With the belief that it’s our right to protest against injustice, the documentary Whose Streets? details the 2014 Ferguson demonstrations that came in the wake of the Michael Brown killing.
Petra Schlømer
Writer and Editor, freelance
Email: petra.schlomer@gmail.com
Published date: September 17, 2017

The right to own and carry weapons has always been deeply rooted in traditional American culture. It’s also one of the reasons why American police, unlike their counterparts in Western Europe, are armed at all times. This has resulted in several hundred civilians being killed annually by US police; on average there are three dead civilians every day. Several surveys claim that unarmed African-Americans are more than twice as often subject to such police killings as whites.

The killing of Michael Brown. The documentary Whose Streets? details the rioting and demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri that came in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown. The eighteen-year-old Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9th, 2014. Wilson claimed he acted in self-defence after Brown had attempted to grab his weapon. However, a witness claimed that Brown had raised his hands in surrender but was shot anyway. The circumstances were unclear, but the citizens of Ferguson had enough: the shooting of Brown was not a unique case. All twelve shots hit Brown, the final two in his head. That the policeman immediately chose to shoot Brown instead of attempting to subdue him caused strong reactions. After the shooting, the dead boy was left on the asphalt for hours in the hot sun.

The start of a movement. This killing became the basis of several riots and demonstrations that were named the ‘Ferguson Uprising’, and it is here the documentary starts. As the demonstrations begin, the protesters use social media, enabling their struggle to develop into a national and international movement. As the activists demonstrated against repeated discrimination of black Americans by the police, they raised home-made placards and repeated slogans like “Black lives matter” and “Hands up, don’t shoot”. Black Lives Matter first appeared as a social media hash tag following the 2012 killing of an unarmed, African-American, seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. After the events in Ferguson, it grew into a national movement.

Despite all the protests, in November 2014, three months after the shooting of Brown, police officer Darren Wilson was declared innocent by a Grand Jury. This led to further protests and demonstrations. In March 2015, the Ferguson Police Department was investigated by the FBI, and it was revealed the department was guilty of repeated large constitutional offenses.

«Several hundred civilians are killed by the US police annually; on average three dead every day.»

Whose Streets? Director: Sabaah Folayan, Damon Davis.

Stereotypical images. The documentary Whose Streets? has screened in various festivals in the USA, among these the Sundance Film Festival, and was also shown at the Oslo Pix in June. It is director Sabaah Folayan’s debut, who herself, grew up in two very different environments in Los Angeles. Growing up in the predominantly black community of South Central, her single mother managed to enrol Sabaah in an elite private, all-girls school. In this way, Folayan experienced, up close, the suppressive and dual nature of American society. When she learned  about the Michael Brown murder and the ensuing demonstrations, Sabaah left her medical studies in New York to make this documentary. She says that one of the film’s intentions was to show that the Brown killing is a typical example of how the media humanise whites while creating a more stereotypical image of black people. Despite the fact that Michael Brown was soon to start college and was well liked in his community, the police immediately painted him as a bully and a criminal. Folayan directed the film alongside Damon Davis, who lives and works as an artist in St. Louis, Missouri.

The documentary alternates between handheld camera, interviews, clips filmed by the directors and various witnesses, plus news footage. Through the documentary we follow some of the Ferguson demonstrators at home and on the streets, while they take part in the police demonstrations. The events after the killing are portrayed through the demonstrators’ point of view, and we gain insight into their experiences as massive military and police forces invade the streets of Ferguson. With Whose Streets?, directors Folayan and Davis wanted to provide a different picture of the Ferguson situation than what was portrayed in the media. A lot of the media coverage focused on the looting of local shops in Ferguson, while completely ignoring the National Guard’s invasion of the streets and police suppression of the locals.

«The Michael Brown murder and Ferguson demonstrations are put into a historical context that goes back to the era of slavery.»

Sabaah Folayan

No Justice, No Peace. In the documentary, we meet Brittany, a 25-year old nurse and mother. We encounter a father-of-three David, who takes part in the police video monitoring group, Copwatch, along with the activist, Kayla. What they have in common is a dedicated  belief that in a democracy one should be able to protest against injustice. They are also concerned with raising their children as activists, so their descendants will receive a better and more just society, more just than the one they grew up with themselves. It is a prolonged battle that will carry on, long after today’s demonstrators have passed away, and one which the next generation will also experience. These people fight for what they believe in, for their children’s future. That is why completely ordinary people like Brittany and Mike stand on the front line, unarmed, hands in the air, while a red laser dot hovers over their chests from machine guns wielded by fully equipped and camouflaged forces from the National Guard.

Whose Streets? consists of five loosely connected parts, each starting off with a quote from famous African-American leaders and freedom fighters such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Frantz Fanon. This stylistic choice helps put the fight against racism and the Ferguson demonstrations into a greater historical context, a context which can be traced back to the time of slavery. The film serves as a vital reminder of the necessity to keep the solidarity and energy of Ferguson alive. The documentary also effectively points out how the Ferguson demonstrators are portrayed in the media; always based on choice angles and specific presentations – and how this is also able to contribute to the persistent suppression of African-Americans in the USA.