In over a year of on-the-ground reportage, Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery traveled across the US to uncover life inside the most heavily policed, if otherwise neglected, corners of America today.
In an effort to grasp the scale of the response to Michael Brown’s death and understand the magnitude of the problem police violence represents, Lowery conducted hundreds of interviews with the families of victims of police brutality, as well as with local activists working to stop it. Lowery investigates the cumulative effect of decades of racially biased policing in segregated neighborhoods with constant discrimination, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and too few jobs.
Offering a historically informed look at the standoff between the police and those they are sworn to protect, They Can’t Kill Us All demonstrates that civil unrest is just one tool of resistance in the broader struggle for justice. And at the end of President Obama’s tenure, it grapples with a worrying and largely unexamined aspect of his legacy: the failure to deliver tangible security and opportunity to the marginalised Americans most in need of it.
The broad Black Lives Matter movement has been one of the emerging political phenomena of the 2010s, affecting change, driving conversations and changing political priorities across the world. Wesley Lowery’s reportage gave him a unique point from which to observe the development of the movement, the mobilisation of a generation and community of people often seen as “apathetic” by outsiders, and this book came out of that reportage, so how does “They Can’t Kill Us All”: The Story of Black Lives Matter hold up to the task?
In a word, poorly. We’ll begin by addressing the subtitle; this book claims to be the story of Black Lives Matter. That’s always going to be a tall order for a slim volume (less than 250 pages, including the notes and index), but is even taller a one for such a partial and patchy volume as this is; what Lowery is presenting is rather less the story than his story of Black Lives Matter, with a few exceptions. This is unsurprising, given that They Can’t Kill Us All is based on his reportage, but it is a problem: we’re given a view that doesn’t ever tie different events together, that jumps from event to event and flashpoint to flashpoint without ever really covering the hard graft behind the scenes, the stuff that doesn’t get media attention. Reading this book, you’d think none of that actually happened.
Furthermore, They Can’t Kill Us All has a contradictory thread in it; on the one hand, the larger Black Lives Matter movement has many leaders, many people driving it, many people involved. On the other hand, Lowery has a specific set of contacts, so they come up time and again – as leaders and spokespeople for every situation; this is especially true of DeRay Mckesson, who Lowery appears to have relied on heavily for much of his access. The picture presented then becomes of a movement that is falsely protesting its own leaderlessness; the reality of the broad array of groups and people who are active in the cause belies that, but is only mentioned, not demonstrated, in the book.
They Can’t Kill Us All is also incredibly narrow. Rather than being a story of the movement, it is a story of specific moments in the movement: those that coalesced around a specific set of deaths or brutalisations by the police. There is a minimal historical framing in the book – Lowery acknowledges that the American original sin is slavery, and talks about different generations of black activism, but doesn’t really provide past or future context; there’s no suggestion of the historical roots of police oppression and little of the history of anti-oppression activism in the African-American community, and no look at the possible futures of the movement, or future trends in police-community relations.
Those moments are well-written, and the encounters with activists well portrayed, though; Lowery is a consummate journalist and his use of language is incredible. Each person we meet, we’re given a very short pen-portrait of, and those are evocative, packed full of interesting detail and character information; they’re brief but complex and seemingly complete, and the reportage of the black deaths and brutalisations covered in They Can’t Kill Us All are sympathetic, and told with a kind of eye for detail and clarity that really brings them to mind, in both memory and imagination.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of They Can’t Kill Us All is how dated it was the moment it appeared, though. This book came out in the UK & US in 2017. Wesley Lowery doesn’t touch on the racialised, racist Presidential campaign of Donald Trump, let alone his victory in November 2016. Lowery doesn’t touch on the responses of the Democratic or Republican primary candidates, let alone the eventual Presidential candidates, to Black Lives Matter activists and their disruption of events (the closest we get is the fact that some BLM activists became Sanders surrogates; no mention at all of Clinton). Lowery barely covers any of the events of 2016, almost as if Black Lives Matter just vanished into the Presidential campaign – something he says is a media misconception: well, if so, it’s one They Can’t Kill Us All perpetuates.
It’s possible I wanted a different kind of book; an actual history of the Black Lives Matter movement, not a series of snapshots of moments in the movement (but “This is a movement, not a moment”, per Lorenzo Norris, quoted on p73). But that’s what They Can’t Kill Us All claims to be; The Story of Black Lives Matter. On those grounds, despite the excellent journalistic style, this book is a definite failure.
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