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Journalist Wesley Lowery Explains How George Floyd’s Death Was The Push For Social Justice We Didn’t Know We Needed

The Pulitzer Prize winner details why he pivoted his way of storytelling for his new ‘60 In 6’ series on Quibi.

Wesley Lowery was in Ferguson, Missouri during the earliest days of the outbreak in protest in 2014 over the news that a St. Louis County grand jury declined to charge officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. The city-wide demonstration garnered protest from all around the region and became the biggest uproar of outrage over a race-related death since Trayvon Martin from two years earlier. It also set the stage for what mass police brutality protests would look like in the coming years as names like Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland, among many others became known through social media hashtags and online petitions after their untimely deaths at the hands of police.

But while in Ferguson, Lowery, who was just getting his feet wet as the national politics reporter for the Washington Post, provided detailed reporting of what was happening on the ground and unknowingly set a standard of what journalism involving police violence would look like moving forward.

Two years later, Lowery won a Pulitzer Prize for leading the Post’s “Fatal Force” project, a database that tracked 990 police shootings in 2015. It would become the first ever large-scale collection of law enforcement violence data ever recorded focused on race. It was revealed at that time that the federal government had not considered collecting comprehensive data on police killings. This project was the catalyst that prompted the Justice Department to announce a pilot program in 2017 to begin collecting use-of-force statistics for this purpose.

In 2020, and in the midst of national protest over the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, Lowery is expanding his focus into the broadcast realm as a correspondent of Quibi’s new series 60 in 6. His segments on the program are centered around police misconduct and violence and the movement to reform it. He uses just six to 10 minutes in each of the first few episodes to take viewers on a journey to hear first-hand stories from the people who have been directly impacted by police violence and discuss the possible solutions that could result in real change.

BET.com spoke with Lowery about his latest endeavor in this fascinating new medium, forging relationships with the family members of these victims and what he’s learned from the process. 

 

BET.com: Why do you think George Floyd’s death became the ignition for all of these protests and a resurgence of this movement?  

Wesley Lowery: As a broad truth, it’s always death by a thousand cuts. You can’t wrap it all up into one. And that’s true on a micro level and a macro level. So first of all, on the micro level, George Floyd doesn’t happen in a vacuum. George Floyd happens after Ahmaud Arbery, where a lot of people, including white people, watch this and go, ‘That’s kind of wild.’ It happens after Breonna Taylor, and it happens after seeing the Central Park lady. All of those cases are not necessarily slam dunk cases where every single person agrees that it was wrong, but all of those were where more people than not agreed that it was wrong. These were not gray area cases. None of them.

  • And then you have George Floyd. And the thing about the George Floyd video is it’s not even about the arrest or the infraction or the crime he commits, but you’re watching a police officer kneel on someone’s neck as they die for minutes. It doesn’t matter what happens before the video starts. At this point this person is clearly not a threat. I think that was very mobilizing [image] for a lot of people, and again, they were already primed for it because they had had all of these other things [happen] right before.

    BET.com: In your first episode of 60 in 6, you focused heavily on Minneapolis because of George Floyd but toward the end of the segment you broaden the topic to what defunding police forces might actually look like. What are people on the ground saying about the issue?

    Wesley Lowery: It’s definitely moving quickly. It’s fascinating. A lot of what I’m hearing from demonstrators and protesters and activists is that many of them are encouraged by where things are in terms of the public conversations we’re having about things that were unthinkable just a few years ago. Conversations about defunding the police or local abolition – none of that stuff was talked about in ‘14 or ‘15. It’s very different now. It doesn’t mean they won or got the things they’ve wanted. It doesn’t mean they figured out all the answers to all the questions. There are still some very fascinating questions about, ‘Ok, what might it look like?’ or ‘How do you actually apply some of these frameworks to real life?’

    Two things are true: Black people are really tired, and the people who have been in the activism space are seeing conversations in public that haven’t happened in public before and for a lot of people, that’s very encouraging.

    BET.com: In the second episode, you spoke with leaders who have become central to this issue like Ben Crump and Al Sharpton. What have you learned from your conversations with them?

    Wesley Lowery: I’ve known the folks in this space for a very long time, partially, because once or twice a year we’ve got to be in the same place out on one of these cases. The last time I spent time with Rev. Sharpton was at the trial for the officers over Eric Gardner. And so they’re the same cast of characters only in a separate set of cities. It’s not just the same press corps but the same people. We all have Ben Crump’s number, we talk all of the time. It’s sad and depressing in a lot of ways, right? At the end of the day it’s stories about people being killed. None of us want to be telling these stories. We wish they didn’t happen. It is tough, it is exhausting. But what’s also true is you see over time the maturation of folks. 

    I didn’t know anything when I started to write about these issues, and frankly I think people like Crump, Sharpton, or Lee Merritt, or any of the activists in this space, would say that they learned a ton over the course of these years. The difference between now and 2014 is night and day. This is a story that plays out over time and has been developing and shifting.

  • BET.com: You’ve been covering police violence for a while and have published extensive reports and statistics about the rate that people of color are being killed by police. Now you’ve moved to Quibi telling these stories through video. What has that transition been like for you?

    Wesley Lowery: For sure, and it’s a few things: I’ve really grown up on this beat and grown up in this space. When I went to Ferguson I was 24 years old. I was a new national politics reporter, new at the Washington Post and just happened to be the guy with his bag packed. I kind of inserted myself into this a little bit because I wanted to be on this story – it was important. There wasn’t a lot of rhyme or reason on how I ended up on that assignment. I was really winging it and learning a lot in real time. It was the first time I covered a lot of these things, and over the course of several years, I began developing expertise in sourcing and perspective.

    The thing about it, as we all know, is different journalistic style forms can be used in different ways. I reached the end of what I thought I could do in newspaper journalism as it related to these stories and so, it makes sense to move on to a different platform and a different type of storytelling. 

    I’m currently working on Quibi, which is through 60 Minutes, the best kind of news documentary, magazine, program ever in the country. This idea that I could bring those stories with a group of very talented producers...I couldn’t imagine something that could be more appealing than that.

    BET.com: 60 Minutes is such an iconic program and considered by many to be the gold standard in news storytelling. What has being a part of this team meant to you?

    Wesley Lowery: They’re all professionals and all amazing humans who are really good at what they do. And there’s a few things that come with working at a job like that. First, I’m learning from every person who’s there because they all know so much and are very talented at their jobs. 

    I also want to make sure I do work that matches up to the brand and the legacy that is 60 Minutes. Third, is that I want to continue being myself and bring some of myself into 60 Minutes. 60 Minutes is a correspondent-driven show, and so in a lot of ways the individuality of the correspondents do shape what kind of stories they go after, how they tell those stories, the voice that they use. And I’m a little different than some of the folks who have been 60 Minutes correspondents – and I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. And so a lot of it’s how do you manage a sweet spot where all of those things meld together.

  • BET.com: You’ve talked to many of the families of the Black men and women who have been victims of police violence. How do you manage to sit across from someone who understandably is still reeling over that kind of loss?

    Wesley Lowery: It’s always difficult. One thing I think about a lot is journalists encounter people on the best days of their lives and the worst days of their lives. We interview you after you win a Grammy or after your kid dies. We interview you after you’ve been elected mayor or after you’re indicted for fraud. I’ve had families curse me out. I’ve had families invite me in for dinner and then curse me out. I’ve had families who never return a call and then get mad that I haven’t called them. 

    I say all that to exemplify the ways in which this is hard and complicated. They are first and foremost the victims of these stories. And because of that, they’re responses, much less how they interact with the media, it’s not always going to seem to make logical sense to us. And it doesn’t need to. I think sometimes we get into this power game of like, ‘Well why aren’t we doing it this way?’ or ‘What about this?’ or ‘Why’d they say that?’ Their son just died and I think sometimes we need to have a sympathy that’s a little different or a little more complex than that.

  • BET.com: Do you ever get the sense that these parents, wives, children or siblings are ever conflicted between wanting to be left alone during a time of tragedy versus feeling the need to raise awareness in the name of justice for their loved one?

    Wesley Lowery: One example I think about all the time was when I was in Boston reporting on the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Marathon bomber, and the funeral director decided to take the body in to get it buried, and people started picketing. ‘Why would you help bury a terrorist, what’s wrong with you, you hate America?’ And so I weeded my way into the funeral home and I was getting acquainted with [the funeral director] while he was trying to decide where to bury the terrorist. 

    I was watching him, and it was one of those weird moments where at any given moment there’s one normal person who’s the most sought after interview in the country, and then by tomorrow it’s a different normal person. It was something very wild and enlightening about being there and watching someone go through that where his phone never stops ringing, people showing up at the door. All types of crazy stuff happening and I remember at one point this man looked at me and he was like, ‘I don’t get it. Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer called me. How many CNN people do I need to talk to?’ He genuinely couldn’t comprehend how multiple people from the same outlet would call him. And it’s something I really still think about. For the average human, when they’re thrust into something like this, it can be just brutal.

    BET.com: What stories can we look forward to seeing from you next on Quibi?

    Wesley Lowery: Our latest segment is from Baltimore that’s about a case that’s eerily similar to the Central Park Five. It’s about three young, Black kids who get railroaded on a murder that they didn’t commit. They spent 36 years in prison and they just got released last year and so it’s their first long sit down interview. We call it “After Innocence.”  

    I’m also working on a story from Albany, Georgia about how Black communities got hit by [COVID-19]. One of the things I love about Quibi is that the entire world is part of our beat. We can go anywhere and tell any story, but for me, it’s about telling the stories of Black people, which might not have been told otherwise and putting people on camera who would’ve never been asked to be put on camera. It’s going to be dope. 

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