Journalist speaks on experience covering Ferguson in racial justice lecture series
Trinity Reilly | Monday, February 22, 2021
Wesley Lowery, journalist at CBS and author of “They Can’t Kill Us All” spoke about the events at Ferguson as a part of the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights’ lecture series “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” Friday.
Lowery said he was on the field at the beginning of the events at Ferguson, soon after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. One of the first places he went, he said, was to a town hall, where he could feel the gravity of the situation.
“There were at least 100 people standing outside in August, in the middle of day — it’s 100 degrees outside, and they’re standing on the asphalt,” he said. “They’re saying ‘We’re just going to wait here. We want to know what’s going on.’ It signaled to me how broken and frustrated these folks were, with what had happened, how deep the distrust was, how this was a breaking point.”
Inside the building, emotions were running high. Lowery said he remembered the visceral reactions Michael Brown’s family were having amid grief and shock.
Local law enforcement did not offer many answers to the questions people were posing and that reluctance to explain what had happened was not appreciated, he said.
“At the time, the inclination of a lot of local governments was to not say anything, to not engage in these conversations and just assume that the populace is just going to trust us,” Lowery said. “I think Ferguson helped underscore the extent to which, in so many of these communities, there isn’t a base level of trust, we see that people don’t necessarily have a reason to assume the best. And so there’s deep concern that if there’s no immediate accountability, there won’t be any.”
Lowery ended up spending three months in Ferguson — far more than the three days he expected to be there for, he said. In fact, he said he was not originally supposed to be in Ferguson at all. He originally wanted to be a political reporter, and at the time, was covering Congress for The Washington Post.
But, he said, in the first hours after Michael Brown’s death, the events at Ferguson caught his attention.
“I didn’t really know what it was, but you could kind of tell something was going on,” Lowery said. “And I was talking with a colleague about it, and as we’re having this conversation — where I’m butting myself into coverage that has nothing to do with me — one of the editors walked past and says, ‘Hey, you guys talking about St. Louis? Was there any chance you’d get on an airplane?’”
Lowery said that, as a journalist, he could not turn the story down. As his days in Ferguson turned into weeks, he said he had many eye-opening conversations.
In the suburb of Ferguson, soon after Michael Brown’s death, he said he came across a group of teenagers protesting.
“We’re sitting and we’re talking in the police are yelling at everyone, ‘Go home, get out of here’ and the kids are saying, ‘This is our home. We live here. Why don’t you guys go home?’ And so you’re seeing kind of this tension escalating,” Lowery said.
Amid that tension, Lowery said he focused on understanding people’s sentiments towards the police.
“I’m talking to a man and he’s telling me, ‘My dad died of heart attack a year ago. And when we called 911, as he’s having the heart attack, instead of sending an ambulance, they sent a police cruiser, and they handcuffed him and put him in the back of the car, to take him to the hospital,’” he said.
Lowery recalled the disbelief he felt as he heard this story.
“I am a Black reporter who does a lot of government accountability work,” he said. “And so I’m inclined to ask hard and critical questions of the government of the police. And I’m hearing stories from people that I just fundamentally am not believing. And even as I’m writing it down, I’m thinking, this can’t quite be true. I filled my notebook with anecdotes and stories that were never going to make it to The Washington Post because at a foundational fundamental level, I didn’t quite believe the people who were telling me their stories.”
That disbelief fueled investigation into official records of police killings, he said. But the Ferguson Police Department did not answer his request for records, the Secretary of State did not keep such records and the Justice Department only recorded self-reported instances.
“We knew there had to be some massive holes here because when you look strictly at the federal data, Tamir Rice didn’t exist [and] Eric Garner didn’t exist,” he said. “All these cases that got all this national attention weren’t represented in the data because their department didn’t report these cases.”
Lowery said he wanted to find out the truth about how many people were getting killed by police.
He ended up creating an elaborate system of Google alerts, he said, and found that there were twice as many people being killed as were reported. Yet not everyone appreciated the findings, he said.
“It was interesting, because we initially got a lot of blowback,” Lowery said. “People argued that even to count the number was anti police and asked, ‘How could you do this? Why would you do why would you want to know how many people the police kill?’ And I’m sitting here as a journalist, like, why wouldn’t I want to know that?”
Lowery said they found that although Black Americans make up 12% of the population, they made up 24% of the people being killed by police and 40% of the unarmed people being killed by police.
“It started to really give some factual basis for this frustration we’re seeing and why this experience was being reflected as it was,” he said.
For those wanting to read more on these issues and others, Lowery said he recommends “The Children” by David Halberstam, “400 Souls” by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain and “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein. He also recommends looking at The Marshall Project, of which he is a contributing editor.
After three months in Ferguson, and many years of work later, Lowery said his work has pointed him to ask bigger questions of how to go about any sort of resolution.
“What we wanted to do is reflect the reality in the spectrum of what was happening in these spaces,” he said. “But we all want to live in a world where the police don’t kill people. Even the police want to live in that world. It’s a remarkably traumatic experience to go through that. How do we construct that world if we can’t understand the dynamics that lead to a police shooting? How do we change policy? How do we change implementation? We have to know what the problem is in order to make a good faith effort at resolving anything. And I think that’s what it’s always been about for me.”