Wesley Lowery found himself inserted into the story of Ferguson during the height of last year’s protests when he and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post were arrested by St. Louis Country Sheriffs' officers in a McDonald’s for failure to evacuate the restaurant fast enough. Here, the young Washington Post reporter speaks on how covering the death of Mike Brown has impacted his work and how his headline-making moment changed things for him on the ground.
EBONY: Where were you and what were you doing when you found out that Michael Brown had been killed and how did you find out?
WL: I was in Detroit, Michigan at my grandparents’ house. I am good friends with Brittney Noble, who is a local television reporter [in St. Louis.] She lives in Ferguson and had got a call that someone had been shot and killed, so she raced over there…I popped open Instagram and my Instagram feed was full of this video that Brittney had taken of this woman jumping up and down telling the story that her son had just been killed and [Brown’s] stepfather making a sign of cardboard: “The Ferguson police just killed my son.” And so, that was initially I found out was from Instagram.
EBONY: What were your next steps from there? Did you immediately go into work mode?
WL: I remember getting off the plane Sunday night arriving back in D.C. and opening social media and just following these live tweets from St. Louis reporters who I knew and a national reporter I knew breaking down the chaos and knowing “Okay, when I get into the office Monday morning, I gotta try to find a way to be involved in our storytelling here.” We didn’t have anyone on the ground yet, we had been covering it [by] aggregating and making calls from D.C. but I knew I wanted to get involved. So when I got in on Monday morning the 11th, I walked over to my colleague Marc Burman, who runs our national desk blog—at the time I was a congressional reporter—and I told him “Hey I’m going to call all the [elected officials] in Missouri and I’m going to start working this from a political angle and maybe one of the senators can call for a DOJ investigation, so let me get sourced up.” A few minutes after that our national editor came up to me and said “Actually, can you get on a plane?”
EBONY: What was the first thing you did when you got there?
WL: I landed in Missouri [on Monday, August 12] and I went straight to the where family had there first press conference. While I was in the air, it was announced that they had retained [attorneys] Benjamin Crump and Darryl Parks. [Reverend Al] Sharpton announced he was on his way. I watched Michael Brown Sr. walk in this very hot church sanctuary with his ‘Justice for Mike Brown’ shirt. Mike’s grandmother had to be carried out. I spoke to his uncles who argued that there’s no way Mike could have been fighting with this officer [Darren Wilson] because he was the “gentle giant.”
…I was talking to people trying to figure out who I needed to link up with, trying to figure out who I should be following on Twitter for this, who do I need to be talking to. I had already started DM’ing with a lot of people who are now these well-known activists but at the time they were just some loud 20-year-olds talking about something that had happened in their community. I get an NAACP forum next and I see maybe 200 or 300 people standing outside and so I assume it hasn’t started or it just ended. In reality, the church that was holding this forum was already at capacity with hundreds of people inside and folks had decided stand outside and wait for the forum to be over so that the people could come outside and tell them what had been said.
That was a moment for me when I realized, realized that this wasn’t a one or two day story.
EBONY: How did it feel to be on the other side of the story while you were still working?
WL: It was hard for some of our dear colleagues in New York and DC to appreciate, especially for those tweeting away at their desks and from their phones. It was a remarkably unpredictable, dynamic in Ferguson. We didn’t have any information of what was going on. We were all working late nights. A lot of us were getting hit with rubber bullets. It was extremely intense…But on the ground, [the arrest] made things easier in a way. Residents realized that we’re not going to be here to be a mouthpiece for [law enforcement.] There was a different level of authority given to us after that. It opened a lot of doors for conversations, interviews and access to perspective.
EBONY: How has covering this story changed you as a journalist?
WL: It made me have to grow up a little bit. I think it created a different platform—the thing is, I felt like I had a pretty significant platform prior to this. But Ferguson was arguably the biggest conversation we had about race in 2014. And, Ryan and I and other reporters, people who were there on the ground from the very beginning became different characters in the saga. Also, because the microscope is there on you, you have to be more precise, the specifics are very important because you have a megaphone.
EBONY: And how have you been impacted as a young Black man from Cleveland?
WL: I’ve never been more in tune with my Blackness now than I am now. My dad is Black and my mom is White. These are issues that I have known and cared about for a very long time, issues that were never foreign to me and are issues I always wanted to write about and cared about…None of the problems raised by Ferguson were anything new that hadn’t been going on for decades and centuries, but the protests and police response created an urgency that didn’t exist before. Now every media outlet is covering [police shootings]. Ferguson created urgency among an entire generation of young people who’ve seen anecdote after anecdote and they made up their minds their going to do something. And also, urgency among Americans of any number of races confronting the fact that there is a legacy of slavery here in reference to policing and that this is something we should address.
For me personally, it changed a lot of material things for me. I have a new job title, I have a bigger platform. I took on a year-long project specifically looking at race in policing rather than being on the Hill covering Congress as I was before.
EBONY: What do you say to those who suggest that you decided this was a career making moment for you and approached it as such?
WL: I don’t do my work to please other journalists and I don’t do my work to please political pundits. What matters is if I’m pursuing truth, honesty and integrity in my writing. I’m going to let history and God be the judge of the rest of that stuff.
EBONY: When you show up in a situation like this, you do show up as a Black man. There’s something different here for you than there is for, say, Ryan, or the many other White reporters who took this on.
WL: I think that one of the things that empowered me in Ferguson was that it wasn’t even just that I was a man of color coming to the story, it was that I was literally a man of color who grew up in a Midwestern suburb not unlike Ferguson. That when these people who became the leaders of what eventually a protest movement or what we know now to be #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter, I could relate to them on a peer-to-peer basis…We had share similar experiences, which empowered me to tell their story in a way that many of them didn’t trust the media to be able to tell their story. I’ve been talking to 23-year-old Midwestern suburb Black kids for my entire life, so I knew how to have conversations with them and their families.
EBONY: As someone who isn’t so different from the youth in Ferguson, there’s a sense of mourning you have to be grappling with when covering the violent death of a teenager. What do you do with the pain?
WL: The community went through a trauma far different than mine. I’m someone who isn’t particularly thick-skinned. Covering death is inherently painful, no matter who the dead person is. The pain is not necessarily for me about the coverage or personal attacks or what became Ferguson, it’s about the mourning of the family. The difficulty in writing about these things is that you’re constantly writing about other people’s pain, and you’re constantly trying to grapple and wrestle with how you hear their stories from them and retell their stories that is not only respectful of the dead and respectful of those who are living and doing that while understanding the moment we’re in. And, understanding that Michael Brown’s death is not only a historic, cultural moment in the history of this country but it is also the biggest personal tragedy that a family will ever deal with. I think that’s one of the reasons the reporters who covered this story are relatively close with one another. Because it was a specific shared experience. We’re all grappling with how to best share someone else’s pain.
EBONY: Where do you see this conversation around police violence going?
WL: I think that one of the things that’s hopefully going to happen a year or 5 years from now is that we’re going to have better information. The first year of this was about protest, about organizers, physically having a presence in the street and convincing the media that these were all things that need to be covered. I think, for the most part, we’ve moved beyond having to prove that this is important. What comes now? Obtaining of context, facts and information… we’re going to keep collecting data and I think we’re going to have a more meaningful conversation about the value of lives and accountability.