Criminalizing Dance & Movements Against Police Brutality On Screen: GET LITE and WHOSE STREETS at City Lore

The Lower East Side’s City Lore gallery exhibits and “preserves the grassroots, cultural heritage of NYC” through art showings and screenings. They recently hosted two important films on interrelated themes affecting the lives of young people of color.  They screened ‘GET LITE on June 17th, 2017 on a dance subculture; as well as that of WHOSE STREETS on October 11th, 2017 on the organization behind the Black Lives Matter movement and quality of life policing.  

WHOSE STREETS? Documentary

GET LITE exhibits the art of litefeet, “Litefeet is the new American dance; a dance done by hustlers and dreamers qua criminals; a dance of ambition and talent… a dance of underprivileged youth looking for a break in a city that criminalizes their movements”. “WHOSE STREETS” is a first-hand exposè of the continued police violence which followed the murder of teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9th 2014.  Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis feature several of the voices involved in the initial rise of the prominent Black Lives Matter movement.  While WHOSE STREETS reshapes the narrative of mainstream media by focusing on the glaring malpractice of the police force in Ferguson, Missouri and highlighting the immense accomplishments of grassroots organizing, GET LITE uses the art form of Litefeet to frame a conversation on the criminalization of non-white youth in New York city.

Lance Steagall directed GET LITE; artists Kidd Patt, Javy Black and Larry Smoove narrated the film.  In GET LITE, viewers are introduced to members of the artists’ families as well as the friends they’ve made through the dynamic street culture of litefeet.  Litefeet is a dance form that builds off of a basic box step, working to include intricate footwork, popping, hat tricks and other moves.  Litefeet is a NYC original dance, emerging from Harlem and the Bronx in the early 2000s.  It has built off of the moves of earlier dance styles, such break-dancing, which rose to prominence in NYC during the 1980s.  Litefeet bends to the performer, each dance being entirely unique from what the artist may produce during their next time around.  Its dynamism plays into its versatility.  While litefeet has historically been practiced on subway cars, it is also performed amongst friends on the street or in more formally structured dance competitions.  

Image from GET LITE
Image from GET LITE

WHOSE STREETS directors Folayan and Davis speak against the mainstream media’s normalization of inappropriate state violence by calling out MSNBC, CNN, and ABC’s choice to frame the coverage of Ferguson in the days following the death of Michael brown around the robbery of a convenience store.  Folayan and Davis described these media outlets as a means by which one may “escape into” the privilege of comfortable distance from the reality that was Ferguson in 2014.  This reality was one of racialized police brutality, and the media’s lack of focus on the root issues is tied to a level of “comfort” associated with historical implications of “Whiteness” in America. The choice to use language which grouped those participating in peaceful protest with those robbing a convenience store ignored the labour and effort of grassroots organizers in Ferguson.  It is the fortitude and resilience of these folks that led the Black Lives Matter movement to gain international precedence.  

WHOSE STREETS is an important film for all generations.  It welcomes a national dialogue on police power that echoes the unjust sanctions faced by street and subway dancers in GET LITE.  With a message rooted in highlighting the impact that civil disobedience has, WHOSE STREETS reminds the viewer of the potential to change oppressive systems in the United States through organization and engagement.  

Image from WHOSE STREETS?
Image from WHOSE STREETS?

The two films share a critique of police harassment and quality of life policing. Artists in GET LITE spoke of their run-ins with law enforcement, their actions having been dubbed ‘criminal’ in accordance with “zero-tolerance” legislation and “quality of life” policing policies.  These policies were created to ensure that the “public” environment was welcoming and comfortable to wealthy, predominantly White people.  Thus, these policies ignored the lived realities of many Americans by penalizing and harassing low-income people of color and non-gender conforming people for nothing more than their daily habits.  Quality of Life policing was implemented in New York City under police chief William Bratton during the Giuliani administration (Giuliani occupied office from 1994-2001).  Bratton served as police chief under Rudy Giuliani from 1994-1996, and from 2014-2016 under Mayor Bill de Blasio, before resigning last September.  Bratton’s use of quality of life policing contributed to the massively increase in incarceration of low-income people of color in New York City.  These policies were echoed by various cities’ police departments, and were later implemented by Bratton in Los Angeles.

Image from WHOSE STREETS?
Image from WHOSE STREETS?

Between 1991-1998, the national rate of crime decreased as the national rate of incarceration increased, though in NYC this oppositional trend of incarceration growth and crime decrease was notably dramatic.    William Bratton’s policies resulted in higher incarceration, and thus the stratification of families, communities and entire boroughs within New York City.  Though “quality of life” policing has since been discredited since their implementation in the mid 1990s, its impact still plays a role in the social and power dynamic of many U.S. cities.  “Quality of Life” policing criminalizes and persecutes individuals who participate in nominal behavior (including: “standing, congregating, sleeping, eating, and/or drinking in public… graffiti, public urination, panhandling, littering, and unlicensed street vending”).  The rationale behind attaching penalty to these actions arose from the “broken windows theory”- a theory grounded in the belief that, in choosing to arrest those involved in the aforementioned actions, as opposed to issuing a ticket or citation, one eliminates the potential for such behavior to devolve into further crime/disarray.  The “broken windows theory” takes the vast liberty of assuming that, in loitering, sleeping in public or dancing on the subway, one is predisposed to criminal activity, a mindset which blatantly discriminates against pockets of urban communities and villainizes artistry and menial behavior, as seen in the arrests of those who participate in LiteFeet.  “Zero-tolerance” policies characterize the lifestyles of lower-income people of color as “gateways” to crime and have led to the “criminalization of people of color, and increased police brutality” .

WHOSE STREETS and GET LITE offer two critical perspectives on excessive policing and youth rebellion and resistance.  Learn more about City Lore and their upcoming events at http://citylore.org.