“Do Not Resist” opens with peaceful protest: Men and women of all colors and ages rail against an oppressive police force that is actively killing them, but as the clock strikes midnight, the mood changes. “If you’re found after 12:00, we cannot ensure your safety,” a young woman says, portending what’s to come. “The police have not told us how they will respond to anyone they find after 12:00.”
A curfew has been set. Hundreds of heavily armed officers — equipped with shields, rifles, and tanks — are approaching large swaths of impassioned protesters. Then the police release the tear gas at citizens who are only demanding to be heard, not through violence but words. But the police force is rendered illiterate, or at least they don’t seem particularly interested in what words have to offer. A scared community scatters. In between the tears and screaming, you hear things like “No one is doing anything wrong!” and “There’s no looting tonight!”
As the protest disperses, the police retire for the evening. “Did you have fun?” an officer asks his colleague. “Yes!” she responds. They then do a celebratory shield bump.
These are the images that jumpstart “Do Not Resist.” From afar, they appear to be from a war-torn third world country. But they’re not. This is Ferguson, Mo., population around 21,000, ten days after the shooting of Michael Brown.
Directed by Craig Atkinson, the movie (now playing in New York City, opening Oct. 14 in Los Angeles) focuses primarily on the militarization of police in the US, where officers are transformed into “warrior cops” to create a domestic army. This is not, however, a haphazard, single-minded look at the boys in blue. Atkinson wants nuance and complexity, so he begins by going to the source of it all: police training. It’s here that minds are molded, ethics written in ink.
“You are men and women of violence,” says Lt. Col. Dave Grossman at a police seminar. “You fight violence with superior, righteous violence. You must master it, or it will destroy you.” Grossman gives this lecture year-round. His books are required reading at the FBI Academy and Police Academies across the country.
Point being: these ideals are not instilled in only a few stray officers scattered across U.S. towns. They are everywhere. Grossman is everywhere. (“I’ve been on the road for 18 years,” he notes.) This encouragement to be “men and women of violence” is standard practice. It’s presented as an exercise in nobility. “Do Not Resist” contends it’s precisely these ideas that lead to tragedies like Ferguson.
Somewhere along the way, the documentary falls somewhere in between an elongated “60 Minutes” segment and a feature film. It’s a brisk 72-minutes, compact with hard-hitting data, rare behind-the-scenes footage of police activity (training, private discussions, on-the-job combat, etc.), and compelling personal anecdotes.
“Do Not Resist” especially shines when it turns to its portraits of those caught in the crossfire, such as a young African-American man whose home is raided by a monstrous task force. The scene plays like the climax of “Zero Dark Thirty,” except in this case, the culprit is not a radical murderous terrorist but a college student who may sell marijuana. An exhaustive search through his home comes up essentially empty. “Where’s the weed?” a confused officer yells. They find ground up remnants of pot at the bottom of his book bag, and because he’s a young black man in 2016 America, he’s booked for possession.
Or the disgruntled citizens of Concord, Massachusetts, who are pleading to their local city council not to accept a $250,000 grant for a BEARCAT (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Track), since all of two people have been murdered in their small town since 2004. This tendency to overspend is evident in the numbers: “Since 9/11,” an on-screen card notes, “the Department of Homeland Security has given police departments $34 billion in grants to purchase equipment.”
You’ve heard these stories on the nightly news before; you’ve probably even watched footage of heinous acts perpetrated by the police. In the American consciousness, some of these incidents undoubtedly hold more weight than others. But “Do Not Resist” is not about a single galling or galvanizing event. It’s not about the deaths of Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, or Michael Brown. It’s about the accumulation of past, present, and future crimes committed by the people we thought were supposed to protect us.
It’s about a war built on misconceptions on both sides, simplified as a conflict between an anarchist citizenry and a totalitarian police force. Neither aforementioned descriptions are accurate, of course, but this battle plays out in the back alleys and dimly lit streets all around this country, where the police have executed at least, according to the film, 2195 people since August 9, 2014, the day of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
Seminar speaker Grossman bookends “Do Not Resist” with his fear-mongering rhetoric. “We are at war!” he bellows to hundreds of seated officers, listening with bated breath. Grossman never gets into specifics about with whom we are at war, probably because these battles are mostly internal. One side is driven by fear of the unknown and the upending of traditional white power structures, and the other responds in fear of being shot.
Atkinson tries to understand how exactly we as a nation got to this unruly place, and at its best, he crafts a dynamic and timely piece of multimedia reportage. It’s not groundbreaking cinema, but “Do Not Resist” effectively begins (and furthers) this ongoing conversation about the escalating police state, racial profiling, and beyond.