Ferguson, the militarization of the police, and covert surveillance all happened at about the same time, and Craig Atkinson suspected that there was a connection. His startling and disquieting documentary, DO NOT RESIST, is the result of his investigation. When I spoke to him on October 21, 2016, we covered all three topics, starting with his experiences being at the first protest in Ferguson and that remarkable exchange the opens the film, that of Captain Ron Johnson, a veteran African-American police officer patiently listening to a young African-American man venting his frustration at what the killing of Michael Brown represents. It’s a touchstone for the remarkably even-handed film as a whole, contrasting what we want our police force to do, and how the incomplete militarization of those same police have failed to live up to that.
That’s right. Incomplete militarization. That explanation, along with disturbing software that putatively predicts crime before it’s committed, covert surveillance of the civilian population, were just the start of a conversation that considered a culture of violence glorified by consultant Dave Grossman, small towns arming their police with military vehicles, the real targets of the increasing use of SWAT teams, and what it was like to find out how much police forces around the country have embraced his film. N.B. The police sirens heard at 24:56 is purely coincidental.
DO NOT RESIST is his illuminating, immersive documentary about the militarization of police forces from sleepy New England towns to major metropolises. Eschewing narration, Atkinson shows us the tension between the civilian population and the police tasked with keeping order, including not just protest marches in Ferguson demanding justice for Michael Brown, and families subjected to a SWAT team assault for a gram of pot, but also town council meetings in those sleepy New England towns during which citizens question the necessity, and wisdom, of adding armored vehicles to the police force. Atkinson also introduces us to SWAT games, law enforcement conventions, and the disturbing world of predictive algorithms that putatively identify criminals before they have committed a crime. The film won the Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca, and it is Atkinson’s directorial debut.