Tag Archives: police brutality

No Justice; No Streets: Documentary Shines a Light on the Protests in Ferguson

My review for The Eagle

“Whose Streets” is a first-hand account of the protests following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The necessity of covering the events from a perspective other than that of the mainstream media is without question, and this film offers unprecedented access.

“Whose Streets” captures the siege-like atmosphere in Ferguson when the protests began─including how the midnight curfew, an intimidation tactic, was couched as a safety measure. A woman shouts, “This is not Iraq,” as officers begin to enforce the curfew that doesn’t start for another 90 minutes. Families in their own backyards are asked to go back inside. In another particularly chilling scene, the memorial for Michael Brown is dismantled, as though the teddy bears and candles, too, have no right to be there. Director Sabaah Folayan stays largely off-screen, instead just letting the intensity of the footage take over.

One way in which the documentary stumbles, however, is in the choice of featured activists. The way in which their personal lives are brought into the film seems haphazard and the choice of what to include also seems to have no rhyme or reason. For example, the relationship between Brittany and Alexis, a young lesbian couple, seems completely irrelevant to the activist life of Brittany. We also meet Copwatch videographer David who lives in the housing complex where Brown was killed. He offers more insight into what’s it like to watch the very organization that relentlessly watches his community.

“Whose Streets” doesn’t seem interested in shaping a particular storyline, but instead offers a collage of first-person footage, tweets and Instagram posts. It’s an image of a community pushed past its breaking point. But there are questions that remain unanswered. One scene hints at the tension between the African-American churches and the young activist community, who characterize themselves as not “your Grandaddy’s civil rights movement.” A lot is missing, though, because we never find out what makes them different. There is also no exploration about the ways in which the Black Lives Matter movement is not only about police violence. Ferguson is a city built by racial capitalism, but we don’t really get too much of a sense of how this happened.

“Whose Streets” does an amazing job of making palpable the anger and pain the community feels after being victimized by a police state for decades. It allows the viewer a perspective never quite seen on mainstream media, which perpetuated the image of the movement as “looters” and “rioters.” It absolutely dismantles this view, in fact. The film could have been a bit more broad in its selection of figures from the movement and in interviewing them more in-depth, but nevertheless, it is an important activist and art work.

Grade: B

Police Power and Race Riots

Professor Cathy Schneider Chronicles Link Between Police Repression and Race Riots

Associate Professor Cathy Schneider’s new book, Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York, traces the history of urban upheaval in New York and Paris, focusing on the interaction between police and minority youth. Schneider found that riots erupt when political elites activate racial boundaries, police engage in racialized violence, and racial minorities lack alternative avenues of redress.
Schneider, an expert on social movements, collective violence, policing, criminal justice, immigration, and racial and ethnic discrimination, says the book evolved out of her community work where she encountered first-hand the police harassment and racial profiling of minority communities. “This made me wonder about conducting a comparative study between what I saw in New York and somewhere else. I wanted to see how the French police were similar or different in their treatment of minority communities.”

Then, on October 27, 2005, an African boy and an Arab boy, 15-year-old Bouna Traore and 17-year-old Zyed Benna, were electrocuted while hiding from police in a power substation in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. A third teenager suffered serious burns. This sparked riots against police brutality and harassment in Paris and other French cities that lasted several months.
Schneider became interested in why these cases led to riots in France, while similar cases did not lead to riots in New York. Schneider began her research in Paris by interviewing the families of victims of police violence, including the brother of one of the deceased teenagers. One of her main findings was that in racially divided unequal societies, police are tasked with the job of enforcing racial boundaries. The activation of racial boundaries, Schneider found, makes violent explosions more likely. As communities are polarized along an “us vs. them” boundary and there are no avenues of redress, riots are more likely to spark.
Schneider also discovered that political campaigns shaped how police understood their jobs. In studying campaigns, she found that candidates in tight elections often won by appealing to racial fears. “These fears are often coded as ‘wars on crime’ or ‘drugs’ or ‘illegal immigration,’” she explains. In such a context, police are rewarded for increasing the number of arrests and for targeting minorities.
Schneider says that the reason there have not been race riots in New York since the 1960s is the presence of options of redress that dampen social unrest. Community organizers in New York have developed a “standard non-violent repertoire” to protest police brutality. State and federal courts also opened to minority plaintiffs and allow minorities to sue on a civil and not just criminal basis, which helps to diffuse tensions. The availability of avenues of redress, Schneider postulates, is the variable that differentiates New York from Paris.

Let The Fire Burn Movie Review

My Review Of Let The Fire Burn

Let The Fire Burn is an incendiary documentary on the tragic standoff between MOVE, a “radical” black group and the city of Philadelphia in the early 80s. Director Jason Osder eschews narration in favor of weaving together archival news footage, city hearings footage, and a MOVE film to create a visceral, eloquent, yet even-handed portrayal of events on the day of May 13th, 1985.
The film is a trenchant look at how a series of incredibly bad political decisions resulted in a fiery fiasco that claimed the lives of six adults and five children and led to the destruction of 61 homes in West Philadelphia. Let The Fire Burn is a subtle exploration of race tensions, police action, and terrorist labeling—the audience is left to draw its own conclusions, although answers as to how something so egregiously grievous came to pass are hard to come by.
MOVE’s first incarnation in the mid 70s is as progressive political organization concerned with issues impacting the black community. They do not espouse violence; they are not a religious cult. In fact, they come across as benign as any other hippy-dippy commune with their rhetoric of unity, love, and harmony. Their kids do not wear clothes and only eat raw food and the community does not believe in using modern luxuries, but that might well be the extent of their singularity. The heavily dogmatic component is definitely not present, especially in a religious sense. They all take the last name of their leader, John Africa, and while concerned with “the system” and its corruption, they are a far cry from the militant organization the city seems hell-bent on portraying them as. One cannot help but feel that had conservative Mayor Frank Rizzo not made it his tenure’s goal to dismantle MOVE, this story would have read rather differently.

In a particularly chilling interview, he says “we’re backing off too much,” clearly referencing and the handling of the Black Panther movement, which he derides as not being authentic. He openly mocks its members who upon moving to Africa, Cuba, and China, he claims, were all too quick to want to return back home, where they would still have more freedom than elsewhere. Rizzo’s bellicose stance culminates in a raid on the MOVE compound in 1978 that claims the life of one police officer and as a result nine of MOVE members are convicted for murder. Three police officers go on trial for brutally assaulting one of the MOVE members and are found innocent, despite evidence to the contrary. It is not hard to see that MOVE’s claims of police persecution and brutality are not merely victim-posturing and hold a good deal of truth—in fact, much of the rhetoric employed by city officials in the movie will have you scratching your head, feeling like you have fallen into some sort of an anachronistic time warp back to the 50s.


MOVE soon regroups in a new compound in West Philadelphia and they are radicalized as a result of events in 1978 and the now escalated all-out-war between them and the city. They build a “bunker” on the roof of a house, which the police keep referring to as some sort of a “tactical advantage,” though one would be hard pressed to see that in a structure more akin to a ramshackle wood cabin. They set up speaker systems and harass the neighbors by blaring messages day and night—as one neighbor ruefully points out, “we are pawns, caught in between.” On May 13th, 1985, the police and Philadelphia’s first black mayor, Wilson Goode, move in on the group. What happens next is unfathomable—after dropping explosives on the roof of the house and water-cannoning it for days (a water cannon drops thousands of gallons of water *a minute*) and pumping tear gas, a 10 story high blaze erupts. This is when we get to the most macabre quote of the film: “There was a decision to let the fire burn.”
Let The Fire Burn does not offer any explanations for how things went so cataclysmically out of control, but MOVE’s story is as relevant today as it was two decades ago. How a city could wage war against its own citizens and endanger the lives of adults and children with so little consideration is shocking but also not as outlandish of a possibility as one would think, the film shows. The painful public self-appraisal Philadelphia went through in the aftermath of the tragedy was necessary, yet the audience is able to understand how the perfect storm of truculent politics precipitated volatility and ensuing violence of immeasurable magnitude.