One of the most poignant moments in Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist, comes in its opening minutes. “They need to stop giving these boys these toys,” a young black woman says as she looks out at the chaotic streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of protests against the killing of Michael Brown, “‘cuz they don’t know how to handle them.” The toys in question are military hardware — camouflage uniforms, armored vehicles, M4 assault rifles. The boys are the Ferguson Police Department and members of the Missouri Highway Patrol, sent into Ferguson to quell the protests but widely regarded as having exacerbated them with their heavy-handed military tactics and liberal use of tear gas and rubber bullets.
The documentary takes an unflinching look at the increasing use of military tech and tactics in American police departments. From the streets of Ferguson, where the issue of police militarization first burst into popular consciousness, Do Not Resist takes us behind the scenes, passing through senate hearings and SWAT training camps as it explores the psychic and political underpinnings of contemporary policing. Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film is full of shocking tidbits that are sure to leave audiences outraged.
The figures speak for themselves. Since 2001, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense have issued billions of dollars in grants to allow local police to buy up used military hardware including MRAPs and Bearcats, heavily armored vehicles designed for deployment in war zones. Today, your local police department can easily access everything from tactical body armor to bayonets, and by all indications they’re itching to use them. The number of SWAT deployments has exploded since the 1980s, reaching a staggering 50,000 in 2015. And while incidences of violent crime have dropped steadily since the 1970s, police killings have soared, with blacks and Native Americans targeted disproportionately.
One comes away from Do Not Resist with a sense of the alarming disconnect that exists between police officers and the communities they are sworn to protect. The film does a great job illustrating the dangerous mix of machismo and paranoia that fuels modern American law enforcement. When Atkinson interviews SWAT team members, many of whom are ex-military fresh from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, they can barely contain their grins as they describe their work. When asked why police officers need so much firepower, a SWAT leader in Richland County, South Carolina, cites ISIS and WMDs as a major threat. Anyone who questions the wisdom of arming cops with weapons of war is met with outright hostility. In the memorable words of Dave Grossman, a manic-eyed “killology” expert and leading police trainer, “We are at war… When they come to murder our children, the individuals who tried to disarm our cops will be hunted down… attacked, and spit on.”
Do Not Resist is packed with important insights and beautiful footage, but the film does tend to meander. Atkinson, who makes his directorial debut with the documentary, is obviously an ambitious filmmaker, though at times it feels like he’s trying to squeeze too much in. While fascinating, his detours into the specific policing of black communities and the disturbing implications of new surveillance technologies could be whole films by themselves. Without any recurring characters or storyline to ground the narrative, things begin to feel a little unfocused, especially towards the end. That said, Do Not Resist is still a powerful indictment of modern policing and a disturbing portent of things to come.