This review first appeared in The Sunday Business Post Magazine on January 15th, 2017.
During his farewell address in Chicago, on January 10th, 2017, Barack Obama talked about the (non-Republican) elephant in the room. “Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society,” he said. “Race relations are better than they were ten or twenty or thirty years ago […] But we’re not where we need to be.”
He wasn’t kidding. On August 19th, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s crime was negligible: he had stolen some cigarillos from a convenience store. The officer involved, Darren Wilson, fired seven bullets into Brown’s body. Wilson was never charged for the shooting. Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, is what they call “majority-minority”: i.e. 52% of its population is African-American. But the civic government of Ferguson – including the police department – is overwhelmingly white. Brown’s shooting sparked a conflagration: by the following evening, peaceful protests had turned violent, and a nascent movement, taking the name Black Lives Matter, had found a new cause. What the success of Black Lives Matter made unignorably clear is that the “postracial America” foreseen eight years ago by certain optimists was a dream gone sour.
In the United States, according to statistics compiled by the Washington Post, an unarmed black person is shot and killed by police officers every ten days. One of the journalists who helped to compile these stats is 26-year-old Wesley Lowery, who was on the ground in Ferguson the day after Michael Brown’s death. Sending dispatches from his laptop in a McDonald’s, Lowery was ordered by cops to clear the area; two minutes later, he was arrested. Lowery’s father is African-American. They Can’t Kill Us All, Lowery’s report on the Black Lives Matter movement, is perhaps excusably passionate and partisan. As he says: “even with a black president in office, my shade of pigment remained a hazard […] I’m a black man in America who is often tasked with telling the story of black men and women killed on American streets by those who are sworn to protect them.”
In other words, Lowery is himself helplessly implicated in the story he is telling. Despite the occasional gesture towards even-handedness, he is transparently on the side of the protestors and against “the nightly militarised response of law enforcement” to their demonstrations. They Can’t Kill Us All is a fiery hunk of committed, first-person reportage, a dispatch from the front lines of a righteous struggle. Lowery, in his ardour, sometimes gets carried away. “The bitter taste of injustice is intoxicating on the tongue of a traumatised people,” he writes, which is the sort of line that might go down well at a protest rally, but that doesn’t get us very far as analysis. Occasionally Lowery’s prose, rushing down the turnpike, gets itself involved in a collision: “A shortsighted framing, divorced from historical context, led us to litigate and relitigate every specific detail of the shooting without fully grasping the groundswell of pain and frustration fuming from the pores of the people of Ferguson – which also left us blindsided by what was to come.” Journalism may be history’s rough draft, but surely it doesn’t need to be quite as rough as this.
Lowery’s outrage confers advantages and disadvantages. It is impossible not to conclude, from a perusal of his pages, that police departments in many American cities are disfigured by racism. Hair-trigger cops, almost all of them white, shoot first and ask no questions – and, later, pay no price. The most harrowing incident Lowery relates is the death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, in November 2014. Two white patrol cops, responding to reports of “a black male sitting on a swing and pointing a gun at people” in a city park, shot Rice dead two minutes after they arrived on the scene. Rice was 12 years old. His gun was a toy.
But Lowery’s passion does him, and his readers, an analytical disservice. “Black Lives Matter,” he writes, “is best thought of as an ideology.” But neither Lowery nor his interviewees can offer a persuasive account of the movement’s ideological platform. Instead, Lowery excitedly catalogues the number of times “#blacklivesmatter” has been retweeted. He relies disproportionately on events limited to social media, as if sharing a Facebook post counted as political activism.
Lowery does briefly acknowledge “the darker side of […] social media,” noting that some movement activists “had a propensity to play a bit fast and loose with the facts” – or, in plainer terms, to lie. The weasel words here are telling. In Lowery’s world of them-versus-us, they (the authorities) lie; we (the protestors) have a propensity to play fast and loose with the truth. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Lowery that the social media landscape is a wilderness of mirrors in which nothing should be taken at face value – neither the words of your enemies nor the words of your friends. On Twitter, you can say anything you want – it will be forgotten within the hour. Just ask Donald Trump.
It’s been mooted that Trump’s ascension will transform Barack Obama into a tragic figure. But Obama’s tragedy isn’t that his successor is something like his human opposite (while Obama is urbane, Trump is vulgar; while Obama is forthright, Trump is a liar; while Obama is an intellectual, Trump is a moron; and so forth). Obama’s tragedy is that, during his Presidency, America’s half-healed racial wound was torn open once again, and began to fester. Obama is fond of quoting a remark made by Dr. Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is a comforting thought. But it isn’t true. There is no “arc of the moral universe.” There are only human beings, who are, among other things, violent, racist, deceitful , and stubborn. Lowery, in his zeal, has glimpsed this truth only fitfully. His book is nonetheless indispensable, even as it marshals only the rudiments of a long and painful story.