Often the most shocking developments are the ones quietly happening under our noses, the sorts of things appearing in investigative reports and then pushed aside by the next scandal or tragedy. Gratitude goes to those documentarians who shine a broader light, which is what Craig Atkinson does in “Do Not Resist,” about the disturbing militarization of U.S. police departments. Shot over two years, incorporating the Ferguson riots together with federal programs funneling a staggering amount of military hardware into small-town America, the doc is stylistically uninspiring, with a tedious threatening sound design, but the powerful subject matter largely overcomes such missteps, as testified by its Tribeca jury win.
In truth, there are probably two documentaries here, one focusing on police response during Ferguson, and another on how the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security set up programs providing major army vehicles to domestic law enforcement. Atkinson puts them together to underline how police departments have reimagined themselves as military style enforcers, arguing (in only general terms) that it’s because the men in blue, in the name of safety, have been allowed to repurpose their role in the community that something like Ferguson can happen. Atkinson doesn’t discuss racial issues, and the “Black Lives Matter” movement is acknowledged only via a few placards, but that element doesn’t fit into his otherwise strong line of reasoning.
Instead, the “Detropia” d.p. sits in on training sessions, congressional hearings, SWAT invasions and riot situations, avoiding the usual talking heads to offer a more immediate and visceral vision of the nation’s path. What is incontrovertible is that the country’s No. 1 law enforcement seminar trainer, Dave Grossman, reinforces the idea of “us vs. them,” fertilizing a mindset in which the police see themselves as fighters of evil rather than builders and protectors of community. It’s chilling to hear him preach about “righteous violence,” making ill-considered parallels with superheroes.
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Equally chilling are shots of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles rolling down picture-perfect tree-lined streets of middle America, yet that’s become a more common sight than anyone could have anticipated. As the U.S. became mired in two Gulf Wars and then the undefinable “War on Terror,” military expenditure skyrocketed, feeding a booming industry. Pairing fear-mongering (terrorists are among us!) with the sales pitch of highly-paid lobbyists, Homeland Security has poured $34 billion into police departments since 9/11, insisting that law enforcement position themselves as a kind of home army to make America safe from criminals as well as extremists.
Scientific statistics seem to be beside the point: Atkinson sits in on a disturbing city council meeting in Concord, N.H., where elected officials are deciding whether to accept a BearCat armored truck into this sleepy community which recorded only two murders since 2004. The director includes several testimonies from citizens outraged at the idea (for at least a nod towards balance, he should have added someone who was pro), and yet the council members voted to accept this governmental gift.
More enraging is a Senate Committee Hearing from 2014, at which Alan F. Estevez, principal deputy undersecretary for acquisition for the Defense Department, is grilled as to why certain army surplus materiel are being offered to local law enforcement, including bayonets. What’s the purpose of providing cops with bayonets? Even Estevez hasn’t an answer, and he’s not especially bothered by the idea, nor is he able to defend the Department’s complete lack of oversight once the goods are delivered.
In truth, these things have been in the pages of investigative journals and newspapers for several years, but maybe it takes a documentary to generate the kind of anger necessary to galvanize the public (that’s being optimistic). Atkinson embeds himself with SWAT teams invading impoverished households in unsuccessful drug searches, making crystal clear how an imbalance of power and a disproportionate use of force are the direct results of government programs designed to militarize law enforcement.
Visuals are solid, though at times it looks like the filmmakers went overboard with color correction. Unfortunately, an unnecessary and omnipresent rumbling soundscape designed to instill trepidation cheapens the argument.