It’s been three years since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and a new film highlights that tragedy and its ongoing aftermath. In the documentary Whose Streets, which hits theaters August 11, filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis followed community leaders in St. Louis, like 28-year-old Brittany Ferrell, founder of Millennial Activists United and an out queer woman.
A few months after protests rocked Ferguson, Ferrell married fellow demonstrator Alexis Templeton, who also appears in Whose Streets. Together, the two led a public protest marking the one-year anniversary of Brown’s death, blocking traffic on Interstate 70. The entire incident, including their arrest, was captured by Folayan’s cameras.
“Some of the moments in the film were very traumatizing for me,” Ferrell told NewNowNext. “I couldn’t even believe that we even went through that. We went through some really tough shit for a long time, night after night, willingly putting ourselves in harm’s way. It’s easy to talk about—‘Oh yeah, we did go through this, and I remember that one night when we were getting shot at with rubber bullets,’ but to actually watch it… I had chills. I was watching it like ‘Damn, that is what it looked like? That’s what we did? That’s what we have to go through?’”
She says watching the footage of the highway incident—which ended in Ferrell and Templeton being charged with third-degree assault, trespassing on the interstate and peace disturbance—she remembers feeling “on guard.”
“I was hyper aware. I was also very nervous and I felt very protective.” They’re feelings she finds herself experiencing even now.
Some activists have criticized the tactic—risking safety on the busiest highway in the state was a huge concern—but Ferrell decided the inevitable discussion it would fuel was worth it.
“The highway protest then was a catalyst for a huge dialogue in St. Louis,” she explains. “A lot of people were talking about the impact it had on the local region, and talking about highways and how they broke down communities of color, and segregation and the history of it in St. Louis—as well as white flight and abandonment, and what it did to communities.”
Whose Streets demonstrates just how important civil disobedience is to the Black Lives Matter movement, especially in Ferguson, where the black community is still fighting. Ferrell and other activists invited cameras to follow them from their homes to the streets, and even into courthouses and jails.
“How [civil disobedience] is executed is so critical to protest,” she says. “The message behind it, the strategy behind it, is so critical to the overall protest movement. It has to happen.”
And, she adds, even outrage has its place.
“Sometimes it has to be to the point to where people are so stunned that someone could even have the gall to do it that it stops them dead in their tracks and they have to talk about it. Whether they understand it or they don’t, it has to occur.”
After the original Ferguson protests immediately after Brown’s murder and the subsequent court proceedings (a grand jury chose not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in November 2014), mainstream media outlets flocked to the St. Louis suburb to attempt and capture the violence and looting. Some did better than others at showing the historical context and feelings of frustration that fueled the community’s response. But Ferrell says Whose Streets is “an honest film,” the one she trusts more than any others that have come out of Ferguson.
“These people were on the ground at all times filming and experiencing the experiences we went through—experiencing what the activists and organizers went through,” she says of Folayan and Davis and their crew. “I want people to see this as not just a documentation of what happened, but also as insight into the real experiences that regular, everyday human beings went through because of the injustice that was occurring around us.”
She hopes audiences who watch Whose Streets? are compelled to do something—and to challenge the narrative they hear about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter in the mainstream media.
“I want people to understand that this type of work comes with risk and it comes with sacrifice. But it can’t just be a few people who think the media can fight for justice or fight for equality. It takes mass numbers of people. I want people to feel inspired and compelled to do something.”
She hopes the LGBT community begins to really rally around Black Lives Matter and take a more active role in issues affecting communities of color. She hopes that instead of complaining when BLM organizers interrupt Pride parades, queer people feel compelled to participate.
“You can’t expect people to rally around LGBTQ issues while erasing the fact that black people and brown people experience something completely different than white gays and lesbians,” she says. “Even when we talk about trans identity… Caitlyn Jenner is not representative of trans people, especially black trans women. If we’re gonna talk about what it means to be marginalized, or what it means to be discriminated against, you need to listen to the voices of those who are impacted the most: Black trans women, black queer folks. If you can’t do that, then you’re just reveling in your privilege just like any old white cis person.”