Cops sit atop an armored van, threatening young women who hold paper signs. Grown men in body armor stare down kids in shorts. There’s nothing to fear, yet the shielded officers are terrified. We’ve seen plenty of scenes like these over the last few years, and Whose Streets—a new documentary about the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson—makes it clearer than ever that the only thing scary about one side of the equation is their skin color.
Directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, it’s a personal and powerful film that gets remarkably close to the people who began protesting in the immediate wake of Brown’s death. Through footage shot in both late 2014 and present day, we are introduced to a city that is wracked with grief but also overcome with unity. Many of its residents have seen or felt prejudice like this before, and they’ve been oppressed to the point of having little to lose and a desperate desire for justice. You can see why it was ground zero for all that came after.
We follow protestors like Brittany Ferrell, who springs to life after the shooting and emerges quickly as a fully formed activist. We track her eventual wife, Alexis, and St. Louis rapper Tef Poe, and local “copwatcher” David Witt, as they find their voices in the aftermath of tragedy while striking unwarranted fear in the hearts of local police. When Folayan and Davis slip in an interview with Darren Wilson—the officer who killed Brown—and he remarks that cops in general cannot be racist, it’s almost laughable how much stark evidence has already been presented to the contrary.
But maybe it’s not until Brittany, Alexis, and their team of activists make a human chain across the highway that we realize how much of a mismatch this all really is. They’re several people, linking arms in front of cars that could crush them at any moment. They should be scared, and yet it’s those in the cars, tucked away with all the power in the world, who feel terror. The folks behind the wheel are the ones who report later that Brittany was startling them with “tribal chanting,” as if the fear of being pulled from your locked car is somehow more palpable than the fear of standing in front of an idling one.
The world of Ferguson—unknown to so many Americans, and inescapable to so many others—is a binary one. There’s white and black, good and bad, and the color of your skin dictates which side you’re on. Seeing so many struggle and rebel against this idea brings it to life in a way that is rarely perceived by those who weren’t there. Such is the power of what Folayan and Davis have made, who must’ve realized what a story this was with remarkable haste and uniquely captured what looks far too often like a literal war zone.
But despite armed officers aiming semi-automatic weapons at them, many Ferguson residents reiterate that they aren’t anti-police. They’re anti-what’s happening to their community. They’re against their brothers and sisters being gunned down for no reason. They’re opposed to the layers of dread that have been baked into generations of Americans, layers that cause people who claim tolerance to lose their minds when confronted by a person of color. The story of Mike Brown resonates with so much of Ferguson because it is the story of all of them, and they desperately want to leave behind the persistent drumbeat of fear that defines their world.
That’s another feeling Whose Streets emphasizes, that it depicts over and over. Police officers and white residents of Ferguson loudly share that they’ve been afraid since the protests began; their black neighbors remind everyone that they’ve been afraid forever. After this documentary, we can better understand why.