A CLEAR VOICE IN FERGUSON

Michael Brown’s killing stirred Brit­tany Fer­rell. Her ex­pe­ri­ence is prom­i­nent in ‘Whose Streets?’

Los Angeles Times - - SUNDAY CALENDAR - By Tre’vell An­der­son trev­ell.an­der­son@la­times.com

On Aug. 9, 2014, Brit­tany Fer­rell was shaken to her core.

Just a day af­ter ar­riv­ing in New York City on a trip, the St. Louis na­tive sat on the bed of an Airbnb she was rent­ing, scrolling through Face­book on her phone. She stum­bled upon a post from some­one from high school.

“The po­lice just killed an 18 year old kid and he’s still lay­ing in the street,” it read.

Con­fused, notic­ing no one else on her feed had posted the in­for­ma­tion, she closed Face­book and opened Twit­ter. A user with the han­dle @TheePharoah was be­ing con­stantly retweeted onto her time­line.

The St. Louis-area rap­per was live-tweet­ing the death of Michael Brown, an un­armed black 18-yearold killed by a white po­lice of­fi­cer in Ferguson, Mo. He posted a pic­ture of Brown’s life­less body stretched out in the street, where it would stay for four hours. “This is wild,” Fer­rell thought. But death was noth­ing new for her and her com­mu­nity. She put down her phone only to re­turn later that evening to tweets about peo­ple gath­er­ing on Canfield Drive. There were pho­tos of po­lice tape and peo­ple yelling and of a guy claim­ing to be Brown’s fa­ther hold­ing a sign that read, “Ferguson po­lice just killed my un­armed son!” She watched a live feed where a po­lice of­fi­cer stood in front of pro­test­ers with a bark­ing dog. In an­other video, a dif­fer­ent cop, she said, cocked his rif le and screamed, “I’ll kill all you … an­i­mals.”

“This is not usual,” Fer­rell re­called say­ing. “This isn’t the type of mur­der that we’ve be­come used to and can call typ­i­cal. In that moment I felt chills. I was an­gry and cry­ing.”

She booked a re­turn flight for the next day. Af­ter land­ing at 11 p.m., she picked up her 6-year-old daugh­ter from her dad’s house and de­cided they would head to Ferguson the next morn­ing.

What hap­pened, to Fer­rell and to Ferguson in the fol­low­ing al­most three years is the sub­ject of a new doc­u­men­tary, “Whose Streets?” in theaters Fri­day. It’s a tale of sur­vival and protest, love and loss, strength and re­silience from the van­tage point of the peo­ple who live in the com­mu­nity and packed the streets de­mand­ing an­swers.

As Fer­rell drove to Ferguson with her daugh­ter, who was wear­ing a flo­ral dress and match­ing crown, the two re­vis­ited a con­ver­sa­tion they’d had count­less times “about the black ex­pe­ri­ence and black con­di­tion.

“You re­mem­ber how I taught you about when black peo­ple had to fight for what they be­lieved in?” she re­called say­ing. “We’re going to Ferguson right now be­cause the po­lice killed an 18-year-old boy and it wasn’t right.

“I couldn’t not take her,” Fer­rell said later. “This hap­pen­ing today is a cul­mi­na­tion of … that has hap­pened in the past. She needs to know it and see it and be raised in it. She needs to be well de­vel­oped in the area of not just ac­tivism and or­ga­niz­ing but know­ing the dif­fer­ent lay­ers of the black ex­pe­ri­ence and the black con­di­tion and what we must do to get free, to free our­selves.

“Even if I’m for­tu­nate enough to pro­vide her an ex­pe­ri­ence where she doesn’t [per­son­ally] ex­pe­ri­ence bla­tant racism, she is no dif­fer­ent than the next black wom­an­child. I feel like I would be do­ing her a dis­ser­vice to shield her from that.”

The first stop when they ar­rived in Ferguson was on South Floris­sant Road, a site across from the po­lice de­part­ment that be­came a camp­ground of sorts as the ac­tivists awaited word of Of­fi­cer Dar­ren Wil­son’s even­tual non-in­dict­ment.

There Fer­rell and her daugh­ter linked up with a lo­cal busi­ness owner who was mak­ing sack lunches. They pre­pared bags and helped pass them out to pro­test­ers. Slowly, a new type of ac­tivism be­gan to take shape for Fer­rell.

“My ac­tivism com­pletely trans­formed af­ter Aug. 9,” she said, not­ing that while an un­der­grad at the Univer­sity of Mis­souri-St. Louis, she was pres­i­dent of the Mi­nor­ity Stu­dent Nurses Assn. and fo­cused on food jus­tice and health dis­par­i­ties in black com­mu­ni­ties. “I had no ex­pe­ri­ence in or­ga­niz­ing. It all just came.”

Weeks later, Fer­rell met Sabaah Fo­layan, one of the film’s co-di­rec­tors, dur­ing an evening demon­stra­tion. Fo­layan said she and her di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy, Lu­cas Al­varado-Far­rar, “just wanted to doc­u­ment” what was hap­pen­ing.

A ques­tion came to Fer­rell’s mind: “Do you want to doc­u­ment or are you try­ing to find a story that you can ex­ploit?” That skep­ti­cism was in­formed by count­less in­stances of peo­ple — of­ten white — com­ing into a com­mu­nity to profit of its pain and re­silience.

As Fo­layan ex­plained re­cently, “We had heard that peo­ple who are born and raised [in Ferguson] were not hav­ing their voices cen­tered, and we wanted to do it dif­fer­ently.”

Fo­layan had al­ready linked up with co-di­rec­tor Da­mon Davis, an area artist known for his ac­tivism for death row in­mates. His in­volve­ment en­deared Fer­rell to the project, along with six other lo­cals the “Whose Streets?” team fol­lowed in the years af­ter Brown’s shoot­ing.

“[This doc­u­men­tary] is not some­body speak­ing for us or speak­ing to us, it’s us speak­ing,” Davis said. “That was the main thing for me, how these peo­ple will be rep­re­sented, be­cause that’s how I will be rep­re­sented.”

While the goal wasn’t to fo­cus on Fer­rell’s ex­pe­ri­ence — to show that the move­ment is “not about a mes­siah leader but a com­mu­nity com­ing to­gether,” Fo­layan said — she proved to be the most open of the film’s par­tic­i­pants. As a re­sult, “Whose Streets?” doc­u­ments sur­pris­ingly per­sonal as­pects of Fer­rell’s life, like fall­ing in love and mar­ry­ing her wife.

“I felt like I was naked,” said Fer­rell, laugh­ing about the first time she saw the fin­ished prod­uct. “But I un­der­stood that with do­ing this work and hu­man­iz­ing black folks, there has to be a level of vul­ner­a­bil­ity.”

More­over, Fer­rell’s story re­it­er­ates and re-cen­ters the role of black queer women in the broader Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. Two of the move­ment’s three founders — who coined #Black­LivesMat­ter on so­cial me­dia in the af­ter­math of the 2012 killing of black teen Trayvon Martin — iden­tify as queer.

“Black queer women in lead­er­ship has sus­tained the move­ment over­all,” said Fer­rell, “and that’s be­cause [we’re con­stantly at] bat­tle on mul­ti­ple fronts. Black queer women have to bear the brunt of it all.”

Fo­layan agreed not­ing that “the move­ment is re­ally up­held by black women and a lot of queer black women.” She in­sists, how­ever, that “this is not some af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion type of thing” where Fer­rell was cho­sen as the film’s heart be­cause of her iden­ti­ties.

“She was the per­son who was gal­va­niz­ing this en­ergy,” she said. “It’s not a coin­ci­dence though she was on the front lines, be­cause liv­ing life at those in­ter­sec­tions as a black queer wo­man, you have so much on the line. You can feel her en­ergy through the screen.”

Mean­while, back in Ferguson, the news cam­eras are long gone but fraught racial ties be­tween the com­mu­nity and po­lice per­sist. Fer­rell is on pro­ba­tion for 21⁄2 more years for block­ing a high­way dur­ing a demon­stra­tion. She de­scribes the so­cio-po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere of the area she calls home sim­ply: “A mess.”

Still, she clings to a chant she’s com­mit­ted to mem­ory since tak­ing to Ferguson’s streets a full three years ago.

“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.”

Au­tumn Lin Pho­tog­ra­phy / Mag­no­lia Pic­tures

BRIT­TANY FER­RELL, lead­ing a protest, is shown in “Whose Streets?” as a gal­va­niz­ing force.

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