'It's better to be in the company of seven devils than one policeman'

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. Another city, another dead black man. This time it’s in Baltimore, and the black man in question appears to have died from spinal injuries he sustained while in police custody. The details are still unclear. The broad strokes, though, are unmistakable. And so is the wall of misunderstanding between cops and black youth. Sometimes it takes an outsider to break down what’s happening right in front of your nose. Take the documentary, “Ferguson: A Report From Occupied Territory.” It was produced by a colleague who worked here at The World a few years ago, Filipino journalist Orlando de Guzman. I asked him to tell us what surprised him most while making the film.

 

Orlando de Guzman: I think what really surprised me was this great divide in reality between white people and people of color--just two completely parallel realities and there’s very little crossover between the two.

 

Werman: I mean, as to the question of why Michael Brown was shot to death by the police, you found a system of discriminatory policing that was in place long before Michael Brown was killed. You take it, in your film, back to the emancipation. Let’s take a shortcut though, starting with a decaying urban St. Louis in the “˜60s and white flight to the suburbs. Here’s an excerpt. This is reporter Tim Pool explaining what that led to.

 

[Excerpt from documentary]

 

Werman: Ninety of them? I mean, what did that tell you and what have been the consequences of that for the people of, say, Ferguson?

 

De Guzman: Yeah, it was really shocking to me to see so many different municipalities, 90 of them. And these aren’t large municipalities. Some of them are only .06 square miles in area, some of them only have a population of 12 people. Most of these municipalities have their own police forces, have their own municipal courts. And all of this came out of a legacy of segregation. These municipalities were born out of white people wanting to be separate from black people moving into the city. The structural racism of these municipal courts was really apparent. You’d go to these night courts and you’d see 98% of the population there being black, being processed through the system, being fined huge amounts of money for very, very minor infractions, like jaywalking. In fact, the DOJ report that came out in March found that jaywalking was one of the biggest generators of revenue and that 98% of the people stopped for jaywalking were black.

 

Werman: Like Michael Brown--it was a jaywalking charge.

 

De Guzman: Yes, it was. We met young kids--my co-producer, Katina Parker, who filmed a lot of the municipal court scenes, met young kids who were just barely finishing high school who had to pay $500 jaywalking fines in neighborhoods where there are no sidewalks and no crosswalks.

 

Werman: Orlando, you’re originally from the Philippines. How did what you saw in Ferguson compare to what you saw growing up?

 

De Guzman: I’m from a country where we have a saying, “It’s better to be in the company of seven devils than one policeman.” I’ve had many experiences with the police with my father, traveling, moving across the country, being stopped at pretty much every police checkpoint, to the point where we’ve run out of money and the cops would simply ask for my dad’s shoes. So, there’s that kind of corruption. But what I saw here in the United States was something very different and actually really very disturbing in that this kind of systemic stopping of and fining and this obsession with the movement of black people in their own communities was something that really struck me, and it was something that was just unquestionable, that this was just normal.

 

Werman: Let me just jump in--what about the frustration of working and living in an inherently corrupt system like that for the police officers who also did not create the system? Did you speak with any of them? Are they working toward a more healthy relationship with the community they police?

 

De Guzman: The police were very cagey. I spoke with some officers kind of off the record, out in the streets. None of them really wanted to get on the record about their day-to-day experiences, and that wasn’t really the focus of the documentary, so it wasn’t something that I really pursued. I really just wanted to show what was the experience of people living not just in Ferguson but in other communities around there, what it’s like to be under constant police surveillance, under constant police scrutiny, and it was really quite startling. You just had so many daily interactions with the police, most of them probably peaceful, nonviolent. But then there’s always the chance that any of these could turn sour really, really quickly, and that’s what we saw with Mike Brown.

 

Werman: Filipino journalist Orlando de Guzman produced the new documentary “Ferguson: A Report From Occupied Territory.” Orlando, thanks for speaking with us and thanks for taking the time to explain some of these things that have kind of been lacking here in the media. We appreciate it.

 

De Guzman: Thank you, Marco.

 

Werman: You can see Orlando de Guzman’s eye-opening film on Ferguson at PRI.ORG.