In Whose Streets?, filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis offer a definitive timeline of Ferguson and the movement it birthed. Eschewing narration or commentary, the documentary relies on the perspectives of the young black men and women drawn to revolt on West Florissant Avenue. We watch in real time as a community subjected to years of civil-rights abuses rises up. We watch store clerks, factory workers, and unemployed Saint Louisans become activists. It's an important film that chronicles the birth of the modern police-accountability movement, giving voice and credit to local Saint Louis activists who played big roles but don't have the name recognition of, say, DeRay McKesson.
Whose Streets? also hits theaters as we recoil from the white-supremacist violence that struck Charlottesville. The timing, of course, is coincidental. But reliving the summer of Ferguson after the terror of Charlottesville, I could not help but to make connections.
The day after Brown's death, a QuikTrip went ablaze. Whose Streets? shows us nightly new programs glued to the flames. Reporters wonder just when will violence the violence end? Cut to activists asking why burning property triggers more outrage than the death of an unarmed black man. "A building is a building," a protester named Kayla tells us. Given the circumstances, setting one on fire is "a revolutionary act." How ironic that rage-ignited fire also appeared in Charlottesville, burning from the tiki torches of white men yelling Nazi incantations? But the flames in Charlottesville could not be confused for symbols of rebellion under oppression. They served as instruments of terrorism.
Around the one-year anniversary of Brown's death, we see protesters climb a grassy hill onto the interstate highway. They link arms before a line of vehicles. One motorist loses her patience and slowly rolls her SUV through the human barrier, forcing protesters to unclasp their hands before she speeds off. No one gets hurt in the confrontation, but it's not a stretch to imagine the episode ending in tragedy. Just a little more pressure on the gas pedal, and Saint Louis could have seen carnage similar to the scene after James Alex Fields Jr. rammed his car through a throng of counterprotesters in Charlottesville. Unlike the suspect Fields, who proudly expressed white-nationalist views on social media, we don't know what motivated this motorist to endanger lives.
Also unlike Ferguson, state agents did not inflict the deadly violence in Charlottesville. Still, our president effectively condoned the furious displays of white supremacy that led to the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal. When Trump stood before the press in his Manhattan skyscraper and described the neo-Nazis who gathered in Charlottesville as "fine people," he explicitly took a side in direct opposition to the calls for racial justice that grew from Ferguson. When he derisively referred to counterprotesters as the "alt-left," he went one step further, villainizing citizens taking a stand against racism and hate.
Whose Streets? brings us intimate portrayals of activists who Trump might call "alt-left." Tory Russell, sitting in his living room, shows us his fingertip, still singed from a tear-gas canister. David Whitt, a Ferguson father and Copwatch recruiter, joins neighbors to release a flight of red balloons from the spot where Brown died. Brittany Ferrell and Alexis Templeton, who organized the highway action, get engaged at Saint Louis City Hall, their love born during the pursuit of justice.