"Do Not Resist" opens on Ferguson, Missouri, days after Michael Brown was shot to death. As crowds of protesters march and mill, the camera lingers on camouflage-clad cops carrying rifles and scanning the scene with binoculars from atop what looks like a tank. The tank is an MRAP, a large, armored military truck. Most police departments have them now, part of a federal grant program of supposedly "surplus" equipment. The trucks are imposing—and dangerous to drive because they tend to roll over. But we find that out later. For now the camera scans, picking up snippets of conversation from protesters and cops.
"Hands up, don't shoot," goes the chant.
"We need a bigger presence," an officer says into his radio.
And so begins this study of police militarization. The issue has become huge lately, prompting street protests and Senate hearings. American cops, more and more, look and act like soldiers, commanding city blocks like battle spaces, surveilling through cameras, aircraft, and night vision rifle scopes.
"Do Not Resist" takes you into the police's world. There is no narration. The exposition comes only in a few places, where statistics are flashed on the screen. Most of the words come from police and others officials, who explain why they're getting an MRAP, or how they developed an aircraft-based surveillance system for Fallujah that's now marketed to police. Director Craig Atkinson's approach of standing back and saying little and just showing is effective. And there's some good camera work here and there as well—very notable for a film that's shot partly during uprisings/unrest/riots. The filmmakers did several ride-alongs with SWAT teams and one is just heart-breaking: They bust up a family of small-time pot dealers—and find almost no pot. They grab like $800 out of the guy's pocket. It's a powerful indictment, but incomplete.
The film's unmistakable implication is that there are unseen forces "building an army," as one citizen puts it, to monitor and control U.S. citizens. A New Hampshire military vet links this to the deficit—which he calls "slavery." This is overblown, and the subtle sense of an overlord or cabal manipulating all detracts from the film's credibility.
What is really happening is this: Companies that market expensive equipment make big money on cops. They hire cops as trainers. "Training drives sales," Michael Foreman, a high-ranking SWAT officer told me two decades ago in Orlando, Florida (he is now the Vice President of Point Blank Enterprises, a body armor company). There is no conspiracy to enslave citizens to some Big Brother; there is only capitalistic self-interest and a self-reinforcing, technology-oriented culture of fear, which have slowly and steadily built the domestic war machine we see today department-by-department, and officer-by-officer.
This did not start with Sept. 11, as the film suggests. It did not even start with the L.A. riots of 1965—which many believe were the impetus for the first SWAT teams because Daryl Gates, the Los Angeles police chief at the time, took credit for inventing the concept. SWAT's roots date to the 1962 riot in Oxford, Mississippi, over the racial integration of Ole Miss. White mobs overwhelmed National Guardsmen and two people—a reporter and a jukebox repairman—were found shot to death. U.S. Army General Creighton Abrams wrote a paper about that, surmising that American law enforcement needed a robust riot-control capability to maintain order. "We in the Army should launch a major intelligence project ...to identify personalities, both black and white, and develop analyses of the various civil-rights situations," Abrams wrote.
SWAT was born from riot control, and has grown steadily ever since. By 1998, the National Tactical Officers Association claimed more than 20,000 members. It has more than twice that many now, after more than 20 years of steadily declining crime rates. The dollar amount of military equipment given to police has exploded, from less than a billion dollars in the late 1990s, to something close to $40 billion since Sept. 11.
On screen, David Grossman, a key SWAT evangelist, tells police at a conference that their job is to fight violence "with superior violence," after which they will have "the best sex."
Today, police are trained to feel under siege even as they besiege peaceful protesters who often have no idea who is marching next to them. The cops get intelligence telling them there are half a dozen armed criminals inside a 200-person peace march, and out come the MRAPs and Bearcats (another tank-like vessel of justice), the tear gas and machine guns. The louder you yell, the more frightened they get. And the new and more impressive (and expensive) gear keeps on coming.
Screens Saturday, May 7 at 2:10 p.m. at the Walters Art Museum and Sunday, May 8 at 2:30 p.m. at MICA Gateway