'Do Not Resist': Film Review
Ride along with the SWAT teams treating low-level drug offenders like members of terrorist cells.
An assured doc debut that knows how to stand out in a crowded field, Craig Atkinson's Do Not Resist avoids the handwringing format of other (very welcome) examinations of 21st-century American policing, offering instead something like a despairing tone poem. Spending time on the streets where cops face protesters and in the private places where they acquire the tools and tactics of the military, the film listens to officials' defense of the status quo while letting events speak for themselves. Though it's an experience best had in the cinema, and should draw some attention in limited release given its timeliness, it will probably find most of its audience on video.
Atkinson's father was a policeman for decades near Detroit, serving part of that time as a SWAT commander. But he retired in 2002, and policing has changed drastically in the years since. The filmmaker seems to indicate his natural sympathy for police in his opening footage, shot during Ferguson protests in 2014: There, a state trooper speaks calmly with an angry protester, assuring him they're both looking for the same answers. But then comes the tear gas, and combat-ready lawmen who look and behave nothing like that trooper.
The film sits in on a seminar by Dave Grossman, a crazy-eyed motivational speaker we're told is the #1 trainer of military and police officers in the U.S. "You are men and women of violence," he tells the crowd, before exhorting them to stop every now and then on a highway overpass, look down upon the city they protect, and feel the invisible superhero's cape snapping in the wind behind them.
Surely, good cops could use moral support in these troubled times; maybe just not the variety Grossman sells. Do they also need million-dollar armored vehicles? Do they need stockpiles of bayonets? Atkinson visits small communities like Concord, NH, a town of about 43,000 that has seen only two murders since 2004. There, a police chief wants to take a $250,000 grant from Homeland Security to buy a BearCat personnel carrier. After hearing from a slew of townspeople who object, the City Council gives him the go-ahead.
Elsewhere, other low-crime cities have even more frightening machines on their streets — like the MRAP armored vehicles designed to withstand bombs in war zones. Doesn't it make sense for underfunded police departments to take hand-me-downs from the Army once they're no longer needed? That's debatable. But as US Senators point out while grilling a rep from the Department of Defense, more than a third of the tank-like things being repurposed for domestic use are still in new or like-new condition.
Most problematic is the mindset of many of those who put these big toys to use. A man learning SWAT tactics tells the camera what he's preparing himself to fight: ISIS, WMDs, and "unruly crowds" like the ones seen in Ferguson. Which of these things doesn't belong in the crosshairs of men with guns?
By and large, we're told, this and other military equipment is used to execute search warrants for drug crimes. We ride along with one SWAT team, which descends on a house in a poor neighborhood as if it might contain a small rebel army. After they've ransacked the place, displacing its residents and breaking its windows (not accidentally, but as a "distractionary technique"), officers find just a few buds of pot that even the unapologetic cops admit is for personal use. That's still enough for them to arrest a young man and to steal the $876 he has in his pockets. Poignantly, the man has voluntarily given the money to an officer, asking him to give it to a relative so he can purchase equipment for their landscaping business. But to the officer, it's "evidence"; only some spare coins make their way back to the family. (Perhaps Atkinson can tackle asset forfeiture in his next doc.)
Throughout, the film does without voiceover, giving us information in sparse onscreen titles. Interviewers' questions aren't heard; only Grayson Sanders's quietly menacing electronic score asserts the movie's point of view. By the end, we've listened far more to those developing, learning, and employing today's SWAT and surveillance practices than to those who feel oppressed or intimidated by them. Surely, every one of those speakers has good intentions. But in Do Not Resist, they sound like the welcome wagon for a police state.
Production company: Vanish Films
Director-Director of photography: Craig Atkinson
Producer: Laura Hartrick
Executive producer: David Menschel
Editors: Craig Atkinson, Laura Hartrick
Composer: Grayson Sanders