I saw the documentary “Whose Streets?” last night. It’s about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, in the weeks and months after Michael Brown, an unarmed college-bound teenager who was black, was shot by a police officer, Darren Wilson, who was white, in August 2014.
I think every American should see this movie, particularly every white person. We should see it to remind ourselves of, and to understand, the undercurrent of anger and frustration that runs through a large segment of our fellow citizens — Americans who happen to be black.
If you don’t understand the Black Lives Matter movement and the focus on white-on-black police shootings since Ferguson, or you are fearful of this movement, this film will help you “get it.” And we white Americans need to get it or we will never fulfill the promise of this country, we will never close the gap between the high ideals of our founding fathers and the everyday practices of racism, conscious and unconscious, rooted in American culture, society, and in the criminal justice system.
After you see the film, go read the Justice Department’s report on the systematic racism embedded in the Ferguson Police Department in the years before Michael Brown’s death. Here’s the link.
If you’re not appalled at just a scan of the executive summary of the report, much less the disturbing details, then you’re missing the point of the vision of the founding fathers of a just and equitable society in which people can protest and bring grievances to the attention of their government, without a violent reaction.
Additionally, and this is for us in the media. Or, rather, for some of us in the media, mainly cable television news. They need to examine why the footage of burning buildings, although a very small part of what happened in Ferguson, becomes the dominant narrative. Rioters out of control! Be Afraid! Arm yourself! Blacks are out to get white people! We’ve got video!
In fact, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out in a tally of the Ferguson protests from August 10, the first night of protests after Michael Brown’s death, through November 22, the night before the grand jury reported and did not charge or indict Officer Darren Wilson, no one was killed, no police officer was seriously injured, only one building was burned – on that first night.
“Whose Streets?” is not a news-style inquiry into what happened in the slaying of Michael Brown. The film ignores the conflicting accounts of the confrontation between Officer Darren Wilson and Brown.
It uses Brown’s death, and the outrage that his body was left lying on the street for four hours afterwards, as a starting point. The film is a straight ahead portrayal of the Ferguson residents who haphazardly at first, and later with more fervor and organization, protested in the days, nights and weeks after Brown’s death. They protested not only what they felt was the injustice done to Brown, but the larger pattern of injustices from a police and justice system in Ferguson that the U.S. Justice Department report from March 2015 so clearly showed was skewed against African Americans.
The Justice Department report demonstrates that the Ferguson Police Department and municipal court, pushed by city officials to be a growing source of revenue, viewed the African American community as a cash cow for city coffers. Police continually over many years arrested and heavily fined African Americans disproportionately for traffic violations and other minor crimes in practices that the Justice Department says violated their constitutional rights. Here’s an excerpt from the report:
“This culture within FPD influences officer activities in all areas of policing, beyond just ticketing. Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. Police supervisors and leadership do too little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct. The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion, and arrests without probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
That pattern of conduct was what made Ferguson’s African Americans so angry in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. His death was a last-straw moment for them.
In watching the film I was struck by several things. In the spontaneity of the protests, in its use of social media, and in the emergence of activist leaders from ordinary people who had never protested before in their lives, I was reminded of the Green Movement in Iran in 2009, when protests erupted nationwide in that country over what was most likely a rigged election. Twitter played a big role in organizing that uprising, as did the galvanizing effect of the shooting death of a young female protester by heavy-handed police authorities, her last moments of life captured on a cell phone video.
But that was Iran, a brutal theocracy that allows limited freedoms to its citizens. Ferguson, in contrast, was us. It was America, the Midwest, Missouri, in 2014, under a black president.
As a reporter who has covered and witnessed protests small and large across this country, and abroad, I appreciated how “Whose Streets?” captured well how protesters get frustrated and angry over the routine police practice of steadily raising the show of force in the face of continued peaceful protests.
Now, getting police presence right in the face of demonstrations is hard – police never really know how many people will show up or how angry or peaceful they may be. Witness Charlottesville, Va., this past weekend.
Few police departments do crowd-control well, but those who do, and the D.C. Metropolitan Police do it extremely well, know that it is both a science and an art and that it requires a lot of outreach and communication with protest organizers.
But if you read after-action reports of so many American riots, from Watts 1965 to Detroit 1967, to the riots in Los Angeles after police were found innocent in the beating of Rodney King in 1992, it is usually that too forceful a police presence, and too much force used too early almost always backfires and leads to more anger and frustration by protesters. They come to feel that their First Amendment rights are being denigrated, denied, and that no one is listening to them. When protesters are confronted by faceless police in full riot gear, nervous police dogs, barricades and armored vehicles, and tear gas, they feel like their grievances are being curbed, not heard.
This is what happened in Ferguson.
“Whose Streets?” shows this in several scenes as the overwhelmingly peaceful protests unfolded from August through November.
First it’s local police in full riot gear and police dogs confronting nonviolent protesters. Then it is hundreds of police cars and hundreds of officers from surrounding jurisdictions putting up blockades, trying to stop protesters from marching, and limiting where they can go. Then it is police armored vehicles and use of tear gas. Then it leads to State Police, and the National Guard fully armed and in real military vehicles.
One protester in Ferguson looking at all that force says at one point to the riot-masked police, that Ferguson looks more like Iraq in 2003 than America in 2014. He tells the cop face to face that he’s there, unarmed, and marching as is his First Amendment right, and the police don’t even talk to him, acknowledge him as human and instead just treat him like a criminal to be tamed with riot shields, anonymous masks and barely restrained police dogs. It doesn’t seem like America, the protester says. And in truth, he is right.
The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch on November 22 put together a tally of all the damage and injuries in the three months of almost daily protests from august 10 through November 22 in Ferguson:
- Zero deaths during the protests.
- Zero policemen seriously injured
- 37 police officers with minor injuries, none required hospitalization
- 28 buildings were burglarized, all on the first night of protests, August 10. Damage to them was light.
- Only one building was burned, the QuikTrip Convenience Store, also the night of August 10. It was hit by vandals not connected with the protesters.
On November 23, the night the grand jury decided not to indict the white police officer, a full-fledged riot did erupt in Ferguson, and it’s the television video of burning buildings and looters from that night that Americans most remember about Ferguson, instead of the weeks of peaceful protests that went before and that “Whose Streets?” documents. It is those peaceful protests that really launched the Black Lives Matter movement. But we whites, anxious about our security and property, tend to remember only the November 23 riot in Ferguson.
In the face of that dynamic, it is good to remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr. who talked about the causes of riots in his “Other America” speech at Stanford University in 1967:
“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
Go see “Whose Streets?” It is playing in too few places, but the filmmakers will help you arrange screenings whether it is in your church basement or community room. Go to www.whosestreets.com. This film needs to be more widely viewed if we are to understand the anger and frustrations of our fellow Americans who are black, and for the rest of us to engage in the hard work of achieving genuine social justice.