For the years leading up to the invasion of Iraq and after, the Bush Administration popularized the catchy mantra, “We will fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them here,” and yet as Craig Atkinson’s arresting and essential “Do Not Resist” insists, while the terrorists may never have arrived en masse as predicted in the wake of 9/11, the war did in the form of arming police departments across the U.S. as if they were the military with armored vehicles and M14 rifles, many of which actually were shipped back to America through a program called MRAP.
As “Do Not Resist” opens in Ferguson, Missouri ten days after the murder of Mike Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson, the scene resembles Baghdad as tear gas canisters are shot into the night sky, a comparison made by many before yet never with the context that Atkinson provides depicting step by step how deep the connection has become. Filmed in a fly-on-the-wall style that never ceases to amaze which rooms it gets into, the film zips around from City Council chambers in Concord, New Hampshire where the acquisition of a $250,000 tank-like vehicle called a Bearcat is being considered for a town that has little serious crime to the halls of the U.S. Capitol in which the strange bedfellows of Senators Rand Paul, Claire McCaskill and Tom Coburn chastise the heads of MRAP, for among other things, the questionable procurement of bayonets for one police force to show how departments across the country are taking advantage of a generous $36 billion grant from the Department of Homeland Security to upgrade their equipment.
However, beyond all the money floating around, Atkinson captures the new attitude towards law enforcement that accompanies it, a mentality amongst officers that no longer seems to be protect and serve but to search and destroy, leading to training camps for SWAT teams where cops are positively giddy to practice with all the firearms on hand in preparation for largely meaningless drug busts where a a dozen or more police show up over less than a few grams of marijuana. “Do Not Resist” paints a picture so dire you wonder whether the all this added “protection” actually has ever benefitted the public, but does so with such sober observation and obvious depth of knowledge that while it raises plenty of questions, it leaves few about its thorough investigation.
This is hardly to say “Do Not Resist” is clinical – there’s a vibrancy to the way Atkinson gets in the thick of whatever situation he’s in as his own cinematographer and allows the jaw dropping moments to speak for themselves, ultimately leading to an interview with University of Penn criminology professor Richard Berk, where the serious possibility is raised of using data collection to identify criminals before they’re born. Infuriating and vital, the film feels as if it exists strictly in the present rather collecting information from the past, assembling a weapon every bit as powerful as the ones currently being handed out to police stations across the country. It’s a startling feature debut, not only for what it bears witness to, but how engaging it is in its presentation, making both its director and its subject well worth keeping a watchful eye on.