The history connection in Whose Streets?

Joshua Leavitt, Editorial Assistant

Mon, Aug 21, 2017

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This Friday and Saturday, August 25-26, we’re proud to present Whose Streets?, a powerful documentary by first-time filmmaker Sabaah Folayan that presents a street-level view of civil uprisings in Ferguson, MO, following the 2014 death of Michael Brown at the hands of police. Below, Joshua Leavitt, a new member of the Wex editorial team, shares a fascinating perspective on the film and the social media documentation it captures, placing it in the historic timeline of self-documentation in black advocacy. Currently working on his Ph.D with a focus on American writing on civilian interactions with police, Joshua includes a wealth of relevant examples—and the beginnings of a great reading list if you’d like to learn more about the subject.

Tef Poe and other demonstrators in Whose Streets?

“This ain’t your daddy’s civil rights movement.”
—Hands Up United cofounder Tef Poe, St. Louis’s Chaifetz Arena, October 2014, as seen in the film Whose Streets?

Poe’s remark, spoken just as the Black Lives Matter movement started to gain traction, highlights that the mantle for anti-racist, pro-justice activism is passing to a new generation and that protest against police violence is evolving to meet 21st-century capabilities and challenges. But at the same time, the 2017 documentary Whose Streets? also evokes the ways Black Lives Matter embodies long-standing modes of black advocacy. While Whose Streets? prioritizes the here-and-now, there are clear through-lines in black documentary writing about interacting with police that stretch back generations before the Civil Rights Movement. There is a continuum here—noticing it could enhance your experience of this film’s powerful account of Black Lives Matter’s watershed moment.

As I took in the images of Ferguson community members’ tweets, smartphone video footage, and talking-head interviews about law enforcement in their neighborhood, my mind went to the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s. Like the activists profiled in Whose Streets?, African Americans from the late 19th century through the early 20th worked to make their dangerous encounters with police legible to each other, to public officials, and potentially to the country at large. 

As historian Kidada E. Williams discusses in They Left Great Marks on Me (2012), black Southerners filed written testimonials and delivered oral testimonies to the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Joint Select Committee, and other agencies detailing harassment and violence perpetrated against them not only by white civilians, but also police officers. In Writing with Scissors (2012), literature scholar Ellen Gruber Garvey explains that African Americans also kept scrapbooks, clipping articles on lynchings and police shootings and noting how certain periodicals represented—or, misrepresented—what happened. We see similar practices in Whose Streets? as Ferguson protestors’ videos of police presence are juxtaposed with corporate media’s characterizations of Mike Brown and the riots that eventually roiled the city.

Like documentary filmmaking now, documentary writing in the past sought to keep the record straight by articulating black experience. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a black journalist at the turn of the 20th century, examined mundane interactions between white policemen and black men and women that escalated into fatal violence. Wells-Barnett’s Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900) described a time when three officers needlessly approached two black friends talking on a stoop and pulled a gun on one of them; a shootout and lynch mob quickly ensued. In The One Great Question (1907), author, minister, and activist Sutton E. Griggs identified a pattern of harassment among the Nashville police that ended in white officers shooting unarmed black civilians. Griggs stressed that municipal law enforcement and criminal justice threatened black Americans’ public safety and violated their constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. “The result,” Griggs wrote, “has been the cheapening of the estimate of all human life, until the man with a smoking pistol with a dead victim before him has practically become the hero of the hour.” The activists profiled in Whose Streets? unfortunately echo this claim.

Whose Streets? references the earlier abolitionist movement and the later Civil Rights Movement with intertitles quoting the likes of Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King, Jr. However, the film also descends from black documentary writing from the intervening years that sought redress against hyperaggressive policing. Check out Whose Streets? and feel the historical resonances from over a century ago.