Here’s what you didn’t see if you aren’t from there. Here are the voices you didn’t hear if you didn’t go there. Here’s the pain you can’t fully comprehend if you’re white, as I am, if you’re just watching on TV, if life has taught you that just saying sir and following directions when the police roll means your ass will be fine. Here’s what you didn’t know, or willfully ignored, if you sputtered a “but” or two the first time you heard “Black Lives Matter” and then insisted on expanding the statement, making it about all lives or blue lives or your life. Here at last, onscreen, is the pain and fury and resolute courage of the African-Americans of Ferguson, Missouri, presented without the tsk-tsk-ing mediation of news anchors, without the let’s-hear-both-sides water-muddying that the powers worth fighting count on to obscure hard truths.
In stirring interviews and horrific footage of police gassing protesters, the clear-eyed but heart-rending new Ferguson doc Whose Streets? booms out the hardest of those truths, a truth everyone actually knows already, even the grand jury that failed to find cause to indict officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Ferguson teen Michael Brown in 2014. It’s this: Black people die because white cops fear them. That truth is behind every killing and every acquittal, behind every jury’s decision that a killer cop had reason to believe that he — always he — was acting in self defense. Fear of blackness gives the killers both motive and exculpation. Whose Streets? demands that viewers face this truth, stop denying it, admit that that fear — that conception of Black America as a thugscape to be culled — has tainted routine police work, from stop-and-frisk to traffic stops to the handling of protesters. Brittany Ferrell, a Ferguson activist of peerless mettle, reads aloud in Whose Streets? from her arresting officer’s report of her behavior in a protest action: “The female was screaming, but it seemed more like tribal chanting than words.”
Tribal chanting — like that’s a bad thing. Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, making their feature debut, have cut together a community portrait of the protests and police crackdown that followed Brown’s death, much of it sourced from cellphones and consumer-grade video cameras. There is much chanting, of course, echoing the griot and the radio and the long history of marches against injustice. In the rousing final minutes, a year after the National Guard seized the streets of Ferguson, Ferrell and her family speak-shout words of Assata Shakur’s that have marked their movement: “We must love each other and support each other! We have nothing to lose but our chains!” A crowd joins them, faces lit with hope, and it’s easy to believe that such footage might change hearts, that this love and support might persuade white Americans not to be so scared.
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In interviews near the film’s end, Ferguson residents speak in generational terms, how the kids being raised chanting those words might one day inhabit a city where everyone they know doesn’t have stories about being hassled, harassed or straight-up beat down by law enforcement. Many of the men interviewed here describe having been assaulted by cops. Some critics have argued that, in the interest of fairness, the filmmakers should have interviewed some officers, which would make this a different movie altogether. Would Agnes Varda’s 1968 film Black Panthers benefit from some white demurrals and denials?
Whose Streets? makes clear what cable news wouldn’t: That protesters are not necessarily rioters, that the looting of a QuikTrip is not a tragedy on the order of the loss of a child’s life, that some property damage does not invalidate the righteousness of the people in the streets. Folayan and Davis don’t recapitulate all the facts of the shooting, and they only briefly entertain the Ferguson Police Department’s release of a security video allegedly showing Brown robbing cigarillos from a convenience store not long before the shooting. In this film, about a community that has heard decades of such petty justifications for brutality, this is no omission. What matters is that the film’s subjects understand the truth: Cigarillos are no reason to kill. Fear is — hence Wilson’s assertion, seen here in an excerpt from an ABC news interview, that Brown appeared to him demonic.
Much of Folayan and Davis’ footage sickens. We see protesters, in the summer and fall of 2014, taking to the streets, peacefully, only to be confronted with military force, with riot gear and rubber bullets and a Mad Max-ready battle van. A man shouts, “This is my property!” from his own yard as police sweep through the neighborhood; they tear gas him. Another woman tells a cop trying to chase her off the streets over an hour before curfew, “This is not fucking Iraq!” We see a scrum of police officers lift a protester into the air and then slam her to the pavement. We see a street memorial to Brown, all teddy bears and flowers, torched and then later hauled away. We see the looting that TV journalists emphasized above all else, and that serves as justification for further crackdowns. It’s that double bind of white fearfulness again: The protests against police violence turn violent when the police arrive like a conquering army, encouraging the disorder they purport to be halting.
Whose Streets? summarizes, too briskly, the firings of some top brass in the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments, plus the investigation of Barack Obama and Eric Holder’s Department of Justice into the city of Ferguson’s long bilking of its black residents through tickets and court fees. The city often locked up residents who couldn’t muster up the cash for some $1,000 fine — a debtor’s prison in 2014. The filmmakers never find time to lament Donald Trump or Jeff Sessions, who have called for tougher policing and have derided the findings of Holder’s DOJ. Perhaps that’s out of an understanding that the most enduring change comes not from the top but from the will of the people, who here — finally — are invited to bear witness to truths that are no longer tenable for any American to deny.