Image from Do Not Resist
The chillingly named Do Not Resist, which won the Tribecca Film Festival’s Best Documentary Feature award, opens on the scene of a tense demonstration in Ferguson, Missouri, only ten days after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. The footage shows heavily armed, helmeted officers with body armor, shields and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (used to counter IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan), who look more like Marines at Fallujah’s battleground than they do policemen patrolling American streets.
After a midnight curfew falls, the police launch a teargas assault on a crowd of black demonstrators. The armed-to-the-teeth riot police proclaim:
“If you’re standing still you may be subject to arrest.” A young black woman comments, “They’ve got to stop giving these boys these toys because they don’t know how to handle them.”
That sums up the message of Craig Atkinson’s harrowing documentary about the massive militarization of police in the name of fighting the so-called “war on terror.” While Oliver Stone’s Snowden reveals the expansion of an all-seeing surveillance state after September 11, 2001, the nonfiction Do Not Resist documents a parallel phenomenon in police forces, from major metropolitan centers to small town U.S.A. Hyper-monitoring and excessive use of force go hand-in-hand. In press notes, Atkinson writes about a tech company that gives police departments the same platform the National Security Agency uses to collect web communications.
Atkinson exposes how, since 9/11, police forces including the LAPD are deploying enhanced data collection and monitoring technology, including facial recognition systems and license plate scanners in contemporary Los Angeles, where 1,000 cameras also surveill the populace. But Do Not Resist focuses on Atkinson’s contention that “the federal government has given police departments more than $40 billion in [military surplus] equipment with no stipulations on how it should be deployed…” The film cites a town so small it has only one lawman—but was offered two armored vehicles.
To show how the boys in blue—and camouflage—are playing with their rather expensive, dangerous toys, Atkinson’s roving camera (which he operated) takes us not only to the frontlines of Ferguson and other demonstrations, but to a police convention and training seminar, congressional and city council hearings, a ride-along with a SWAT team carrying out a raid and more. In his directorial debut Atkinson—the son of a Detroit area SWAT commander—paints a compelling portrait of how policing has been amped up in the aftermath of 9/11.
At a police chiefs convention author Dave Grossman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and expert in what he calls “killology,” holds forth, advertising what sounds like a protection racket. Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor and motivational speaker for law enforcers, tells them:
“We are at war and you are on the frontlines. . . . The good news is you have job security because you have what the world desperately needs.”
High-ranking representatives of the Department of Homeland Security and Defense Department are seen testifying before the U.S. Senate. At a city council meeting in Concord, New Hampshire, population around 43,000, lawmakers and residents ponder whether or not to accept a $250,000 federal grant to purchase a Bearcat, a Military Counter Attack and Rescue Vehicle. A resident warns, “We’re building a domestic military. . . . There’s always free cheese in the mousetrap,” while opponents carry signs saying “More Mayberry, Less Fallujah.” Nonetheless, the council votes 11-to-4 in favor of getting the SWAT team armored vehicle.
Not surprisingly, police are using their new toys, as the number of SWAT raids has skyrocketed nationwide. According to Atkinson, from 1989 to 2002, his father’s SWAT unit carried out a total of twenty-nine search warrants, while police departments of comparable sizes today conduct 200 per year.
In an eye-opening sequence the filmmaker accompanies a SWAT team on a raid in South Carolina against purported drug dealers. The heavily armed police swoop down on a rural home, bashing down the door and breaking windows. They don’t find a huge drug stash in the black household, only a small time offender with a miniscule amount of marijuana. Nevertheless, the policemen confiscate the $76 the perp has on his person, illustrating the role of police as de facto tax and fee collectors, a major irritant in Ferguson. They also refuse to compensate the family for the damage they’ve done to the residence.
Back in Ferguson, crowds surge and teargas is fired after the announcement comes that officer Darren Wilson will not be charged in connection with his shooting of unarmed Michael Brown. All hell breaks loose, captured by Atkinson’s probing camera lens.
Do Not Resist documents how militarized local police forces battle protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, drug suspects and other run-of-the-mill criminals. The crime busters rarely, if ever, target terrorists, the way they were supposed to after 9/11.
Do Not Resist will be screened 4:45 p.m., September 25 at the Downtown L.A. Film Festival and will be released in theaters September 30 at the Film Forum in New York City. It opens in theaters across the nation in October, including on October 14 in L.A. For more information, see: http://www.donotresistfilm.com/do-not-resist-screenings/.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell is the co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.