How to Get Away with Measure: Balance in Letter and Spirit in Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All”

By Darryl A. SmithDecember 30, 2016

How to Get Away with Measure: Balance in Letter and Spirit in Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All”

They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery

“IF YOU ARE GOING TO KILL US turn our faces to the west.” [1]

So The New York Times reports the last words of Thomas Moss on March 9, 1892. [2] Moss, along with two other black men, Calvin McDowell and William Stewart, were victims of lynching, shot and mutilated in a field by a group of white males a mile or so outside of Memphis, Tennessee. Citing local sources there, anti-lynching activist and investigative reporter Ida B. Wells conveys Moss’s mortal retort this way: “Tell my people to go West — there is no justice for them here.” In all, some six thousand African Americans left within two months of the killings, causing major economic turmoil in the city spurred by comprehensive boycotts of municipal and private businesses by those black residents who remained.

Michael Brown, shot by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, died with a westerly facing cast in lurid accord with Moss’s final remark. Infamously, this macabre conjunction lasted for four and a half hours as Brown’s body lay prostrate and on show in the street.

Like Wells, Wesley Lowery bears a journalist’s witness to the racialized terminal policing of the black body in his new chronicle, They Can’t Kill Us All. A writer for the Washington Post, Lowery shapes a narrative digest spanning more than a year of his prolific on-site interviews in four pained regions of the country. With its start and finish in Ferguson, Missouri, Lowery takes to Cleveland, Ohio; Charleston, South Carolina; and Baltimore, Maryland, sharing revelatory testimony from each scene of lethal police violence. As he goes, Lowery provides an account of the 2014 genesis in Ferguson of the Movement for Black Lives with the death of Mike Brown, and tracks its prior stirrings and later reinforcement through numerous killings between 2009 and 2016.

At its core, They Can’t Kill Us All is an expanded and revised follow-up on Lowery’s September, 8, 2014 WaPo article, “How many police shootings a year? No one knows” — his exposé on the depraved, ongoing lack of hard data by the federal government on just how many people are shot annually by the police in the United States. In the book, he proceeds from that piece by recounting the Post’s own emerging efforts to gather this information. This concern is reflected in the many interviews with victims’ families and resident activists presented throughout that are keyed to the same dispassionate hardiness as the ever-elusive data on police shootings Lowery runs down. Through the empirical bent of his reports on victims, protesters, law enforcement, and the social statistical implications of these, Lowery means to add himself to a national struggle for ensuring that the country is “forced to consider that not everyone marching in the streets could be wrong.” Through its methodical journalism, Lowery’s book strives to be a type of hedge against the out-of-hand dismissal by non-blacks of “black communities’ reality,” which otherwise, he states, is “left with no way to quantify that truth to a skeptical majority-white media, or by extension the nation.”

They Can’t Kill Us All brings much-needed attention to the blunt alignment of a “post-racial,” two-term Obama presidency with the scandal of its void on issues of police brutality and misconduct. Lowery’s survey of the presidential rhetoric in such matters can’t help but paint an astonishing picture of executive denial and self-banishment to ideological impotence. Indeed, Lowery goes so far as to attribute this new history of struggle to Obama’s failure here — describing it as “the movement birthed by the broken promise of his presidency.”

Lowery’s text is meditative, informative, and — after the manner of the new physics — aware of its own role in shaping the reality of the highly dynamic forces it examines. It has a historical consciousness about it that Lowery uses to best effect in tracking those whom he identifies as heirs of the Civil Rights Movement. Part of a so-called “post-Joshua Generation” of human rights activists, these young people — champions of justice for the dead like Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray — have on his account come into their own to further the cause of those who, as the old spiritual goes, “fit de Battle of Jericho.”

For a movement that has eschewed official leadership rather like forefront cartography — with a horizontal landscape intended as an all-out decentralized, infinitely tessellating, no-edges world map in Authagraph projection — Lowery’s own charting of the struggle is more conventional, though nonetheless valuable. He coordinates his survey around select landmark personalities of the cause whose own often landmark uses of social media have had a clearly preeminent impact on the strategic directions of the movement.

But if Lowery exhibits disparate facility in capturing the movement itself, on the one hand, and getting a handle on the killing that gave rise to it, on the other, then this has much to do with an inherited and normalized view of what objectivity is supposed to be in US journalism. That is, even as his bearing witness to these several years of terror is laudable, the bearing of his bearing witness presents an unapt faith in a false evenhandedness. This emerges early in the book when Lowery mischaracterizes organized 19th- and early 20th-century anti-black predation. He writes:

Most of the so-called race riots of the 1800s and early 1900s consisted of armed clashes between white and black residents — very often precipitated by a black man or woman being somewhere that black folks “didn’t belong.”

Of course, as in the case of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart, “didn’t belong” could mean anywhere (the sort of fact I’m not convinced Lowery fully appreciates) — as what precipitated their murders was the opening across the street from a white grocer of a black grocery store in a black neighborhood. In any event, Lowery’s description is very far, indeed, from those of both historians and eyewitnesses. Consider Lawrence W. Levine:

What were referred to as race riots in the last half of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth would more accurately be called pogroms. Whites attacked, murdered, and pillaged blacks.

Levine writes that this was true — exceptions as such duly noted — until 1919 when “the local black community,” as in the DC riots of that year, “exhibited a major commitment to challenge the assumption of their own subordination.” But even here, in this crucial year, writes historian Arthur Waskow, anti-black predation could still manifest as an organized, asymmetric massacre. Waskow observed that “the police […] helped turn these semi-insurrectional lynchings [of blacks] into pogromlike attacks on the Negro community.”

These historical analyses are reinforced by the testimony of living survivors of such attacks, like that of Olivia Hooker — now 101 years old — who was six and whose father owned a thriving department store when Greenwood, the black district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was destroyed by white terrorists in 1921.

I was totally surprised when the disaster happened. It wasn’t a riot. We were really the victims. But it took eighty years before we got an apology from the mayor of Tulsa and they admitted that we were the victims. Of course, we got no monetary reimbursement, but at least they apologized after eighty years.

In misrepresenting the history of so-called race riots in the United States, Lowery primes himself to misapprehend where our focal point — or, rather, focal points — should and shouldn’t rest for interpreting the events of here and now. Alluding to Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, he states:

We believe that if we can somehow figure out the character and life of the person at the center of the story, we can somehow understand what happened that day. We fall into the fallacy of believing we can litigate the complicated story before us into a black-and-white binary of good guys and bad guys. There are no isolated incidents, yet the media’s focus on the victim and the officer inadvertently erases the context of the nation’s history as it relates to race, policing, and training for law enforcement.

A symptomatically excluded third alternative here is to do both: to “litigate the complicated story” — though perhaps not in the way he himself rejects — while also preserving its complexity. It’s what the Kerner Commission persuasively did during the Johnson administration following the ’67 riots:

These factors are complex and interacting; they vary significantly in their effect from city to city and from year to year; and the consequences of one disorder, generating new grievances and new demands, become the causes of the next. Thus was created the “thicket of tension, conflicting evidence and extreme opinions,” as cited by the President.

Despite these complexities, certain fundamental matters are clear. Of these, the most fundamental is the racial attitude and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans.

Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future.

White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II. [3]

What, in fact, Lowery says “erases the context of the nation’s history” on the points he signals ends up being both his own misreading of the record of nationally abetted, programmatic anti-black predation as well as his selective focus here on a victim-perpetrator character study that preemptively eliminates a key aspect of complexity: namely, of all things, simplicity. For it is the occasionally simple and straightforward within complexity that only further complicates complex things. Yes, let us take all due account of the over 90 municipalities of St. Louis County with its nearly 60 separate police forces and its 80 distinct court systems. Let us earnestly consider the perpetual conflicts of interest, the due process issues, and the continual “jail hop” that this situation foments. Let us consider exhaustively the roles that the flight of big corporations and their failure to invest play, and which provokes the kinds of institutional responses in Greater St. Louis that lead to cops becoming predatory revenue agents for the state. But don’t let’s pretend that this explains away white desire for white preeminence, and the impact of that desire on disproportionate police barrel zealotry.

As a journalist at the time of the emergence of “objectivity,” Ida B. Wells was faced with a similar discourse as the one in which Lowery and many of us are now immersed.

Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Lee Stewart had been lynched […] with just as much brutality as other victims of the mob; and they had committed no crime against white women. This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and “keep the nigger down.”

In his book, Just the Facts: How “Objectivity” Came to Define American Journalism, David T. Z. Mindich explores the composite development for the modern media of that ethical paradigm referred to as “objectivity” and, in part, the role lynching and its reportage played in exposing the deficiencies of that standard. Under the construed prudence of mainstream journalism at the time, lynching tended to be framed around debates concerning excessive white vengeance out of righteous indignation and put-upon civilization. Focus on such a moral hinge was due to an enduring and erroneous presumption of innate black lawlessness and predisposed sexual deviancy that the very conventions and constraints of news “objectivity” made prohibitive to even interrogate much less demonstrably dispel. For that, it took Ida B. Wells and her departure from that balancing act becoming normalized in the conventional press of two-authority quotation, engaging instead in a form of so-called public journalism that found the story deep within civic life — beyond the sufferable “facts” of “objectivity” — and merging that story with scholarly corroboration. As such and wholesale, Lowery would have to consign Wells herself to the very camp from which he is so at pains to disassociate himself as when he writes:

The streets of Ferguson, and later Baltimore, were flooded with newly declared citizen journalists as well as writers and reporters with well-stated partisan or ideological loyalties. They, along with scores of live streamers […] played a crucial role in the creation of the movement. But my role, I knew was different. My fundamental professional obligation was to fairness and truth.

Were Lowery to get beyond the false fairness he strikes throughout his book, he would be able to better identify these events for what they are and to get at the greater story which his perpetual deferral of their synthesis substantially evades: subjugation shootings. He wonders several times throughout his account of Ferguson — usually on behalf of others — why Michael Brown’s body was allowed to sit in the street for four and a half hours. Characteristically, though Lowery notes how “[f]or some,” this bore the obscene hallmarks of a lynching, for the police, on the other hand, it was simply as he reports among their “major mistakes.” He cites in the endnotes of the book Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson’s statement to him “and others” Jackson’s “regrets” about it. Never mind an incongruent June 5, 2015, Los Angeles Times report in which interim Ferguson Police Chief Alan “Al” Eickhoff suggests — in direct contradiction of eyewitnesses — that it was protracted gunfire which prevented officers from getting to Brown’s body any sooner than they did.

As a permutation of the historical legacy of lynching in the United States, the practice of the subjugation shooting itself is what marks the “New Era” that Wesley Lowery marginally engages — every bit as much, if not more, than the “movement” it begat. It is telling, he writes, that it was not “even the breaking of a young black body left on public display” that caught the attention of mass media but, rather, the optics of the “race riot” in response to it. Philosopher Michel Foucault reported that it is the intentioned regicide — the dread assassin of a king — whose special punishment is drawing and quartering. By obscene vivisection, its reserved purpose was the total humiliation of the human body through forced physical and visual dismemberment. Michael Brown’s bleeding body lay down directly on the dividing lines of Canfield Drive even as those same lines penetrated it and hour-by-hour mocked its integrity. [4] Foucault’s insights on such surveillance techniques are, of course, apt if ultimately inadequate here. For he had little to say about how such purportedly arcane methods continue to be utilized in modern anti-black racial practices right alongside ostensibly more efficient forms of panoptic knack against those who materialize as threats to the prevailing sovereign order. Indeed, Foucault did not conceive of the regicide lynching as, for instance, the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas — itself so reminiscent anyway of his own non-racial work in its regicidal underpinnings. Ours is a time of the subjugation shooting of the black regicide.

Lynching as a ritualized surveillance technique is often an act of excessive penetration by various means — emasculation, often by castration literal or symbolic, being its most obvious but disavowed aspect. Bullets, especially in surplus, do this work today just as they did in 1892 nearly 125 years ago. “The negroes, whose bodies were literally shot to pieces by this mob, were Calvin McDowell, William Stuart [sic], and Theodore Moss.” Though still wanting in synthetic analysis, Lowery captures well the many absurdly extravagant expenditures of police ammunition in contemporary subjugation shootings. We must recognize the continuity of perceived regicidal threat that conditions the lynching practice in Ida B. Wells’s day and the subjugation shooting done in our own. As a matter of practical fact, when shot, Brown was turned in his collapse to a particular bearing, toward a territory for which many hundreds of blacks would eventually abandon Wells’s Memphis after the killings of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart: Oklahoma. Of this mass flight to a place beyond anti-black terror, as exemplified by that region at the time, Wells wrote in her autobiography:

Every time word came of people leaving Memphis, we who were left behind rejoiced. Oklahoma was about to be opened up, and scores sold or gave away property, shook Memphis dust off their feet and went out West as Tom Moss had said for us to do.

If today there remains some “West” or “Wests” in spirit and commitment toward which living black faces and bodies yet turn, it is because in balance it is and must be set through its own true North. Through its own true North and not another’s.


Darryl A. Smith is associate professor of Religious Studies at Pomona College.


[1] If it is any indication — the accompanying March 10, 1892 illustration in a local newspaper, the Memphis Appeal-Avalanche of McDowell, Moss, and Stewart lying dead in that field — this prompt was not honored.

[2] Not “Theodore” as stated therein.

[3] Emphases mine. I take criticism of the report by someone like historian Stephan Thernstrom as being without merit. His view that it erroneously assumes white racism as the underlying cause of the ’67 riots because riots break out in “liberal” places and times when they often don’t in places less so is specious for the reasons someone like Martin Luther King Jr. long ago highlighted. This when he spoke of the potentially more dangerous policies of the so-called “white moderate” over even “the White Citizens’ ‘Counciler’ or the Ku Klux Klanner” See: and

[4] Later, as if to suture back together the road, the community, and the implied body itself of Mike Brown, the dividing lines of Canfield Drive — on which Brown fell — were cross-laid by hundreds of red roses.

LARB Contributor

Darryl A. Smith is associate professor of Religious Studies at Pomona College.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.