Many American police departments have adopted a motto, “to protect and serve,” originally coined by the L.A.P.D. in the mid-1950s. This, incongruously, was also a period in which the nation’s third largest law-enforcement agency was fostering a deep-rooted culture of graft and corruption, perpetrating substantial human rights abuses and egregious misuses of power. Looking back across the breadth of American history, police forces have frequently been found culpable of applying inequitable or excessive interpretations of justice, typically along racial and economic lines; in short, it’s not always easy to tell who’s being protected and served, and at the expense of whom.
In spite of the undeniable necessity of law and order, and the often noble sacrifices made by the public servants who maintain these crucial networks, a spate of recent incidents of police misconduct across the United States has again raised questions over whether such overreach is due to flaws in training and engagement, or is merely an essential quality of a system founded on the calculated repression of marginalized and dissident people.
Do Not Resist digs into these complex questions, with a particular focus on the recent militarization of local police bureaus, a trend which has amplified existing arguments over the state-sanctioned application of violence as a means of preserving law and order. Chronicling the mounting conflict between law enforcement and those who believe themselves mistreated by it, the film explicates its points with blunt but persuasive efficiency, detailing a steady expansion of force and belligerence by authorities across the country.
The stockpiling of heavy weaponry, and the anxious outlook which has convinced many of its necessity, is framed as an outcome of the war on terror, which has left a damaged country flush with disbursements from Homeland Security and a surplus military machinery, bolstered by a persistent culture of macho hostility. Filtering back into domestic policies, such aggressiveness has precipitated a bellicose style of policing that treats suspected criminals like foreign combatants, employing a heavy-handed use of M4-rifle-equipped SWAT teams and armored fighting vehicles, often deployed without the rigor and discipline required in actual military scenarios.
Opening with frenzied footage from the 2014 Ferguson unrest, Craig Atkinson’s film remains deliberate and dispassionate, eschewing talking heads and overt opinionating for concrete, illustrative examples of problems and issues. Despite a clearly developed political point of view, it also manages to maintain a healthy measure of empathy for the officers themselves, portrayed at the center of a system which actually makes their job more complicated while nurturing their worst impulses. Most significantly, Do Not Resist stands out as a bracing contemporary document of the ongoing fetishization of force, cataloguing a variety of perspectives in an effort to show how this tendency toward brutal retaliation has expanded from an auxiliary, usually concealed feature of law enforcement into an increasingly common phenomenon.
This results in the surreal sight of tank-like MRAPs patrolling the streets of Concord, New Hampshire, a city with just over 40,000 people—and a single murder in the last 12 years. A town in Wisconsin, meanwhile, possesses two of these vehicles, originally designed to protect troops from IED blasts, despite having only one full-time police officer on its payroll. Further examples of grotesquerie abound, from a motivational speaker employing the fiery rhetoric of a doomsday preacher to promote “righteous violence,” to arms conventions soliciting small-town buyers, to stray bits of overlooked gore turning up in the nooks and crannies of secondhand vehicles. The struggle depicted boils down to one for power over public spaces and the bodies that reside within them, with the creeping specter of state control represented through the symbolic vector of tear gas, a ghostly, amorphous weapon dispersed with insidious effectiveness upon crowds of angry protestors.
Armed with a stunning wealth of footage acquired from a wide variety of sources, Do Not Resist steadily reveals new areas in which such proto-dystopian policies are becoming predominant, from predictive algorithms tracking potential criminals to the rise of drone-mounted spy technology and social-media surveillance on American citizens. The presentation of these facts remains straightforward, scaling back from the unsteady immediacy of the film’s initial GoPro-captured protest footage to a measured procession of town-hall meetings, expert interviews, and routine ride-alongs.
Among these scenes is the documentary’s most sustained examples of Orwellian absurdity, as officers pilot their massive vehicle to a supposed stash house, then wring their hands as the place turns up empty, flabbergasted that their intelligence has proven faulty. They finally settle for pinning a futile charge on a young black man, detaining him for what amounts to a few errant crumbs of weed scraped from the bottom of a backpack.
This scene functions as a summation of the film’s prevailing conflict, detailing the clash between cold analytical systems of control, based on the pitiless results of statistical analyses, and the more naturalistic rhythms of basic human connection. What begins as a mere misunderstanding becomes increasingly fraught as the mechanics of state power assert themselves. The arresting officer at first seems apologetic to the man he’s apprehending, and even hesitantly agrees to a simple favor, safeguarding a wad of money intended to purchase a lawnmower for a budding landscaping business.
Soon, however, training and procedure take over, draining any semblance of kindness from the situation. The officer seizes the cash as evidence, returning some spare change and a cigarette lighter to the man’s family. The police then depart, as the filmmakers stay behind to catalogue the destruction left behind, highlighting the needlessly smashed windows and dejected exhaustion of the homeowners, who recall how many times this exact scenario has played out in the past. The MRAP, outfitted like a gigantic beige armadillo, rolls on to its next destination, its heavily armed passengers nestled securely inside its reinforced steel belly.