At the Belgium premiere of Whose Streets?, co-director Damon Davis gave permission to all racially oppressed people to leave the screening at any time, with no questions asked. Next, he informed the ‘white neo-liberals’, attending for the sole purpose of making ‘themselves feel good’, that their only task was to stay glued to their seats. The mood then switched. The film began with iPhone recordings of the protests that took place in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, complete with the sound of shrieks as militarily-armed police prepared to throw tear gas at the gathering crowd.
The Ferguson protests began the day after police officer Darren Wilson shot eighteen-year-old Michael Brown Jr. shot twelve times on 9th August 2014. It snowballed into the largest series of anti-racism protests and riots of this century. Brown was just a normal teenager about to head off to college when he was killed. His crime? He was African-American, around the same height as a potential suspect, and – according to Officer Wilson – looked like an armed robber.
Whose Streets? focuses on the protest’s key players from an insider’s point of view; both Davis and his co-director Sabaah Folayan (who was not present at the premiere) were born and raised in Missouri. It therefore provides a much-needed alternative perspective, especially since the mainstream news networks were woefully poor at portraying the protest’s reality. They obsessed with the initial arson committed by the protestors, despite how most were committed to peace, while overlooking their appalling treatment at the hands of the police. The film’s depiction of police brutality was shocking, especially to those not used seeing such events.
The film also portrayed the significant role played by social media and technology: from using Twitter to rally support, to the filming of human rights violations on mobile devices. One segment followed Copwatch recruiter David Whitt, who’s purpose was to equip protestors with the means and information to record police officers committing unlawful acts. Unsurprisingly, his arrest was a major blow for the movement.
Later in the film the documenting of Brittany Ferrell, a crucial member of the Black Lives Matter movement, highlighted the importance of the LGBTQ+ community. When asked why he chose to emphasise her story, Davis simply stated ‘because it’s true’. Elaborating further, he described how it is often people who face several types of oppression – whether that is racism, sexism or homophobia – who are the strongest fighters. Women fighting homophobia and racism in particular have had more experience in protesting.
Whose Streets? makes for uncomfortable viewing. Having never seen this side to the story is frustrating, not to mention the feeling of helplessness when this level of racism persists in our society. After watching the film, it is easy to feel defeated or angry. But Davis assured his audience that it is still important to get involved, beyond merely retweeting or double tapping a memorial photo. In the post-screening discussion, he underlined how activists must seek self-care and therapy, and look after themselves when fighting injustice. In doing so, he gave hope to the next generation of activist that they would be able to endure against these seemingly insurmountable odds.
Even if Whose Streets? makes for rather depressing viewing, it has an important message. It is our duty to educate ourselves on these difficult issues concerning race, even if to understand them completely is impossible. We must aim to remove the burden of emotional labour from the shoulders of discriminated people. Listening with an open heart is the best starting-point, because if Ferguson has one lesson for humanity, it is that division and hatred only fuels destruction.
Whose Streets? is now available on DVD