Craig Atkinson’s incendiary new documentary provides sobering food for thought on the rise of police brutality and intimidation in America.
By Peg Aloi
The timing could not be better. Less than a week after we entered the Brave New World of Trumplandia (on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, no less), we’ve begun to see incidents of racially-motivated assault and hate speech on college campuses, on city streets and in small towns across America. And yet, given how much support Trump received from police departments across the US, some citizens may feel reluctant to report these crimes. Emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric, the proliferation of such crimes is bound to increase, just as citizen protests have taken to the streets, with thousands demonstrating in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Portland and Philadelphia.
It is troubling to consider how police might respond, and Craig Atkinson’s incendiary new documentary provides sobering food for thought on police brutality and intimidation. Do Not Resist, winner of numerous awards only one month into its theatrical release, is a stunning examination of the militarization of law enforcement in America. (It is screening through November 26 at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.)
The film begins in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the murder of Mike Brown. Police officers, dressed in camouflage and olive drab, look like nothing so much as a platoon of Army soldiers. The police stand by as crowds of people fill the streets under a stormy sky with lightning flashing red behind the clouds. The majority of protesters are African-American, carrying hand-lettered signs, holding their hands up; one young man — his arms outstretched — holds an enormous American flag. Atkinson returns to Ferguson close to the end of the film, after a court of law finds Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot the unarmed Brown, innocent of any criminal charges.
But before Ferguson erupts in fire and gunshots, the film visits a number of other towns and cities in America, such as Concord, New Hampshire. This small town’s city council meets to decide whether to accept a $250 million grant from the US government to purchase an armored vehicle for its police department. A former Marine speaks forthrightly about the folly of using such a vehicle in a small town like Concord. Other people testify in similar fashion, but the measure is approved by a wide margin. It turns out that Homeland Security and the Department of Defense have given over $40 billion worth of military equipment, bought with taxpayers’ money, to police departments since 9-11. The army can’t patrol our neighborhoods, so the military has been outfitting the police with sophisticated combat vehicles, armor, and assault weapons.
Atkinson also shows a Senate hearing, during which officials demand to know why the police need twelve thousand bayonets. Senator Claire McCaskill asks why the US military is supplying equipment to the police that has never been used and whose chain of custody is questionable. We see a training seminar headed by Dave Grossman, who fires up the trainees present by describing the intense sex an officer might have with his wife after coming home from a particularly risk-filled day on the job. Grossman’s jingoistic rhetoric, full of the imagery of hero worship, is sophomoric and disturbing.
We see target practice with assault rifles as well as SWAT teams deployed to suburban homes, smashing windows as they arrest some resident for holding small amounts of marijuana shaken out of the bottom of a backpack. The man charged turns over $800 in cash; he had been about to bring that amount to a business that supplies his landscaping business. We overhear the commander of the raid decide to confiscate the money. There are other scenes of shady police behavior; at a protest a number of cops don’t have name tags visible on their uniforms. One cop uses a small video camera to surreptitiously film peaceful protesters.
Atkinson provides subtitles filling us in on facts concerning militarization. We learn that SWAT team deployments have increased from 3000 per year in the 1980s, to 80,000 per year in 2015. One chilling scene gives us a SWAT team preparing for a raid on a house; a dozen men equipped with heavy gear and huge semi-automatic rifles. One young mercenary laughs when, using his smartphone to confirm a location, he gets the house number mixed up, blaming it on “dyslexia.” We also hear from men who work for tech companies that provide security services. There’s an aerial surveillance web application — based upon software developed for military use — that can follow any suspect at any time.
But the communities engaged in protest provide the most dynamic and fraught footage in Do Not Resist. One officer has an emotional argument with a young protester who, he says, he has known since he was a child, demanding to know why the young man has vandalized a neighborhood store, while the young man asks “why are you killing us?” Soon after that we see a phalanx of cops in riot gear — outfitted with helmets, clubs and shields — pushing their way into the crowd. Buildings and cars burn and people wander through the destruction, smartphones glowing. Mostly discarding music, Atkinson’s film depicts stark and disturbing life in an American police state: a place many of us didn’t realize we’d arrived at until rather recently.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for Patheos.com called The Witching Hour