Few reporters become nationally known by the beats they cover. Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post is that rare exception.
Ever since he began documenting police shootings and the resulting unrest in black communities across America, his voice has emerged as a leading authority on what some have called a new wave of black activism.
In 2016 Lowery won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, along with other WashPost journalists, for work that began with his coverage in Ferguson, Mo., of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. He also has written a book, They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, which chronicles his journalistic travels from one U.S. hot spot to another.
On Thursday, Lowery will land in Charlotte, a guest of the Levine Museum of the New South, to talk about his work and his observations on the front lines of what is perhaps one of our nation’s most pressing social issues. His visit coincides with the museum’s recent opening of K(NO)W Justice, K(NO)W Peace, an exhibit that explores the impact of police-involved killings in Charlotte and communities across the country.
I spoke with Lowery by phone this week to get a taste of the message he’ll bring to his Qcity visit. Portions of that interview are published below, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. What can Charlotte expect when you arrive this week?
What I think people can expect is just a conversation looking not only back at the last few years of activism and protests and conversation around policing and justice but also conversation looking forward as to what we might expect in the coming years. We’ve had a large-scale shift in the ideology of the federal government that is going to impact the future of these conversations about race and justice and policing and police reform. So I think it’s going to be a good moment to kind of recap what the last few years have looked like and talk a little bit about what is to come.
Q. Having covered so many of these police shoots and subsequent protests, are you optimistic about where we are as a nation?
I’m optimistic to the extent that there are people working on these issues who have not stopped working on these issues. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know so many of the folks — police officers, activists, community members — who are working on the front lines of these issues…and I know that they will keep doing this work. This has never been an issue where one day we would wake up and it would go away. It’s remarkably complicated how we police our nation. …There are 18,000 to 19,000 police departments in the nation, and they largely get to implement their own policies, their own reforms, if they so choose, and their own training. Because of that, this is something that moves at a very slow pace.
Q. Do you believe that the activists who have taken up the cause are having an impact?
I think we unquestionably have seen a shift. For example, we have seen a marked upshift in the number of officers who are charged as it relates to shootings. We’ve seen dozens of departments implementing new use-of-force policies, additional transparency following shootings. We’ve seen hundreds of departments that have begun implementing body cameras as a means of allowing for additional transparency and information about these encounters. So it’s unquestionable that there has been an impact. Measuring that is kind of difficult because we are still kind of in the moment.
Q. Despite all that, convicting a police officer is still probably the most difficult thing to do our judiciary system.
It’s almost impossible. Our judiciary system was not constructed to charge, much less convict, police officers. We allot our police officers a massive legal leeway as it relates to what they do on the job. Have we seen a significant uptick? Certainly, we have. We are now seeing into the double digits the number of officers charged each year, when in the past that was about five a year. But in reality, we know that with the system that exists right now, it is unrealistic that there will ever be charges in the majority of cases or even many cases. So rather it raises a question of what does justice look like in these cases, and also is it possible to limit the number of shootings that occur and the number of deaths that occur, so that we don’t even have to have a conversation about legal culpability?
Q. Has your experience covering this beat changed you in any way?
I think it has probably made me further sympathetic to the pain and trauma of other people. I think it has also, in many ways, made me less eager to run toward violence in those ways. When it’s your job to watch videos of people being killed every day, it makes you…understand and appreciate the horror that you’re seeing each time. I told myself a long time ago that if I ever watched one of these videos and it didn’t make me physically uncomfortable that I would need to change my beat, my job. And I feel there probably will be one day when that happens, and at that point I will change over.
How do you account for the disconnect between how African Americans view police shootings and how many whites view police shootings?
For many white Americans, the police are someone you call and (they) help you when something bad has happened. For most black Americans, the police are someone who you interact with and they inconvenience your day. I think if your only experience with the police has been you call them the time you lock you keys in your car and them showing up and being helpful to you, you are going to come in with a basic level of trust and belief that police are there to help. Rather, if you have lived a life where your experience with the police is being pulled over and questioned, being stopped and frisked, being spoken down to or condescended to, or knowing of other people who have had those experiences, your view of the police is going to be drastically different. …There have never been positive relationships between police and black America at any point in time. And so in reality we have to accept that, we have to acknowledge that. We have to make whether it be apologies or restitutions for damage to that relationship. And then we can begin building a relationship that did not exist.
Q Have social media and cell phones videos helped white America see this issue more clearly?
It’s unquestionable that there has been a change in public perception on these issues over the last few years. But the reality is, there is still a massive divide in the perception of police in the criminal justice system that is determined by what your race is, very often. It’s difficult for any of us to understand the lived experiences of other people. And it has been unquestionably true that there is a difficulty in the white majority for almost all of American history in understanding the lived experience of black Americans.
Q. How would you compare the young activists of today with the civil rights leaders of the ’50 and ’60?
I think there are a lot of similarities, beginning with the fact that these are largely young people. I think sometimes in our memories we inflate the ages of the civil rights leaders because many of them were reverends. These are largely people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom were not activists the day before the shooting — people who are thrust into this, who see an injustice and decide that they must do something about it. What I think is different or interesting here is the urgency created by the Obama presidency. Many of the people across the county, as it relates to the current protest movement, are people who supported President Obama in 2008 and many of whom voted for the first time in 2008, and many of whom believed, at least for the moment, in the promise of the Obama presidency and then were heartbroken to find that representational politics had failed them, that having a black face in the highest space did not, in fact, protect them.
Q. You were in Charlotte following the Keith Lamont Scott shooting. What did you see here?
What jumped out at me about Charlotte was how inconsistent at times the public officials could be about the release of information. One of the major lessons of Ferguson was that you don’t allow someone to be killed in the streets and then refuse to answer any questions about it. …One of the major factors in this case was the presence of video. People knew this video existed, and then the video wasn’t released…and you had various people describing what the video showed, with varying levels of inconsistencies or consistencies. I think that was something that was unique here. …When you have an incident like this, not answering questions is not a means of calming the community. In reality, in that void of information, it always gets filled.
Q. Why do you think Keith Scott’s death ignited violent protests in Charlotte when the killing of Jonathan Ferrell did not?
Often it can be happenstance… I also think there is a crescendo and a build-up effect. Many of the people who were in the street after Keith Lamont Scott remembered Jonathan Ferrell. None of these incidents happen in a vacuum. They are linked to each other and are part of a larger story that describes the experience of residents of one part of the town with their police. …From people who I talked to, many of them felt as if they just had to do something, they had to say something. And I think it forced an attention that would not have been paid otherwise.
IF YOU GO:
Date: Thursday, March 2, 2017
Time: 6:30 p.m. (Tour the museum’s new exhibition at 5:30 p.m.)
Place: Duke Energy Theatre, Spirit Square
Cost: $15 per person, $8 per student