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January 27, 2015

Kristiana Colón
Executive Director
#LetUsBreathe Collective


A Ferguson Story:
Activists Crowdsource Accountability from Filmmaker Exploiting the Movement


January 27, 2015 CHICAGO, Il. – Since August 2014, the nation’s attention has been transfixed on Ferguson, Missouri. Although much has been made of the footage (or lack thereof) of Michael Brown's death, with rare exception, the public eye has largely overlooked the footage in the aftermath of the brutal police crackdown and the criminalization of nonviolent dissent. The #LetUsBreathe Collective, a Chicago-based group of artists and friends, made it their priority to personally cultivate and curate this unique perspective while directly assisting the nascent grassroots struggle for justice and survival that has spawned the #BlackLivesMatter movement. During the first two weeks of protests, the Collective launched a fundraising effort to bring respirator masks, tear gas remedies, medical & hygiene supplies, and water bottles to protesters in Ferguson. During their second supply delivery trip, they met Lost Voices, a group of youth that refused to leave the protest area, vowing to camp there until Officer Darren Wilson was indicted for killing Michael Brown. Their remarkable story is the reason #LetUsBreathe allocated a portion of its crowdsourced funds to invite Chicago filmmaker Lonnie Edwards to return the following weekend, capture their stories, and create a documentary.  Now, Mr. Edwards is attempting to remove #LetUsBreathe from decision-making, giving interviews claiming that he is the sole owner and creator, and excluding Lost Voices as financial beneficiaries of the film, originally titled Lost Voices: A Ferguson Story.


Because the movement to end police violence builds on the belief that communities can hold themselves to a high standard of justice without violent policing, a coalition of activist organizations hopes to avoid court by calling for community accountability. “An ugly court battle would drain energy and resources from the real work of organizing to end police brutality,” says #LetUsBreathe Executive Director Kristiana Colón, “so I would rather put my values into action and simply ask my community to support what’s right. I know that activists nationwide oppose the idea of someone who didn’t do the work on the ground profiting from a teenager’s death.” #LetUsBreathe advocated for the Lost Voices protesters in Ferguson to receive 30% of any profits from the film; in response, Edwards moved to eliminate #LetUsBreathe from negotiations and removed all financial consideration for the featured youth. In addition to conceptualizing the project, #LetUsBreathe paid for travel, lodging, and meals for Mr. Edwards and four of the six other contributing photographers who released their footage to the Collective. They also arranged interviews, directed shooting in Mr. Edwards’s absence, wrote and edited copy included in the film, and created the film’s title and chapter titles.


#LetUsBreathe intends to use the film as a teaching tool, sparking dialogue about social justice in classrooms, on campuses, and within nonprofit organizations. Before being removed from the producer credits, the Collective produced screening events at the University of Chicago, Young Chicago Authors, Kuumba Lynx, the Greenhouse Fellowship, and King High School. “This is not what community or change is about,” added #LetUsBreathe Operations Director, Xavier Ramey (who is also chief photographer for #LetUsBreathe and whose photographs were used in the film), “…it’s a continuation of the predatory practices and opportunistic leveraging of social capital that our collective opposes. The entire film features Lost Voices youth as they fight for justice; to remove them from the process and the profit is unethical.”


“Corruption and greed thrive in silence,” Colón says, “and this national moment is about communities speaking out against injustice. We believe in the power of the people, so we believe we can lovingly crowdsource justice, instead of combatively turning to the courts.” The Collective, with coalition support from Lost Voices, Kuumba Lynx, Chicago Artists Against Injustice, Definition Theatre Company, Realize Theater Group, and the Revolutionary Poets Brigade, is asking for organizers and allies nationwide to speak out about its ethical standards of engaging the entertainment industry. “If the revolution is gonna be televised,” co-director Damon Williams adds, “the media, and how we make decisions about it, has to be revolutionized. We didn’t bring cameras to Ferguson to sensationalize a tragedy or capitalize on hot headlines, and it’s our responsibility to make sure the folks we brought with us don’t either. We’re proposing a set of guidelines for how to document with dignity and asking the activist community to contribute ideas. ”

The #LetUsBreathe Collective asks the national activist community and its allies to urge filmmakers to document with dignity and  take to social media, television networks, and radio stations to share what they believe to be fair, using the hashtag #CrowdsourceJustice.

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