“Okay, let’s take him.”
Within seconds two officers grabbed me, each seizing an arm, and shoved me against the soda dispenser that rested along the front wall of the McDonald’s where I had been eating and working. As I released my clenched hands, my cell phone and notebook fell to the tiled floor. Then came the sharp sting of the plastic zip tie as it was sealed around my hands, pinching tight at the corners of my wrists. I’d never been arrested before, and this wasn’t quite how I’d imagined it would go down.
Two days earlier I’d been sent to Ferguson, Missouri, to cover the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black eighteen-year-old. The fatal gunshots, fired by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, were followed by bursts of anger, in the form of both protests and riots. Hundreds, and then thousands, of local residents had flooded the streets.
They demanded answers. They demanded justice.
In the first forty-eight hours on the ground I filled a notebook: the soft words uttered through thick tears by Lezley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, as she stood for the family’s first press conference since “Mike Mike’s” death; scenes of destruction, including the burned-down QuikTrip gas station and the rows of storefronts that now had thin wooden slabs nailed atop smashed-out windows; scribbles I’d managed while tucked in the back corner of the overflowing sanctuary of Greater St. Mark’s as the Reverend Al Sharpton led an impassioned call and response: “No justice, no peace!”; and the green and brown stains along the corner of my notebook from the moment I was mercifully tackled to the ground, my first night in Ferguson, by a homeowner I was interviewing—a tear gas canister had landed next to us while we spoke on his lawn.
There are few things as exhilarating as parachuting into an unknown place with a bag full of pens and notebooks in pursuit of “the story.” And when the phone calls, and coffee meetings, and frantic scribbling are through, piecing it all together.
But Ferguson was different because during the early days it was deeply unclear what, exactly, “the story” was. Whatever it was, I now—my arms tugged back behind my back—had become a part of it. I wasn’t happy about it.
More than 150 people were taken into custody by the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments in the week and a half that followed Mike Brown’s death on August 9, 2014—the vast majority for “failure to disperse” charges that came as part of acts of peaceful protest. I was the first journalist to end up in cuffs while covering the unrest.
That claim soon became a bit of a technicality, not unlike the twin sibling who declares him-or herself “older.” By the time I had been led out of the restaurant and into the bright sunlight still shining down on St. Louis early that evening, another reporter, the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly, whom I had met for the first time earlier that day, was also being led out of the restaurant, shouting that the officers had just slammed his head into the door on the way out.
For the Ferguson press corps—which would eventually swell from dozens of daily reporters for local St. Louis outlets and regional reporters for national shops into hundreds of journalists, including ones from dozens of foreign countries—the McDonald’s on West Florissant Avenue became the newsroom. Not that we all had much choice in the matter; the modest-sized dining room with a single television on the wall and movie rental box in the back corner was the only spot within walking distance of the street where Mike Brown had been killed that had all three of the essentials required by a reporter on the road: bathrooms, Wi‑Fi, and electrical outlets.
Because the protests were largely, in those first days, organic and not called by any specific group or set of activists, they were also unpredictable. Some of the demonstrators came to demand an immediate indictment of the officer. Others wanted officials to explain what had happened that day, to tell them who this officer was and why this young man was dead. Scores more stood on sidewalks and street corners unable to articulate their exact demands—they just knew they wanted justice. Covering Ferguson directly after the killing of Mike Brown involved hours on the streets, with clusters of reporters staked out from the early afternoon into the early hours of the morning. At any point a resident or a group of them could begin a heated argument with the police or a reporter. A demonstration that had for hours consisted of a group of local women standing and chanting on a street corner would suddenly evolve into a chain of bodies blocking traffic, or an impromptu march to the other side of town.
And as the summer sun gave way to night, the prospect of violence—both the bricks and bottles of a would‑be rioter and the batons and rubber bullets of local police officers—increased exponentially. As long as the protesters and the police remained on the streets, reporters had to as well.
Not since the Boston Marathon bombings a year and a half earlier had I covered a story for which there was such intense, immediate appetite. Earlier on the day I was arrested, I tweeted digital video and photo updates from the spot where Brown had been shot and killed, from the burned-out shell of the QuikTrip gas station torched in the first night of rioting, of the peaceful crowds of church ladies who gathered that afternoon on West Florissant—a major thoroughfare not far from where the shooting occurred that played host to most of the demonstrations—as well as the heavily armored police vehicles that responded to monitor them.
For years, updates like these would have been phoned into the newsroom, with a reporter describing the unfolding situation sentence by sentence as a rewrite guy molded the news into already existing articles. Now they could be published instantaneously.
But an iPhone battery only lasts for so long, so with the deadline for the story I was writing for tomorrow’s newspaper looming, I left the protest and made the three-block trek to the McDonald’s, bought a Big Mac and fries, from across the room greeted Ryan, and holed up in the corner of the dining room to let my phone charge.
It wasn’t long later when the riot-gear-clad officers entered, suggesting we all leave because, with protests still simmering outside, things could get dangerous once the sun went down. Then, when it became clear that we were happy to wait and see how things developed outside, they changed their tune. Now the officers were demanding we leave.
I was annoyed, but covering protests and demonstrations often means taking direction that doesn’t make sense from police officers who aren’t quite concerned with your convenience, much less your ability to do your job. I kept my phone, which was recording video, propped up in one hand as I shoved my notebooks into the same fading green backpack I’ve carried since my senior year of high school. As I packed, I attempted to ask the officer now standing in my face if I’d be able to move my rental car from the parking lot. He didn’t, he said, have time for questions. Once I’d finished packing, I walked past him, making my way toward the door.
As I walked to the exit, the officers decided that all this had taken too long. It had been about one minute since they had first told me to leave when I heard one officer say, “Okay, let’s take him,” and then felt their arms grab me from behind. Now I stood on my tiptoes, insisting to Officer Friendly that I was, in fact, complying with his demands even though he was insisting that I wasn’t.
“My hands are behind my back!” I shouted to the uniformed men now pressing their weight into me as they ran their gloved hands down my front and back pants pockets, which contained an abundance of pens and exactly zero weapons.
“No, you’re resisting, stop resisting,” an officer barked back at me, before I was led out of the building.
On August 9, 2014, the Saturday when six bullets fired by Darren Wilson entered Mike Brown’s body, I was sailing in Boston Harbor with two of my former Boston Globe colleagues. Seated snugly in a small sailboat settled out deep in the water, we stared up at the city skyline drifting farther from us and the planes coming into Logan Airport descending low over our heads.
This was one of what had been half a dozen return trips to Boston in the seven months since I’d left a job as a metro reporter for the Globe, my first full-time reporting gig after college, to join the staff of the Washington Post. For the year or so that I had worked in Boston, I wrote breaking news for the metro desk and chipped in on the political desk, covering crime scenes and campaigns, police tape and ticker tape.
One day, I’d be in the backseat of an SUV listening to a mayoral candidate coax money out of the pockets of donors as underpaid and overcaffeinated staff members tried to run damage control. (“Everything said in the car can be off the record, right?” ) The next day I’d get an early-morning call from Mike Bello, the Globe’s deputy city editor and a hard-charging, no‑nonsense assignment editor who was among the favorites of my many bosses.
“Mornin’, pal,” he’d say in low, growling yet friendly Bostonian.“Did I wake you?”
“Of course not. I was just getting ready to come into the office,” I’d always reply.
It was one of our jokes, which we both knew was a lie. I had been passed out on my mattress, which took up more than half of the tiny room I rented not far from Boston University, until the precise moment that the buzzing vibrations of my phone, tucked beneath my drooling mouth, had jolted me awake.
“That’s what I like to hear. Early mornings are good for ya!” Bello would reply before giving me the morning’s task. “We got a dead body in West Roxbury. Cops still at the scene. Go try to find some witnesses, maybe some neighbors. Send in some color. Take some iPhone video.”
The metro general assignment beat is murders, stabbings, bodies, and grieving families, with the occasional highway closure or wild turkey sighting mixed in. There was the drunk driver, so loaded one morning that she plowed into a mother walking her seven-year-old daughter, killing the child. And the elderly man, bludgeoned to death by his nephew in the living room of the apartment where he had lived for decades. Worse still was the mother in New Bedford who had a seizure while in the shower, her newborn baby nestled in her arms. They both drowned.
When two terrorists attacked the Boston Marathon, exactly one month after I began the job, I stood outside a local hospital, filing bits of information gleaned from victims and their families. The next day, I’d be on the team reporting stories of the injured. The following day, up early covering President Obama’s address to the still-grieving city, and up late on the scene as local police officers engaged in a chaotic shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers.
But my goal had always been to cover politics. In 2008, I voted for the first time, and watched with envy as the campaign embeds for various outlets filed reported pieces and Twitter dispatches from Iowa rallies, and campaign buses, and election-night parties. By 2012, I was at the Los Angeles Times, and as part of a stint working out of the City Hall bureau I weaseled my way into a little election-night coverage—I was dispatched to an outdoor watch party for young voters who broke out in triumphant cheers when Barack Obama earned four more years in office.
In Boston, I covered the Senate race to replace John Kerry, then the mayoral race to replace Tom Menino, the city’s “mayor for life.” The goal was to be on the 2016 presidential trail, whether at the Globe or somewhere else. When, toward the end of the mayor’s race, a top editor at the Washington Post came calling, I was hesitant—I loved Boston. But the new job was covering Congress, with a clear path toward the campaign trail. I knew I had to accept the offer.
My first year at the Washington Post had been both overwhelming and exhilarating. One of the last things a Boston colleague told me was that all he could think as he covered Congress was that he was working in a museum, replete with busts of the former vice-presidents lining the walkways that you dashed past as you scurried to a press conference across the Capitol.
From my perch on the Post’s national political staff I contributed to stories far beyond the walls of Congress—a scandal in the Department of Veterans Affairs, a child migrant crisis on the country’s southern border, and of course, the 2014 midterm elections.
Just a week before I arrived in Ferguson, I had been weaving through Michigan, one of a dozen or so reporters we jokingly dubbed Team America, to cover primary election night. I spent the day talking to voters at polling location after polling location—asking them general questions about their politics and motivations and picking their brains for any undercovered local political angles or leads. The last thing on my mind was policing or police shootings—it had been close to a year since I’d covered one.
I left Michigan with a notebook full of story ideas and made a pit stop in Boston for a day of relaxation with some former colleagues—and that was when I saw frantic updates from a reporter I knew in St. Louis. The police, it seemed, had shot and killed a black kid near the city. And from the looks of it, crowds were starting to gather.
Police shootings aren’t uncommon, and as a reporter who is professionally acquainted with hundreds of other reporters, images of an angry vigil of grieving residents weren’t particularly out of place in my social media feeds. But even in those early posts, Mike Brown’s death just felt different. The crowds gathered near this young man’s body emanated a guttural anguish. It was clear even then, for those paying attention, that this communal anger would not be easily muted or contained.
That Monday morning—after two nights on which angry daytime protests had given way to destructive waves of looting after the sun went down—the Post’s deputy national editor walked past my desk and overheard me discussing the ongoing situation in Ferguson. Could I get on a plane? “Sure!” I said, staring down at the still-packed bag from my trips to Michigan and Boston.
I wasn’t completely excited—I’d just gotten back from the road and really wanted to spend a few days decompressing. But I knew better than to turn down an assignment. I needed to go to Ferguson, even if it was quick. I’d drop in for a day or two, gather some anecdotes for a story for one of that weekend’s papers, and probably be home in time to watch Sunday football with the guys at Smoke & Barrel, our regular barbecue and whiskey spot in Adams Morgan.
An hour later, I was in a cab to the airport.
Since I’d arrived in Ferguson I had found many of the residents willing to talk, often sharing stories that seemed on their face unbelievable—officers who pulled them over repeatedly, nights spent in jail for unpaid speeding tickets, and most disturbing of all, shootings and other deaths at the hands of police officers about which they and the people of Ferguson still lacked answers.
Getting a response from the police about the death of Mike Brown had been next to impossible. Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson had done a handful of press conferences, but each time he stepped to a microphone it was clear that he had been thrust forward as a sacrificial lamb. He didn’t have answers—not about the death of Michael Brown, or about the ever-growing list of accusations that residents were making against his officers.
But at this particular moment, another, much more pressing reporting challenge was presenting itself: the plastic zip tie still tight around my wrists.
After marching us outside the McDonald’s where we had first been detained, the officers had brought Ryan Reilly and me to the middle of the street in front of the restaurant—which had been shut down to car traffic earlier in the day due to the protests—to wait for a transport vehicle to take us to jail. We peppered the officers with questions. Cuffed or not, we were still reporters, after all. Why are we being detained? What law did we break? What are your names? Your badge numbers? Where the hell is the commanding officer? What are we being charged with?
They ignored us, for the most part. “Oh, you’ll be charged with a whole lot of things,” one chimed in smugly. I turned to the officer who seemed to be calling the shots and let him know that arresting credentialed journalists as they sat at their computers filing stories was a dumb move.
“This is a mistake,” I said, trying to reason with him. “This is going to be on the front page of the Washington Post tomorrow.”
“Yeah, well,” he replied with a self-satisfied smirk, “you’re going to be sleeping in our jail cell tonight.”
He was wrong. Ryan and I would spend just about twenty minutes in the holding cells in the basement of the Ferguson Police Department, where we were driven in a police vehicle also containing one of those nice old church ladies from earlier in the day. This one was a local minister, still in her clerical collar, who sang hymns for the ten-minute drive across town while the three of us were being booked.
Blessed assurance / Jesus is mine / oh what a foretaste / of glory divineThis is my story / this is my song / praising my savior / all the day long
Other reporters had seen us being taken into custody, and much like our photos and videos from the protest earlier in the day, the story of our arrests quickly went viral. My colleagues at the Post knew I had been arrested before Ryan and I had even made it back to the police station.
The officers took us downstairs and placed Ryan and me in a cell that had a pay phone in the corner. We could, we were told, make as many calls as we wanted. Ryan was able to reach his dad, but the only numbers I could remember were my parents’ home line and a cell phone that had, at least at one point, belonged to my high school girlfriend. After trying and failing to get ahold of my mom, I gave up—if I was going to catch up with a long-lost high school love it should probably come under different circumstances.
It wouldn’t matter. About half an hour after we arrived at Ferguson police headquarters, Ryan and I were turned loose. Inundated with phone calls from other reporters and media outlets, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson had ordered us released. By the time we were given back our belongings—unlaced shoes, notebooks, phones—it was clear we’d become momentary media celebrities.
My editors called and emailed. Then came the text messages, from Mom as well as nearly every friend from high school and college. Check-ins from sources and government officials. And then the overwhelming wave of radio and television producers. Within moments, we were discussing our arrest on The Rachel Maddow Show as we remained seated in the lobby of the Ferguson Police Department, hoping to secure paperwork that would tell us the names of the police officers who had roughed us up.
It wasn’t until hours later that our arrest began to sink in. I’d arrived in Ferguson two days earlier thinking I’d be there for just a couple of days. I’d write a feature or two, and then I’d go back to DC and to writing about politics. But as I paced the carpeted floor of my hotel room in downtown St. Louis that night, it became clear that I wasn’t escaping Ferguson anytime soon.
Resident after resident had told more stories of being profiled, of feeling harassed. These protests, they insisted, were not just about Mike Brown. What was clear, from the first day, was that residents of Ferguson, and all who had traveled there to join them, had no trust in, and virtually no relationship with, the police. The police, in turn, seemed to exhibit next to no humanity toward the pained residents they were charged with protecting.
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 social justice movement spawned from Mike Brown’s blood would force city after city to grapple with its own fraught histories of race and policing. 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. Even if you believe Mike Brown’s own questionable choices sealed his fate, did Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland all deserve to die?
It’s worth remembering now, as the Obama presidency has come to its close, what it was like to live inside the moment when his ascendancy was a still-unfolding fact. After a seemingly never-ending sea of firsts—first black mayors, first black governors, and first black senators—to have reached that ultimate electoral mountaintop, the presidency, seemed then to have validated decades of struggle. But the nation’s grappling with race and the legacy of its original sin—ongoing since the first slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619—was and is far from over. Any façade of a postracial reality was soon melted away amid the all-consuming eight-year flame of racial reckoning that Obama’s election sparked.
Ferguson would mark the arrival on the national stage of a new generation of black political activists—young leaders whose parents and grandparents had been born as recently as the 1970s and 1980s, an era many considered to be post-civil rights. Their parents’ parents had been largely focused on winning the opportunity to participate in the political process and gaining access to the protections promised them as citizens. Their parents focused on using the newfound opportunities and safeties provided by the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts to claim seats at the table, with political and activist strategies often focused on registering as many black voters and electing as many black leaders to public office as possible. For at least two decades, the days of taking the struggle to the streets had seemed, to many politically active black Americans, far in the rearview mirror.
For many of the post-Joshua Generation—the young men and women who, like me, first cast their ballots in 2008, who had grown up in integrated schools and neighborhoods in a world where black entertainers like Michaels Jackson and Jordan were widely recognized as the world’s greatest—the seemingly unrelenting wave of black death required an accounting. Despite the talks so many of us of this generation received from parents, teachers, and coaches—Don’t run from the cops. Keep your hands out of your pockets. Be conscious of where you’re wandering…—the young black bodies we kept seeing in our Facebook newsfeeds could have been our own. How could we explain this to ourselves or each other?
Now we were able to share what we saw and how we felt about it instantaneously with thousands of others who were going through similar awakenings. Conversations once had at Bible studies and on barroom stools were happening on our phones and on Facebook, allowing both instant access to information and a means of instant feedback. Social media made it possible for young black people to document interactions they believed to be injustices, and exposed their white friends and family members to their experiences.
As President Obama’s second term toiled on, it became increasingly clear that talk of a postracial America was no more than cheap political punditry. A new generation of black Americans were, if anything, as emboldened by our black president as they were unsurprised by the failure of his election to usher in a fantasy period of racial healing. From the death of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Eve in 2009 after he was shot by a transit officer in Oakland, California, to the death of Trayvon Martin in February 2012 by the gun of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, the headlines of the Obama years often seemed a yearbook of black death, raising a morbid and depressing quandary for black men and women: Why had the promise and potential of such a transformative presidency not yet reached down to the lives of those who elected him? Even the historic Obama presidency could not suspend the injunction that playing by the rules wasn’t enough to keep you safe. What protection was offered by a black presidency when, as James Baldwin once wrote, the world is white, and we are black?
By the time a grand jury concluded in November 2014 that there was not enough evidence to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson with a crime in the killing of Mike Brown, I’d been in that city for the better part of three months. I didn’t know then that I’d spend the next eight months crisscrossing the country, visiting city after city to report on and understand the social movement that vowed to awaken a sleeping nation and insisted it begin to truly value black life. Each day, it seemed, there was another shooting.
In city after city, I found police departments whose largely white ranks looked little like the communities of color they were charged with protecting, officers whose actions were at worst criminal and at best lacked racial sensitivity, and black and brown bodies disproportionately gunned down by those sworn to serve and protect.
How many? At the time Mike Brown was killed, it wasn’t completely clear. There had been several efforts by citizen journalists to count the number of people killed by the police each year, but full, comprehensive data on police violence wasn’t available at the national level, certainly not in real time. The lack of information made it impossible to have an educated conversation about race and policing during those early days—police unions and law enforcement sympathizers would claim that Mike Brown’s death was a one-off, while civil rights groups and emerging young activists would claim that Brown was a stand‑in for countless others. Those deaths were black communities’ reality, though they were left with no way to quantify that truth to a skeptical majority-white media, or by extension the nation. In interviews over the months I spent in Ferguson, residents described Mike Brown as a symbol of their own oppression. In a city where, federal investigators would later conclude, traffic tickets and arrest warrants were used systematically to target impoverished black residents, Brown’s death afforded an opportunity through protest for otherwise ignored voices to be heard. On many nights protesters would refuse to provide their names to reporters who approached them for interviews. “My name is Mike Brown,” they would reply.
In the year following Ferguson, my colleagues and I at the Post compiled the number of police killings as a way of establishing an accurate count. The picture we painted would reveal how common it had become for unarmed black men to be killed by police officers—one unarmed black person shot and killed by police every ten days. The stories of these men, and a few women, stared out at me from the sea of white men and women who were also left dead at the hands of police officers. Almost all of these shootings—990 of them in total in 2015 alone—would be ruled legally justified. And in a plurality if not a majority of the cases, officers, it seemed, had little option but to fire their weapons. But in hundreds of the cases, the circumstances were much muddier.
What does justice look like for those who are killed by officers who, according to the way our laws are written, have committed no crime but who through tactic or restraint could have avoided taking a life? What should be said to those grieving families, what recourse awaits them once the grand jury returns no bill? Justice is a hard concept to wrestle with when your eyes are filled with scenes of death.
On that first night in Ferguson, I was sucked into the story I wanted to cover and understand, even if I would struggle for the next year to reconcile my own role in the chaos. When I’d been a reporter for all of three years, my beat became the nation’s biggest domestic story line. The young leaders behind many of the protests often trusted me because we could have been classmates or childhood playmates—in some cases, we had been. 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—who used phone apps to broadcast live images and audio from the often chaotic demonstrations and nights of rioting—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.
Among those truths, however, were these: 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 but who historically have seen and treated those men, women, and even their children as anything but American. That story didn’t start or end on the streets of Ferguson.
I wrote this book from the messy notes I compiled as I reported, by looking back at what I wrote in the Washington Post, and from hundreds of interviews with young protest leaders, elected officials, police officers and chiefs, and the families and friends of those who in death became national symbols. The messages of the Ferguson protester, of the Cleveland protester, of the Charleston protester, the Baltimore protester, the Missouri protester, and the Baton Rouge protester were in many ways different—nuanced demands specific to each locale. But there was an underlying message, a defiant declaration, bursting from the protest chants in each of these cities, perhaps best captured by a sign left by a demonstrator near the site of the shooting of Antonio Brown, who was the last in the string of black men killed by St. Louis police in 2014: YOU CAN’T KILL US ALL.
The story of Ferguson, Cleveland, and Baltimore is that of the fractured and neglected relationship that exists between those who walk the streets without a badge and those who wear one. This gulf of trust only widens and becomes harder still to fill with each shooting. And the conversation about accountability and reform stalls each time, as we saw earlier this year in Dallas and Baton Rouge, when an officer’s life is deliberately targeted in the name of vigilante justice.
Two years after America’s great awakening to the reality of police violence in the streets of Ferguson, the same distrust, pain, and suspicion that drove thousands into the streets flow through the veins of millions of black and brown Americans.
And in a new era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, the story of Ferguson remains the story of America.
Reprinted from “They Can’t Kill Us All”: Ferguson, Baltimore And a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement. Copyright © 2016 by Wesley Lowery. Published by Little, Brown and Co., reprinted with permission.