The Post-9/11 Iron Heel of the State
The chillingly named Do Not Resist, which won the Tribecca Film Festival’s Best Documentary Feature award, opens with a tense demonstration shot at Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 only 10 days after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an African American youth not carrying any weapons. The footage shows heavily armed, helmeted officers with body armor, shields and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (used to counter IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan), who look more like Marines at Fallujah’s battleground than they do policemen patrolling American streets. After a midnight curfew they open fire with teargas on mostly Black demonstrators insisting they have the right to “peaceably protest.” The armed-to-the-teeth riot police proclaim: “If you’re standing still you may be subject to arrest.” A young Black woman comments, “They’ve got to stop giving these boys these toys because they don’t know how to handle them.”
This could be the mantra of Craig Atkinson’s 72 minute, harrowing documentary about the massive militarization of police in the name of fighting the so-called “war on terror.” While Oliver Stone’s feature Snowden reveals the mushrooming of an all-seeing surveillance state after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist sneaks attacks, the nonfiction Do Not Resist documents a parallel phenomenon in police forces, from major metropolitan centers to small town U.S.A. The hyper-monitoring and muscular, excessive use of force are the flipsides of each other and sometimes overlap. Indeed, in press notes Atkinson said, “One technology provider…offered…the same IBM platform the NSA uses to collect web communications to police departments…”
Atkinson exposes how, since 9/11, police forces such as LAPD are deploying enhanced data collection and monitoring technology, including facial recognition systems and license plate scanners in contemporary Los Angeles, where 1,000 cameras also surveill the populace. But Do Not Resist focuses on Atkinson’s contention that “the federal government has given police departments more than $40 billion in [military surplus] equipment with no stipulations on how it should be deployed…” In fact, the film cites a town so small it has only one lawman – but was offered two armored vehicles.
To show how the “boys” in Blue – and camouflage – are playing with their rather expensive, dangerous toys, Atkinson’s roving camera (which he operated) take us not only to the frontlines of Ferguson and other demos, but to a police convention and training seminar, congressional and city council hearings, a ride-along with a SWAT team carrying out a raid and more. In his directorial debut Atkinson – the son of a Detroit area SWAT commander – paints a compelling portrait of how policing has been amped up as part 9/11’s aftershocks.
At a police chiefs convention author Dave Grossman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and expert in what he calls “killology,” holds forth. In what sounds somewhat like advocacy for a sort of protection racket, this motivational speaker for law enforcers tells them: “We are at war and you are on the frontlines…The good news is you have job security because you have what the world desperately needs,” proclaims the former West Point psychology professor.
High ranking representatives of the Department of Homeland Security and Defense Department are seen testifying before the U.S. Senate. At a city council hearing of Concord – New Hampshire’s capital, with a population of about 43,000 – lawmakers and residents ponder whether or not to accept a $250,000 federal grant to purchase a Bearcat, a Military Counter Attack and Rescue Vehicle. A speaker warns, “we’re building a domestic military…There’s always free cheese in the mousetrap,” while opponents bear signs saying “More Mayberry Less Fallujah.” Nonetheless, the council votes 11-4 in favor of getting the SWAT team armored vehicle.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a corresponding, exponential increase in the boys playing with their toys, as the number of SWAT raids has skyrocketed nationwide. According to Atkinson, from 1989-2002, his father’s SWAT unit carried out a total of 29 search warrants, while police departments of comparable sizes today conduct 200 per year. In an eye-opening sequence the filmmaker accompanies a SWAT team on a raid in South Carolina – not against “self-radicalized” ISIS sympathizers and the like but purported drug dealers. Using battery rams and the like, the heavily armed SWAT team swoops down on a rural home, bashing down the door and windows. But they fail to find a huge drug stash (let alone an American Abu Bakr al Baghdadi) in the Black household – only a smalltime offender with a miniscule amount of marijuana. Nevertheless, the policemen confiscate the $76 the perp has on his person – which illustrates the role of policemen as de facto fees and tax collectors, which was a major irritant at Ferguson – but refuse to compensate the family for the damage done to their residence.
Back at Ferguson, crowds surge and teargas is fired after it’s announced – quite remarkably, at night – that officer Darren Wilson will not be charged in connection to his shooting of unarmed Michael Brown. All hell breaks loose, captured by Atkinson’s probing camera lens, as the windows of businesses are broken and cars torched.
As Do Not Resist demonstrates, despite the weaponization and militarization on steroids of America’s local police forces, “the problem is…there was never an opportunity to use the equipment on domestic terrorism,” as Atkinson points out. Most of this Pentagon boondoggle and giveaway to urban police departments and local sheriffs has gone towards battling protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, drug suspects and other run-of-the-mill criminals. The crime busters rarely, if ever, target terrorists, the way they were supposed to after 9/11. For surveillers and law enforcers alike, their drastic domestic shock and awe is often actually deployed against innocent, unarmed Americans exercising what used to be their constitutionally guaranteed rights.
Snowden focuses on sweeping cyber-surveillance which has ordinary, innocent citizens in the NSA’s crosshairs, with critics contending these über-snoopers’ spy programs do little, if anything, to protect Americans from terror. Similarly, Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist argues that beefing up stateside police with military weaponry, training and brainwashing has also not been aimed at terrorists. After watching Snowden and Do Not Resist, one can’t help but wonder: Is America the land of the free or a police state under the iron heel of the government, where resistance is futile?