Let’s put it this way: the prominent local headlines in Chicago’s daily newspapers note that nearly a thousand Chicago Public School employees have been laid off, including 365 educators. A subsequent headline reminds readers that the Chicago Police Department has bolstered its ranks by a hundred. This ought to be cause for concern as it demonstrates the continued allegiance our city’s officials have for policing its citizens over educating them. Moreover, it coincides with a fundamentally illogical pattern of tracking deviance, where the source of a problem is frequently disregarded in favor of reacting to its consequences. As it was in Detroit and Ferguson, so it will be in Chicago.
Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ Whose Streets? opens with two men driving through Ferguson, Missouri’s most destitute neighborhoods. They roam an enclave of the most disenfranchised, where a generation of children cannot read in part because the preceding one doesn’t know how to either. What Whose Streets? posits in a series of textured, unflinching, and captivating episodes is how a deprived community misrepresented by its servants and stripped of its agency attempted to take back their home on August, 9, 2013. What comes of this, regardless of the simplistic polemic of White v. Black, Have v. Have Nots, and Good v. Evil presented by various mainstream media outlets of the time, is a complicated look into what converted a small city in Missouri’s St. Louis District into a warzone.
The propulsive event that would spur the quote unquote Ferguson unrest was the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year old black man shot by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson cop. But there’s an almost cosmic origin to how these two individuals came to orbit and engaged with one another. That history – involving the Great Migration of African-Americans following the Civil War and the subsequent second migration of a white populous to suburban communities – was articulated with speedy resolve in Kathryn Bigelow’s recent Detroit. Which, given that Detroit details the race riots of 1967, more or less confirms the tired axiom of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Rather than expressing the same point, Folayan and Davis cast a wide net in their analysis of the Ferguson events, exposing the militaristic tactics embraced by Ferguson police and the National Guard in response to the riots, along with the jejune media portrayal of activists that came from national press coverage.
The militarized approach by Ferguson authorities and the simplistic press coverage of the riots itself surprisingly served to inform one another. This would be realized in how Ferguson police officers and National Guard would cast out press from recording certain events of the riots, instead preparing a scene designed to establish a narrative that cast Ferguson residents as violent rioters in contrast to the valiant police efforts of stabilizing the city. This narrow worldview would inform the national response to the Ferguson riots, though it’s to Folayan and Davis’ credit that they include a wide swath of perspective in their film, in what becomes a collage of citizen journalism not dissimilar to the RBSS (Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently). The sentiment isn’t entirely misplaced. Folayan and Davis’ brand of activism aims at disputing the suggestion that Ferguson citizens resorted to violence, when it was in fact a countermeasure meant to highlight the civil right abuses of Ferguson police. The footage on display in Whose Streets?, culled from 400 hours of sources, persuasively articulates how Ferguson’s militarized police systemically designed a narrative intended to persuade a general public to side with authorities over protestors.
Structuring the picture as a series of chapters as Folayan and Davis engage with various members of the Ferguson community, Whose Streets? develops a rhythmic quality that convinces even the most skeptical of viewer to its call for action. Not unlike the final sequence of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, Folayan and Davis’ efforts bare no subtle gestures or hidden discourse – their intentions are frank, salient, and to the point. Prefacing every chapter with quotes from prominent African-Americans like Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, one may suspect that the film’s passionate rhetoric would get lost amid the adages of these totem figures. But as the film takes shape, it’s this collective activism that suggests a new methodology intended to convey the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. Few films so concisely and vigorously convey the bottomless passion of a people whose singular want is a measure of humanity; how’s someone supposed to achieve that measure of humanity when their streets are policed by tourists? How’s someone supposed to achieve a measure of humanity when resources are intended to keep its citizens in jail rather than in schools? How’s that living?