Whose Streets? depicts the riotous protests that followed the shooting death of Mike Brown, as well as the Black Lives Matter presence which grew out of it. Unlike many civil rights documentaries of the past, Whose Streets? places its primary focus on younger adults—twenty somethings and millennials—instead of older, distinguished career activists. Many of the subjects are in school, are working class, and previously lived day to day, unbothered and content to remain silent. That is, until their community was shattered by a military level of police backlash to their grievances.
The discussion among critics after the screening for Whose Streets? was probably one of the most interesting that I have seen, so much so that leaving for a work meeting before it was over felt like an amicable breakup. Questions were raised about the veracity of the claims made by Black Lives Matter and its members, as well as the specific experiences recounted by individuals who were present for the riots. Without taking too strong of a stance or placing judgments, I will try to recount the points that were made and the disagreements that were had.
First, some had difficulty in accepting that the complaints made by black citizens and BLM protesters were representative of black struggles in general. For one critic, the arguments seemed philosophical, a stance which was immediately countered by a person of color nearby, who said “For you, it’s philosophical. For me, it’s reality.” An older critic, who admitted to identifying with the young activists’ grievances but also lacking a youthful perspective, took issue with the hostility and lack of decorum in their demonstration. Something to the effect of, “black people got ahead by being educated and well-spoken and without shouting and saying things like ‘motherfucker’”.
Personally, I found the film to be wonderfully constructed and presented. The amount of Ferguson riot footage was staggering, and sometimes enraging in how well it depicted the actual level of antagonism by our police force. I sided with the movement and the activists almost wholeheartedly. But the counterpoints made by some of the other audience members made me realize something. Whose Streets? is a relic of the present. While racial tensions are long-lasting and rooted in history, the outcry that we are experiencing as a result of police brutality and stale societal inaction is taking on a contemporary form. First of all, the functionality of Black Lives Matter and other efforts for racial justice and healing involve a social media presence that is completely unprecedented. Twitter tags, Facebook groups, and YouTube videos are used heavily for research and examples. What the last critic griped about has some validity, and also reinforces my point. The subjects, many of whom are Ferguson residents, spoke with such clarity and passion, but not without a fair amount of f-bombs. They are young, and carry the anger of past oppression in their psyche, and this anger is compounded with the fact that their progress has created an illusion of equality. They’ve come far, but not far enough. And this time, no one will concede: not the government, not the police, not the well-meaning and the privileged, sometimes not even their own neighbors. They are often crass and blunt because that is a necessary language for those who are being ignored.
In this sense, Whose Streets? doesn’t just act as a document of current forms of social change. It acts as a comparison between social justice methods that worked in the past and the ones that work now. While I can’t speak as a black person, I can speak as a left-wing twenty-something. For a generation that is often seen as entitled, philosophically minded, all bark and no bite— it has begun to seem like blocking traffic and having a willingness to fight and shout and condemn in as impolite terms as possible will be the only way to show the world otherwise. | Nic Champion