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“You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you.”
Go ahead: Rub your eyes and read that again. Or laugh, with the saddest cynicism possible.
Some of you might recognize this ludicrous statement as having come from poker-faced Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson during a nationally broadcast interview with George Stephanopoulos. The interview was in response to a grand jury’s failure to indict Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old African-American whose body was left visibly lying on the street for over four hours. Wilson shot Brown ten times. Did I mention he was unarmed?
Whose Streets? chronicles the subsequent protests that took place in Ferguson and across the country; these protests, initially peaceful, sometimes turned into riots, instigated by a forceful response from overwhelmingly white authorities. Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis are credited as directors, but really there are countless directors here, capturing what was often mayhem on the city’s streets with their cellphone cameras.
The ensuing footage is raw in more ways than one. You see riots and looting and Ferguson aflame. You see a cocky cop block a woman from getting to her car because of a police perimeter, telling her when she says she’s trying to move away from the violence, “Well, you shouldn’t have come down here.” You see other cops telling people who are standing in their yards—which just happen to be near the center of activity—to “go home” and get rough when they assertively claim their property.
“This. Is. Unacceptable.” A response from a less reactionary, more tolerant higher-up? Nope. These are the words of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard because “small groups took to the streets (of Ferguson) with the intent of committing crime and endangering citizens.”
Needless to say, Whose Streets? is heartbreaking, and infuriating, and even after all the murders-by-cop we’ve seen on the news since Brown, unfathomable. It’s another notch in the Black Lives Matter matter movement that began five years ago and has not had a reason to let up. When a protester’s young daughter takes over her mother’s chant and yells, “We’ve got nothing to lose but our chains!” it’s both heartening and devastating. Wasn’t this girl supposed to be birthed into a post-racial world? In an even more stirring moment, the directors zoom in on a black female cop, standing with her officers to hold protesters back. You hear someone questioning her loyalty. And just for a second or two, her face quivers with emotion.
It’s powerful stuff, and the documentary is inarguably important. Still, it lags toward the end of its 100 minutes. The protests can’t help but eventually blur; of course, that’s from the vantage point of someone who’s watching the actions taken on a screen instead of taking these actions themselves. One activist offers a key point that explains why the movement is ongoing: “If you are not questioning normal, you are not paying attention.”
Whose Streets? opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.