[The Stories of America editors: This article is part of the Black Lives Matter Pairing. To read the other story, click here.]
It’s a feeling Wesley Lowery says he can’t forget. In his time as a reporter, he’s covered multiple police shootings, starting out covering crime in Boston, but from the beginning he knew what happened in Ferguson, MO, would be different.
“When I landed in Ferguson, it was palpable — this feeling of anger and pain and disgust,” he said, recounting covering the shooting of Michael Brown in August of 2014 for The Washington Post. “I knew in the first few moments that this was something bigger than just a normal police shooting story, but this was something…this was going to be a thing that changed part of our national conversation.”
He was right. This event, like so many others, would spark riots and conversations, many centered around the controversial movement Black Lives Matter.
Lowery, at that time a relatively new face at the Washington Post, had been flown in to cover the shooting. Looking back, the timing of Brown’s killing played into a bigger narrative that seemed to be on repeat in the country, he said.
The summer of 2014 had a number of high profile situations that took place. There was the trial of Michael Dunn in the death of Jordan Davis, which happened around the same time as Trayvon Martin and then the continued conversations about the movie Fruitvale Station where Oscar Grant’s story was told. Grant, 22, was shot in the back by police while laying on a train station floor after police said he wouldn’t allow them to handcuff him. “So there’s this feeling in black America that this is happening every day,” said Lowery.
Lowery was just 24 when he covered the shooting. As a black man from outside Cleveland, OH, Lowery said walking through the streets of Ferguson felt different for him.
“What I saw was so many young people in their 20s and 30s, people who were like me,” he said. “These were suburban black people for the most part, so not unlike me either.”
And at the same time, he saw the injustice happening around them.
“I’m seeing them not receive answers,” he said. “As a member of the media and just as a citizen…someone should explain to them why this kid is dead. Why is Michael Brown, this teenager, why is he dead in the streets? And I remember immediately, I wanted to know too.”
Much of the energy behind the BLM movement was in response to what many activists described as unfair treatment of African American civilians.
“It’s not always that black Americans have their concerns taken seriously, certainly not always by the media,” Lowery said. Many times, when conversations come up about police brutality, unnecessary use of force, or profiling, they’re pushed to the side. “This is something that black and brown Americans know is true, they interact with it every day, but that take of a Ferguson or an Eric Garner or a Baltimore or the DOJ reports—they have to come out for the media to even believe that these things are true.”
Covering the shooting felt important to Lowery, not just as a journalist, but as a black man, because telling the stories that often get overlooked was part of his calling.
“We’re listening to this family talk, and it’s a press conference that I feel like I’ve been in before,” he said. “Listening back to a family saying they need justice for their slain son, an attorney saying we cannot have our kids gunned down in the streets like this…”
It’s something that he says shouldn’t feel routine but has been a scenario played out over and over in black communities, though often not with so many cameras or people around.
That attention is something that would permeate his entire time there.
After the press conference, Lowery went to the NAACP for another meeting for concerned citizens. “I get there, there are like 200 people in the parking lot, standing there outside, so I’m assuming one of two things: either it hasn’t started yet, they haven’t opened the doors up or that it’s just getting out and everyone is leaving.”
He weaved his way to the front before he realized that was not the case.
“I realize it’s going on…it’s actually full to capacity and these 100, 200 people standing outside waiting until they can get more information afterwards.”
It was something that still sticks out to Lowery today — the need and desperation to get information.
“This is August in St. Louis, it’s like 98 degrees outside and there are people who are all standing outside for an hour or two hours outside of a public meeting, waiting so that people can come out from inside the meeting and tell them what was going on.”
Later that night, he would make his way back with an activist to the area where Brown was gunned down. He found himself in the middle of a situation where young people had been clashing with police.
Rubber bullets, tear gas, yelling and chaos surrounded him.
“I just remember feeling as if this was something I hadn’t quite felt before,” Lowery said, “and it was something that was much bigger than what I was going to write that night.”
Around the country, millions felt anguish, and in response, reform became a massive topic of discussion.
However, Lowery worries that much of that progress and conversation, in so many ways rooted in the protest, will be lost with the new administration. He’s concerned that President Donald Trump might take a different tone than the previous administration, meaning there might be less support for police reform and less criticism of law enforcement.
“I also worry about what happens the next time we see people in the streets.”