December 16, 2016
Soon after I moved to western Iowa, I sat in a room in late 2014 with sources, western Iowa residents, and listened as the then-recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri came up.
That wasn’t unusual; for months, the shooting of the young black man by police officer Darren Wilson and, more, the resultant uproar in Ferguson had shared time in headlines and day-to-day conversation.
In this particular case, in this room, the reference immediately followed a crass comment about women passing gas and never keeping their mouths shut.
Also not unusual.
What did this room of white, western Iowa men have to say about the people taking to the streets to shout that killing Mike Brown, an unarmed black man, was wrong, something that resonated with all of them as they, yes, at times showcased their views violently?
“Why don’t you cock a few real bullets, and then people will get the picture.”
“Those people were looking like monkeys jumping up and down on top of the cars.”
“Fire a few bullets and they’ll calm down real quick.”
Again, not unusual.
I didn’t say anything then, something I regret, so I am now.
Because these views aren’t rare. And that’s unacceptable.
Some would say there’s no easy solution, especially in a rural area that is largely white. Carroll County is 97 percent white, according to census statistics from last year. Almost all of the surrounding counties have an equal or higher percentage of white residents. The everyday interactions with people of any color that you’d have in a bigger city are impossible here.
What’s the next choice? Educating ourselves.
One good place to start is “They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement,” by Wesley Lowery.
Full disclosure: the author is a good friend of mine.
He was my first newspaper editor in college, the guy I had a major crush on freshman year, who almost (justifiably) fired me once, who sent me the music video to Coldplay’s “Paradise” once when I was mad at him because he knew I love elephants.
He remains one of the people who has taught me the most about being a journalist and a human being at the same time.
Currently a national reporter for The Washington Post, Lowery also has written for The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and more. He was part of a team at The Washington Post that won a Pulitzer Prize for a project that involved compiling information and data about police shootings nationwide — data that hadn’t been available before.
And in the past several years, when black men, especially unarmed black men, have been killed by police officers, especially white police officers, he has been there to tell their stories.
You might know him, although he wouldn’t necessarily appreciate the distinction, as one of the reporters who was arrested at a McDonald’s in Ferguson.
Now, he’s written a book.
He writes from the perspective of a journalist but also as a young black man in America. It’s a first-hand account of covering these shootings, of sitting down with heartbroken family members and friends, of getting tear-gassed while covering protestors.
The book is peppered with many people’s stories as well as historical context that puts today’s events in perspective.
The book starts in Ferguson, with the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Darren Wilson. The story doesn’t start there, really, but Lowery and many others point to the Ferguson shooting as the incident that sparked a national wave of protests, a movement that would be termed, among other monikers, “Black Lives Matter” and “The Movement for Black Lives.”
“Ferguson would birth a movement and set the nation on a course for a still-ongoing public hearing on race that stretched far past the killing of unarmed residents — from daily policing to Confederate imagery to respectability politics to cultural appropriation,” the book states. “As protests propelled by tweets and hashtags spread under the banner of Black Lives Matter and with cell phone and body camera video shining new light on the way police interact with minority communities, America was forced to consider that not everyone marching in the streets could be wrong.”
What’s really distinctive about this book, I think, is that it goes beyond telling the stories of the black people killed by police officers — Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and many more. Those stories need to be told, and Lowery does it well, but beyond that, he tells the stories of the everyday people who joined the movement sparked by these deaths. He brings you into the lives of the people who flooded the streets in these cities, seeing themselves in the bodies ripped apart by police officers’ bullets, and raises the narrative above what many deride as disrespectful, overreactive, unnecessary, violent riots to individual human stories.
In the pages of “They Can’t Kill Us All,” you meet Netta Elzie in St. Louis, who, months before Michael Brown died, read cruel, anonymous, racist comments online about a close friend of hers, a young black man named Stephon Averyhart, after he was killed by a police officer.
You meet Clifton Kinnie, from the Ferguson area, who continued using the cry, “Hands up! Don’t shoot,” even after it was discovered that those likely hadn’t been Michael Brown’s last words, because it was his own personal cry to the officers who had teargassed him and shot him with rubber bullets when he joined the protests about Brown’s death, weeks after Kinnie’s mother died.
You meet Brittany Packnett, who was followed around in high school by a white teen who asked, “Is my whiteness oppressing you today?” and then spit in her face when she told him to leave her alone.
You meet Payton Head, a student at the University of Missouri involved in convincing the school president to resign after a spate of race-fueled incidents students felt weren’t addressed by school administration, who posted a quote from Albert Einstein above his desk: “The world will not be destroyed by evil, but by those who watch without doing anything.”
And Lowery addresses the tough question of how best to protest, of how to best communicate the message that police are wrongly killing black people and need to stop, offering a glimpse of the mindset of some who do move beyond those actions and toward or into violence while protesting, acts that prompt responses such as those I heard in that western Iowa room.
“What makes a young man stand before a police line and throw a water bottle toward their armor? It’s certainly part ego. And it’s part the foolishness of youth,” Lowery writes.
“But in Ferguson, it was also at least part helplessness.
“These residents, time and time again, offered a discouraging assessment of the plight that was their reality: If, no matter what a police officer does to you, he or she will not be charged with a crime, why does it matter if you disperse at those officers’ commands? If it doesn’t matter how the police — the system — treats you, does it matter how you treat them?”
And the book notes that it’s not an answer to target police officers in response.
Western Iowa does know that pain.
“The conversation about accountability and reform stalls each time an officer’s life is deliberately targeted in the name of vigilante justice,” the book’s back cover states.
That’s not the answer.
But neither is ignoring this issue or defiantly retorting that “all lives matter,” furthering what Lowery described as “a willed ignorance of the deep racial inequalities baked into the American experience.”
I know there’s a problem here because of that conversation I heard two years ago.
I know there’s a problem here because I’ve heard derogatory comments about Carroll’s black residents, some coming directly from police officers.
I know there’s a problem here because I’ve seen Confederate flags displayed here.
I know there’s a problem here because when Carroll police were searching for Mark Lee several years ago, after he was accused of stabbing his ex-girlfriend, and the public heard that the police were seeking a black man, the department received a pile of false alarms — calls from just about every Carroll resident who saw a black man walking down the street, it seemed.
I recently came across a statement given by Zianna Oliphant to the Charlotte, North Carolina City Council after Keith Lamont Scott was killed by a police officer in Charlotte earlier this year. Another black man. Another hashtag.
Through tears after a long pause, the 9-year-old Charlotte girl said to the council members, “We are black people, and we shouldn’t have to feel like this. We shouldn’t have to protest because y’all are treating us wrong. … I can’t stand how we’re treated.”
She continued, tears making tracks on her cheeks, “It’s a shame that our fathers and mothers are killed and we can’t even see them anymore. It’s a shame that we have to go to the graveyard and bury them. And we have tears and we shouldn’t have tears. We need our fathers and mothers to be by our side.”
Stories. Real people’s stories.
That’s what’s missing when people sling around racist remarks in western Iowa.
Because once we hear some of those, once we listen, maybe the description of “monkeys” to describe black people or the suggestion that they should be shot will be replaced with empathy.
This book is a good place to start.