Life and Death, By the Numbers

Photo by Brandon Parigo, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

Journalist Wesley Lowery presents 2017 Social Justice Lecture

In a country that counts just about everything, Wesley Lowery was seeking a statistic that simply didn’t exist. He couldn’t accept that. After all, it was a matter of life and death.

So he developed a plan to determine the count he was seeking. The result: a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, an acclaimed best-selling book, and most importantly, a factual foundation for a vital conversation that today dominates much of American life, touching on racism, crime, guns, police procedures and justice.

Lowery led a Washington Post team that won the Pulitzer for a 2016 report that, for the first time, presented an evidence-based count of the number of people killed by police officers in the line of duty in a single year: 991 during 2015, more than double the highest-ever U.S. Justice Dept. estimate for any single year. The report also had telling racial connotations. African Americans make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 24 percent of police-shooting fatalities, and 40 percent of unarmed people shot to death by police officers.

Lowery followed that up by writing “They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement,” a book that delved deeply into the police shootings of three young African American men: Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.

The book, and Lowery, were the focus of the 2017 Social Justice Book and Lecture Series sponsored by the Division of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Lowery spoke to a packed house in UMKC’s Pierson Auditorium Thursday evening.

It was the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that brought Lowery to the story. He had been covering Congress for the Post, and was covering a congressional primary race in Michigan when the shooting occurred. A journalist friend working for a St. Louis television station was posting accounts from the scene on her social media accounts. An angry crowd was gathering and growing as Brown’s lifeless body lay in the street for hours.

“She encountered the early moments of what would become a months-long and even years-long story,” Lowery said.

Social media would continue to play a powerful role in the aftermath of the shooting, he said, spreading first-hand visual and audio evidence of events and providing citizens with an instant ability to critique both official actions and media accounts of the controversy. Lowery spoke as much about how technology has changed the power dynamic among government, media and the public as he did about race and justice. It was social media, he said, that made Ferguson a national story instead of a local one.

Within days of the shooting, Lowery was quickly dispatched by Post editors to Ferguson, where violent protests were riveting the nation’s attention. His first stop was an NAACP community meeting at a local church. The pews were packed, and more than 100 people were standing outside, in an asphalt parking lot in the hot sun, just waiting for the meeting to end so they could get first-hand reports from those who got inside.

“It spoke to how deeply the community had responded to what they perceived as an injustice,” Lowery said. A nerve had been touched, deep feelings tapped. As the days stretched on, he listened as person after person related stories of abuse and injustice that stretched back decades.

“As the story developed, we kept hearing the same thing – that unarmed black men are getting gunned down in the street every day,” Lowery said. At the same time, police and public officials were adamant that these events simply were not happening. He and some Post colleagues decided they had to get to the truth of the matter.

They asked governments at every level for statistics on fatal police-involved shootings. Nobody had any. The Department of Justice in Washington had an estimate, but it was based on voluntary self-reporting by local and state police departments – and only about one-third of those departments even responded to the DOJ’s survey.

So Lowery and his team devoted 2015 to making their own count, by doing daily Google News searches of police shooting reports in the media and plotting them on a spreadsheet. That’s how they calculated their total of 991 for the year.

The overall lesson, he said, is for both public officials, and the media, to listen to aggrieved people in marginalized communities.

“People in these communities had been saying this for years. No one believed them.”

The Division of Diversity and Inclusion’s Social Justice Book and Lecture Series brings to campus thought leaders from across the country and various fields to explore issues of social justice with our students, faculty and staff. The objectives of the series are to:

  • Foster a sense of community on our campus through shared literature and relevant dialogue.
  • Prompt participants to think critically about the historical context of social justice issues while focusing on current social justice challenges and the interdisciplinary thought and leadership skills necessary for solving such challenges.
  • Provide a platform for further reflection, dialogue and action within our campus and greater communities through related coursework, gatherings, and exposure to local, regional and national social justice projects and initiatives.

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