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What Ferguson Means Now

A new documentary, "Whose Streets?," shows how protest centered the movement against police brutality.

Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

After Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown six times, Ferguson, Missouri, became the center of a national conversation about race and police brutality. It also launched a movement for black lives. What did this city—suddenly rocked by violence, sadness, and 24 hour news coverage—mean to America? The question dominated the summer, hanging in the air like a fetid stench. In the fall, after St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced that Darren Wilson would not be indicted, it began to haunt the country.

Out of Ferguson came a compendium of narratives. In the years immediately following Barack Obama’s election, major media outlets from CNN to The New York Times wrote stories celebrating the United States’s new “post-racial” narrative and glossing over its violently racist past. But the shooting of Michael Brown and the protests that followed rattled all these polite delusions of racial harmony. From old guard civil rights activists and storied news organizations to politicians and younger organizers, Ferguson became a part of everyone’s reality. It centered a national movement against police brutality, and created a weary cry for black lives to, finally, matter. But often absent from the reports that emerged from Ferguson were voices from the city itself.

Whose Streets?, a new documentary by directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, fills this narrative gap by considering the voices of those who, as one resident says in the film, “have to fucking live here when they leave.” “They” are the viewers and the world at large, all those temporary transplants who descended upon the city in the months when Ferguson became as much a symbol or an idea as a real place. Told from the perspective of activists, artists, and residents, Whose Streets? is a commemoration of and tribute to the humans of Ferguson. It’s the story of a community—simply remembered as the beginning of a revolution—whose frustrations began long before August 9th.

Whose Streets? is first and foremost a character study. The film centers on a crew of residents—Brittany Ferrell, her daughter Kenna, and her partner Alexis Templeton; David Whitt; artist Tef Poe; Kayla Reed; and Tori Russell—whose lives are upended by the death of Michael Brown. Ferrell is a 25-year-old nursing student and mother of Kenna, a precocious child whose participation in protests creates some tear-jerker moments and points to the future of the movement. Ferrell’s partner, Templeton, is the cofounder of Millennial Activists United, a grassroots organization that focuses on education and community empowerment. Together they organize and stage increasingly dangerous direct actions—from protests to highway blockades—in Ferguson. They join forces with the others: David Whitt is a father of four and a member of a local chapter of Copwatch, and Tef Poe is an artist and activist who emerges as a natural spokesperson; he coins the phrase: “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.” Kayla Reed, determined and witty, heads a civil rights organization in St. Louis and leads a protest to the steps of city hall. Tory Russell, a father and a teacher, leads marches to the Ferguson police department demanding answers, only to be repeatedly ignored by the local government.

It would be easy to leave viewers with flat narratives of these characters, to paint a heroic portrait of those fighting the good fight. But Folayan and Davis actively reject one-dimensionality: They tell a story of what happens when you push humans to the edge. Whose Streets? does away with tired narratives that portray black people as either examples of extreme benevolence in the face of systemic oppression or crooks and criminals, preternaturally prone to violence. Instead, the film proceeds from the somehow still radical notion that black people are people. It does not not shy away from the complex emotions involved in organizing, or the effects of routine surveillance and skewed narratives. We watch characters constantly consider the costs and benefits of their work and the effects it has on their personal lives and mental states. Ferrell and Templeton’s love story, which plays a significant role in the film, forces both women to negotiate their role as black queer women activists. Details of this tension are left largely unexplored; it is difficult to not think an opportunity for greater depth has been missed. But at other times, the gravity of the stakes is made forcefully clear. There is a scene early in the film when Whitt half-jokingly proclaims that his son is going to be a fighter. He asks his son to hit him, and the boy, probably no older than five, hugs his father instead. It’s a touching moment that recognizes that the survival of black bodies in America depends on wearing armor not known at birth. Whitt knows that to survive, his son will have to develop traits beyond tenderness.

These stories are supported by the directors’ technical decisions. The film conjures the same intimate mood as documentaries like The Square (which served as one of Folayan’s inspirations), while also firmly rooting itself in the contemporary. There are tweets from various organizers and residents interspersed throughout the film, with news ranging from Michael Brown’s death to tips on how to neutralize tear gas. Folayan and Davis imagine what it means to tell the story of a movement tied intrinsically to social media. Meanwhile, they juxtapose TV footage from the likes of CNN and Fox News with citizen footage that tells a very different story —underscoring how the media failed Ferguson at its most vulnerable time. Harrowing scenes of police officers and the national guard instigating fights with demonstrators play alongside audio of Barack Obama calling for peace and civility. By the end of the film, it is obvious that the TV cameras began rolling only when protesters could be painted as the sole aggressors.  

In July 1960, James Baldwin wrote an essay for Esquire titled: “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.” It is a meditation on how his neighborhood, in a Northern city, felt no different from the South.  In it, he describes a white police officer in Harlem. “The white policeman, standing on a Harlem street corner, finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring the world,” he wrote:

He can retreat from his uneasiness in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.

“What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.” It’s a devastating sentence that echoes the cries of twenty-first century movements. It reframes the conversation around the faces of and lives affected by police violence and racist infrastructure. Whose Streets? adds a visual component to Baldwin’s essay. It meditates on the story of Ferguson, not just as a symbol but as a home to those involved, and shows us what happens when black Americans demand to be treated like people.