Three years ago, Darren Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot unarmed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, whom Wilson was attempting to apprehend for stealing a box of Swisher cigars from a convenience store. Following the police’s destruction of Brown’s memorial, a series of riots ensued that would play out in months of unrest, highlighting systematic police brutality against African Americans as one of the most pressing issues facing the country.
Whose Streets?, the new documentary by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, tells the story of the Ferguson uprisings. It powerfully stages the issues roiling our historical moment: What are the limits of peaceful protest in the face of state-sponsored terror? Is the property destruction wrought by looting more important than human life? Is there any such thing as safety for racialized populations subjected to violent force by cops on a daily basis?
These questions starkly assert themselves in the documentary. At a Ferguson city council meeting, a white property owner complains that, before the uprising, he never thought he’d be scared in his own community. A local African-American woman responds, “There are many people who’ve been fearful for two months, there are other people who’ve been fearful for two decades,” referring to the systematic campaign of state violence against the city’s black community, which the killing of Brown revealed to the world.
What emerges from Folayan and Davis’s interviews is a picture of a police department and judicial system obsessed with the idea of black criminality. Several young black men speak on camera about having no criminal records until they moved to Ferguson and started being constantly stopped by cops. Another interviewee explains how being in jail even for a few days triggers a cycle of chronic debt and unemployment.
The film deftly uses found footage to show how many black Ferguson residents felt during the militarized response to the unrest: that a war was being waged against them. These scenes show streets so clogged with police cars and flashing lights that the rest of the visual field is obliterated. Tanks sit in the streets, and cops won’t let people get to their homes, or even walk around their neighborhoods. One woman, her voice rough with exhaustion and rage, yells at a group of cops, “We are not in fucking Iraq,” until her voice cracks so much she can’t yell anymore.
While Whose Streets? is excellent at re-centering the most dramatic moments of the uprising in the perspective of Ferguson residents, it falters in providing a more complex narrative than the rough outline given by the news media. The details of how Ferguson residents organized themselves into a movement and their relationship with outside activists like Black Lives Matter are left sketchy. Instead, Folayan and Davis tend to focus on the media-friendly faces of the movement, such as rapper Tef Poe and St. Louis-area nurse-activist Brittany Ferrell.
For all its identification of movement stars, the film is quite a bit fuzzier on what kind of justice these players seek. The documentary’s reluctance to address whether their aims are advocacy, reform, or out-and-out police abolition is a little too conveniently vague and feel-good, considering that police across the nation continue to kill African Americans with impunity. The film skips over some of the most potentially explosive aspects of the Ferguson unrest, like the unexplained execution-style murders of local activist Darren Seals and Wilson-Brown case witness DeAndre Joshua.
As the reigning dogma that all conflicts can be resolved through civil discourse crumbles, Whose Streets? provides a necessary glimpse into how this supposed consensus fell apart. Young people across the nation, galvanized by racist state violence and the explosive rise of white nationalism, are learning the uses of direct action and the urgency of confrontation. Though Folayan and Davis succeed in painting the history of racist policing in Ferguson, we will need many more radically democratic and capacious visions of the uprisings to understand the transformations these events spurred in American society.