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'This is our story to tell': Documentary portrays Ferguson from the people's perspective

People line the sides of West Florissant during a protest held to marke th one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's death.
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
People line the sides of West Florissant during a protest held to marke th one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's death.

After a Ferguson police officer fatally shot Michael Brown Jr., local artist Damon Davis hit the streets. What he saw there conflicted with TV news reports and social media posts he’d seen that emphasized clashes between protesters and police.

“It was absolutely nothing like what was being portrayed by the media,” Davis said.

Instead of clashes with police, he noticed people exercising their first amendment rights. So when budding filmmaker Sabaah Folayan contacted Davis about collaborating on a documentary about the protests, he felt compelled to work with her. That documentary, “Whose Streets?” will be released locally and across the nation tonight. 

Listen to filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis dedicating their lives to completing "Whose Streets?"

The film documents the evolution of protests that occurred three years ago, after then-officer Darren Wilson shot Brown.  Folayan and Davis say the story of the protests needed to be told by people who experienced the events first-hand.

“This is our story to tell,” Davis said. “Nobody else should like should be relegated or allowed to tell the story but us, but us.”

Folayan was living in New York when she heard about Brown's death and the subsequent protests. Outraged by the circumstances, she knew she had to come to Ferguson.

“I just felt like I have to go,” she said. “I have to somehow be there and stand with people and be a part of it I can't just be a, you know, so-called armchair activist. So I went.”

Folayan said her experiences being out during daily and nightly protests gave her perspective on the nightly news coverage. For her, the broadcasts only sensationalized the protests, emphasized violent incidents and failed to capture the complexity of protesters' concerns.

“People were invested in the story of today or tomorrow, the scandal, the update about the case these different things but we didn't see people investing in like what is the human truth of the situation,” she said.

So the directors embedded themselves in the community. They documented protesters' personal lives as well as their actions in the street. They showed prominent protesters as parents making breakfast and discussing the struggle of black people and other people of color with their children. They filmed parents dropping their kids off at school. 

But the film doesn’t ignore the conflicts that did erupt between protesters and cops. One clip depicts people blocking highway traffic and a cop who picks up a protester and slams him to the ground.

Both Folayan and Davis aim to work in a tradition of black dissent established by civil rights advocates, thinkers, and writers.  Folayan cites writer James Baldwin, scholar W.E.B. DuBois and Harriet Tubman as conceptual influences. Davis draws inspiration from his parents.

“My father was a Black Panther. My mom was a sharecropper,” he said. “ Like they had lost people to violence due to racism in real life.”

That history fuels the film’s mission —  to preserve for future generations the experiences of protesters fighting for their rights.  

“This story is for everybody before us and people who are not even born yet,” Davis said. “Somebody has to put this in a can and capture the essence of what it is. And so when you come up against this kid that's not even been born yet. You will notice somebody has already felt this.”

Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRArnold

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Willis Ryder Arnold is an arts and culture reporter for St. Louis Public Radio. He has contributed to NPR affiliates, community stations, and nationally distributed radio programs, as well as Aljazeera America, The New York Times blogs, La Journal de la Photographie, and LIT Magazine. He is a graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and a recipient of the Society of Professional Journalist’s award for Radio In-Depth Reporting.