by Pali Makam
“He said he was going to change the world, he was going to shake the world and the whole world was going to know his name. And now they do.” – Triniya Walker, younger sister of Mike Brown, Jr.
Today marks three years since Mike Brown, Jr., known affectionately to his family as “Mike Mike”, was killed by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO. The world bore witness to the aftermath of his death as we tried to make sense of footage of an unarmed teenager laying lifeless and uncovered in the street beneath the heat of a St. Louis summer sun.
Last year through my youth media organization The Babel Project, I had the privilege of supporting Triniya and her sister Trinity in producing a short documentary that tells the story of their brother and the movement sparked by the injustice of his death. Their friends Ayana, Angel and Valanah were also a part of the production, adding their perspectives as young people directly affected by the systemic racial injustice being spotlighted in their community.
The goal of making the film was to shed light on who Mike really was, and to share stories of the powerful and resilient protest community from the perspective of those directly affected. By sharing a portion of their lives on camera and directing the shots and edits behind the scenes, Triniya and Trinity hoped to combat the mainstream narrative too often used to justify police violence and criminalize protesters demanding answers and justice. Through hands-on film training, media literacy education, and guidance from WITNESS resources on creating video advocacy campaigns and tips for interviewing people safely and ethically, Triniya and Trinity reclaimed the story of Mike Brown, Jr.
Fighting Mainstream Media
Almost every day for five weeks, I joined Triniya, Trinity, Ayana, Angel, and Valanah in a film studio in St. Louis’ historic Central West End. We watched news clips of how the media covered Mike’s death, the protests, the direct actions around the world. We talked about the language used by anchors and reporters. Why they chose to focus on the “looters,” and not activists like Valanah and the group Lost Voices, who camped outside in tents in a restaurant parking lot every night peacefully demanding justice. They told me about what happened after the news cameras left and the allies went home.
We watched documentaries about everything from Seaworld’s cruel treatment of captive killer whales to short films produced by young activists about racial inequities in the South African education system. We got behind the camera, conducting dozens of practice interviews around the city until everyone felt comfortable. We told stories, we drew pictures, and we imagined what justice might look like one day.
“Every time someone asks us a question, it’s always the same one: ‘how do you feel about what happened to your brother?”, Triniya said during a practice interview outside her old home where she said she had the happiest memories of living with Mike and her other siblings, “How do you think I feel? How would you feel if your brother died?’ [The question] doesn’t make the situation any better.”
The girls decided to ask each other the questions they wished others would. They wanted to tell people about the running races they’d have in the street till the sun went down. The time their brother poured hot sauce in Triniya’s mouth while she was sleeping. Or the morning they decided to wake their parents up by dumping a bucket of water on them, and the family water fight that ensued. Angel and Valanah wanted to talk about the friendships and family they’ve made through movement work. And everyone wanted to share the things that make them happy.
It was important for Triniya and Trinity that we didn’t use any of the images of their brother seen circulating on social media.
“I hated seeing those pictures because they always showed [ones] where he wasn’t smiling,” Trinity said, “They showed him looking all mean, which was not him.”
Both expressed how much it upset them to see footage of their brother lying in the street, images that are now etched into our collective consciousness. Images that are hard to avoid.
“I wanted to let people know that’s not the only thing I think about, “ Trinity said. “I’m always thinking about the good times we had. In order to heal you have to release some of the bad memories. And that’s one of the memories I tried to release and keep out of my mind.”
Reclaiming The Truth Through Storytelling
The film premiered on August 9, 2016 at Youth Speak Truth, an event hosted by Michael Brown Senior’s Chosen for Change Foundation and The Truth Telling Project (TTP), a grassroots organization born in the wake of the Ferguson protests that uses “truth telling” to support racial justice and structural change. WITNESS conducted a Q&A with the TTP’s cofounder and director last year where we learned more about the role of truth and storytelling in movement work.
The event focused on the impact of racialized violence on our youngest community members, acknowledging that while we often hear from mothers and fathers of victims, we rarely hear from the siblings, the cousins, the neighbors down the street who will carry this trauma through their lives. The organizations invited siblings of family members lost to police violence from around the country to come to Ferguson and share their truth on the day that commemorated two years since Mike was killed.
“Truth telling” in this context gives people the opportunity to express the multiple truths that get left at the margins, the truths of those often overlooked, or not regarded as valid. The truths of those not included in conversations about issues that impact them directly.
“For me to be able to speak the truth and tell the truth about my brother, I’m very relieved, my spirit is uplifted,” Trinity said in an interview featured in their final film. “Because now I don’t have to sit back and hold these things in.”
Many of the young truth tellers attending the event were from outside of St. Louis, so the girls decided to incorporate messages into the film welcoming and encouraging them to share their stories in solidarity.
“I hope everyone who has lost someone watches this film so they know they’re not by themselves,” Trinity said. “We’re here to stand together and help them get through. We understand what they’re going through.”
Sharing Videos Ethically
Throughout the event, people shared the pain of having to relive their personal tragedy every time another life is taken by police violence. Many people of color who have to face fears of police violence and surveillance on a daily basis have also expressed trauma and fatigue from seeing videos and images of police violence passed around social media.
But when those images and videos are critical to getting out the truth, how do we ethically participate in spreading awareness while centering the feelings of those most impacted?
“Before anyone shares anything they should really think about how it will make the family feel,” Trinity said. “Put yourself in my family’s shoes. Share the positive photos instead.”
So perhaps next time you see a video of police violence online, remember Trinity’s advice and think about ways to share information without perpetuating the trauma of our country’s most marginalized communities.
Video is powerful tool for storytelling and advocacy, and even more powerful when shared ethically.
Watch Youth Speak Truth, to learn more about Triniya, Trinity, Ayana, Angel and Valanah’s stories.
For more information about how to share ethically, see the WITNESS resources below:
- Witness Media Lab police violence case studies
- You Captured Police Abuse on Video, Now What?
- Tip sheet for Filming the Police
- Expose human rights abuses, not the people who survive them
- Ethical Guidelines: Using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights Reporting and Advocacy
Pali Makam is a media activist using film and photo as tools for change. She is the Program Coordinator for WITNESS’ US focused work, engaging activists and communities to use video to document human rights violations involving police and immigration violence, and to protect the rights of LGBTQ, minority, indigenous and vulnerable communities around the country.
Prior to coming to Witness, Pali cofounded and ran The Babel Project – a youth media nonprofit partnering with grassroots organizations and activists around the world to teach storytelling and documentary film to advocate for communities and specific policy change.