery said the rapper activist replied:  “’I voted for Barack Obama twice, and Michael Brown is still dead.’ That in language captures the political ethos of young people who made up this movement.”

One question Mr. Lowery posed in his book is why blacks, particularly males, were still vulnerable under the presidency of the first African American to sit in the White House.

 “There is no protection,” Mr. Lowery said. “Placing a person of pigmented skin atop a governmental system that was not designed to produce equitable results, that one person is never going to be able to achieve that.”

One audience member asked Mr. Lowery about the state of diversity in the media.

Mr. Lowery said that generally newsrooms aren’t as diverse as the communities they cover. “That is one of the reasons that our coverage feels so out of touch with the reality that is happening in our streets,” he said.

Activists and protestors, Mr. Lowery said, have learned to use social media to drive the coverage and demand that their voices be heard. With nearly a half million followers on Twitter, Lowery said he has come to rely on social media as well.

“Why do we have to watch Walter Scott be shot in the back before we believe that this is happening? Why do we have to see Michael Brown’s body lying in the street for four hours,” said Mr. Lowery. “Because fundamentally as a society, we don’t believe black people when they tell us about their trauma. That’s an indictment of us as a society and also we in the media.”