Living & Entertainment

Commentary: 'Whose Streets?' documents the new normal — everyday rage against injustice

The documentary“Whose Streets?” tells the story of Michael Brown’s death and its aftermath.
The documentary“Whose Streets?” tells the story of Michael Brown’s death and its aftermath. Magnolia Pictures

The latest installment of the Tacoma Community College Diversity Film Festival will be presented Wednesday (April 25) with the showing of “Whose Streets?”

The documentary tells the story of Michael Brown, who was shot and killed in 2014 by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer.

The death of Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer, set off days of racial strife in the Missouri city.

After Wednesday's presentation of the film, Shawn Jenkins, a TCC professor of Sociology, will lead a discussion of issues raised by the movie.

Carla Bell, a contributing writer for The News Tribune, saw the film last year in Seattle. She wrote this commentary about the experience:

Michael Brown and Darren Wilson

Michael Brown, who was born May 20, 1996, to Leslie McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., graduated from high school just days before his death on Aug. 9, 2014.

Darren Wilson joined the Jennings, Missouri, police department right out of the academy. He worked there for two years before operations were halted by the city for reason of “racial tension."

As a result, Wilson and the rest of the police force were fired. Wilson secured another policing role, due to policy failure or lack of vetting, this time with the Ferguson police department.

It was in this role, three years later, that Wilson fatally shot an unarmed Brown in the streets of Ferguson, where he laid for some four hours.

Whose Streets?” tells the story of Brown’s death and its aftermath.

It’s a story we know too well.

Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner all preceded Michael Brown in death, but they all died in the same way — black and unarmed at the hands of law enforcement. (12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot while at play in a Cleveland park. He was holding a toy gun. He died the following day.)

Since Brown was killed, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Charleena Lyles and Che Taylor — the latter two from the greater Seattle area — and other black men and women drew their final bated breaths before police gunfire.

There’s no forgetting them.

Brown, and all the others, are remembered in the anthemic “Hell You Talmbout,” which sounds off like a creed; a banner of red, black and green, and a fist raised high, in black power.

They’re remembered through Black Lives Matter signs and in social justice initiatives. In a police officer’s diverted gaze, we know they’re all remembered.

Brittany Ferrell

"Whose Streets?" depicts Brittany Ferrell, a pillar of strength and a leader in the days immediately following the murder. There’s a sense that perhaps she always had been, but this was different.

Her vulnerability and fearlessness, a rare combination of character, make it is so that there’s just no way to discern where she ends and where the cause begins.

Ferrell finds her place at Leslie McSpadden’s side and at another point, she’s among the protesting activists forming a human chain across a highway. Ferrell seems to literally embody the cause.

One voice tells us that, after a grand jury’s decision came, the city of Ferguson was set ablaze and torn apart like L.A. after officers’ acquittal of the near death beating of Rodney King. Another voice tells us about a collection of metal canisters, the remains of police encounters with these activists. He shows us too. Chemical warfare, he calls them.

But even in the midst of all this, Brittany, a young mother, expresses “an optimism about liberation," even though she well knows she could die in the fight.

No Probable Cause

About 8:15 p.m., Robert P. McCulloch, St. Louis County prosecutor announced, “We’ve determined that no probable cause exists” to indict Wilson in the shooting death of Brown.

The story continued long after MSNBC, CNN and the others had gone their way. Black and brown people kept the outrage fresh in the streets of Ferguson — organizing community and garnering national, even international, attention.

“The Grand Jury’s decision has not surprised anyone — which explains the full cynicism of this system. Secret hearings do by far not meet serious interpretations of the rule of law.” (The Washington Post, quoting The Frankfurter Rundscha, November 2014.)

These activists encouraged one another, and they were unified — through arrests, incarceration and state-authorized intimidation in a variety of forms, including the arrival and ongoing presence of the National Guard, and police showers of rubber bullets and emission of gas, while still under daily threats of violence much worse. Their days and nights were long, but focused, structured and progressive, and they were very strong.

When they marched, when they gathered, they regularly recommitted to the cause in the words of activist Assata Shakur, by call and response:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom

It is our duty to win

We must love and support each other

We have nothing to lose but our chains

When I saw the film last fall at a small Seattle movie house the place was at capacity, and mine was the only black face in the place — not an unusual experience in Seattle.

Identifiable emotions? Heartbreak and rage. Controlled, of course — because what legal choice do I have? — but also pride.

Carla Bell is a Tacoma-based freelance writer whose work focuses on civil and human rights and culture and arts. Her work has appeared in Crosscut, City Arts Magazine, The Stranger, Real Change News, Parent Map Magazine, and South Seattle Emerald.

TCC Diversity Film Festival

When: Now thru May 2

Where: The Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma

Phone: 253-593-4474


▪ 2 and 6:30 p.m. April 25: “Whose Streets?”

▪ 2 p.m. April 29: “Winter’s Bone”

▪ 2 and 6:30 p.m. May 2: “East Side Sushi”