Movies

in focus

What happens when police go the military route

A scene from Craig Atkinson’s “Do Not Resist,” screening at the Museum of Fine Arts.
VANISH Films
A scene from Craig Atkinson’s “Do Not Resist,” screening at the Museum of Fine Arts.

In a Concord, N.H., town hall meeting seen in Craig Atkinson’s disturbing, eloquently observed documentary, “Do Not Resist,” citizens debate with city councilors the merits of accepting a 20-ton military vehicle as a gift from the Department of Homeland Security.

In Concord, according to a subtitle, the population is 42,900 and only two murders have occurred since 2004.

One person points out that the vehicle is, in fact, not free, but cost US taxpayers $250,000, and will add to the national debt.

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Another notes that the chances of someone dying in a terrorist attack in the United States are one in 48 million. “Terrorism works,” she says, “because it makes people act irrationally.”

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And an Iraq veteran expresses incredulity that after seeing these vehicles deployed in Fallujah, he is now seeing them being considered for use in his hometown. He hints darkly that the government is “building a domestic army and I can’t believe people don’t see it.”

The city council agrees to accept the gift by a vote of 11 to four.

As Atkinson’s film indicates through intense on-the-ground footage and subtly cogent editing, the biggest problem with such “gifts” is that they will be used. Thousands are given away, and a chilling shot shows stockpiled vehicles lining a road at a military depot for what looks like miles. Guys just love to spin around town in a weapon designed to crush heavily armed insurgents thousands of miles away.

The same goes for some of the thousands of other militarized SWAT teams in police departments small and large across the country. No doubt the vast majority see their work as an essential, self-sacrificing public service, and indeed it is. But for many it’s also a lot of fun.

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A young officer in full military gear heading to a raid describes how the first time he and his team smashed into a house to enforce a search warrant, he had a giant smile on his face because it was so cool.

Dave Grossman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who for years has been teaching his course on police tactics to FBI agents and numerous departments across the country, assures a class that after conducting a tense, successful raid they will go home and have the best sex of their lives. He evokes an apocalyptic vision of hordes of evil people with guns killing our children, and mobs of the infuriated citizenry hunting down the cowardly liberals who would take the weapons away from the police that they need to protect them.

That’s the human side of things. The computerized and technological developments are no less assuring. Private companies performing aerial surveillance to clients, providing coverage almost as good as a Predator drone. Face-recognition imagery that links to a data bank that rates the individuals according to their criminal-risk factor. Programs that analyze the background of parents and grandparents to determine the likelihood that an unborn child will commit a violent crime.

Does this mean racial profiling? A criminology professor wonders. Perhaps such profiling is necessary because it works, he concludes.

The footage from demonstrations against the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which punctuate the film, shows just how well it does.

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“Do Not Resist” screens at the Museum of Fine Arts from Nov. 3 to Nov. 26. The 6:30 p.m. Nov. 3 screening will be followed by a panel discussion. It will include the filmmaker; Segun Idowu (co-organizer of the Boston Police Camera Action Team); William H. Smith (founding executive director of the National Center for Race Amity); and Rahsaan Hall (director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts).

www.mfa.org/programs/series/do-not-resist

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.