When a community’s frustrations manifest on the streets, like in Ferguson in 2014, outside observers may assume the protest is about a single incident: that Ferguson was about Michael Brown, Baltimore about Freddie Gray, Los Angeles about Rodney King, Detroit about a party raid.
But there are also longstanding accumulations of daily injustices that propel people into the streets. In 2014, Sabaah Folayan sensed something historical was happening in Ferguson. So she rushed from New York to Missouri, and with no prior filmmaking experience, chronicled the inside story of the Ferguson uprising. The result is her acclaimed documentary “Whose Streets?” which appeared at the Sundance Film Festival last year.
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, along with Orange Organizing Against Racism, are proud to present “Whose Streets?” at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 29, at the Varsity Theatre in downtown Chapel Hill. Entry is free of charge to the entire community.
“Whose Streets?” is an intimate exploration of the frustrations, motivations, and emotions of the Ferguson organizers. The film reveals that the uprisings were not simply a reaction to Michael Brown’s death; rather, Brown’s shooting was the spark that ignited years of largely unseen kindling.
Could similar kindling exist in our own community? A U.S. Department of Justice investigation undertaken after Ferguson determined that the criminal justice system there was essentially using people of color as a cash register, charging excessive costs and fees in order to fund the system, without regard for their ruinous impact on residents living in over-policed communities.
As it turns out, North Carolina is also one of the country’s worst offenders when it comes to fees and fines. Criminal defendants, nearly all of whom are poor, are assessed fees when they are charged with a crime and processed through the system, and given fines for a variety of lowlevel offenses. When they can’t pay, a cascading series of negative consequences occur, as a report by the N.C. Poverty Research Fund points out. Suddenly an old motor vehicle violation can land a person behind bars, and an unrelenting cycle of poverty and inability to work can take hold, for that individual and his or her family.
Compounding the issue is the high price of court fees in North Carolina.
According to The N.C. State Bar Journal, from 1995 to 2011, base court fees more than quadrupled, rising from $41 to $173 in district court and $48 to $198 in superior court. And that report doesn’t take into account the laundry list of other fees that can accumulate for minor offenses, including $60 for having the court appoint an attorney (because the defendant cannot afford his or her own in the first place) and a $250 Community Service Supervision Fee. A $600 fee is tacked on if a crime lab has to perform any forensic work on the case, a category just expanded to include inspecting a defendant’s text messages and social media (an additional $600 is charged if an analyst testifies in court). Defendants are even on the hook for day rates while awaiting trial for being held in jail when unable to post bail.
The cumulative effect is a plundering of poor communities, especially communities of color that further expands wealth and opportunity gaps. And the state legislature has recently aggravated the problem by making it even more difficult for judges to exercise good sense and waive fees for indigent defendants when appropriate.
“Whose Streets?” is about Ferguson, but it also illuminates enormous damage taking place in own community. Following the film, there will be a panel discussion on the local aspects of the problem with Silent Sam sit-in organizer Maya Little; Cristina Becker, Criminal Justice Debt Fellow for the ACLU of North Carolina; Angaza Laughinghouse, staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice; and Chapel Hill police chief Chris Blue.
This year marks 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here,” Dr. King explained why demonstrators take to the streets: “The twice forgotten man in America has always been the Negro,” King wrote. “His groans were not heard, his needs were unfelt, until he found the means to state his case in the public square. ... Nonviolent direct action will continue to be a significant source of power until it is made irrelevant by the presence of justice.”
We hope the screening and ensuing discussion will be an opportunity to reflect on and strategize the ongoing relevance of Dr. King’s words.
James E. Williams Jr. is the first vice president and co-chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP. Mike Ogle is a journalist and member of the Criminal Justice Committee of the branch.