Is America Becoming a Police State? The Disturbing Questions of ‘Do Not Resist’
Documentary filmmaker Craig Atkinson wants everyone to know he doesn’t hate cops.
Far from it—he’s the loving son of a cop.
“My perception of law enforcement was always very favorable—and I still have a favorable opinion of police officers,” he told The Daily Beast. “I have great respect for my father. Growing up, I had a very biased view of my dad as an officer, and I knew he had a great deal of integrity as an individual. I assumed that all police officers operated in the same way he did.”
Yet Atkinson’s new movie, Do Not Resist—opening Friday at New York’s Film Forum and later nationwide—shows that actually they don’t. It depicts local police departments deploying military-grade equipment, in many cases armored vehicles gifted by the Homeland Security and Defense departments direct from Iraq and Afghanistan, while using brute force to control, and occasionally abuse, economically depressed minority communities.
Atkinson’s movie is especially timely as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to protest this year’s spate of police shootings of African American men—from Ferguson to Tulsa to Charlotte to, most recently, the suburbs of San Diego, where on Tuesday night cops shot Alfred Olango, an unarmed mentally ill person who was wandering in traffic.
The film also covers the police capacity to spy on law-abiding citizens with aerial surveillance technology and face-recognition software, and use demographic and sociological data to predict that certain people, even before they’re born, are likely to become hardened criminals—a disquieting innovation reminiscent of the pre-crime unit in the 2002 sci-fi movie Minority Report.
And the documentary explores a cop culture that—at least with many of the officers that Atkinson’s camera follows on ride-alongs, drug and gun busts, street protests and shoot-‘em-up training sessions—revels in high-tech weaponry and adrenalin rushes, and celebrates violence over First Amendment and privacy rights.
“You fight violence. What do you fight it with? Superior violence! Righteous violence, eh?” retired Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the inventor of an area of study he calls “Killology,” is caught on camera exhorting his trainees in one of the hundreds of seminars he conducts each year for local and federal law enforcement organizations. “Violence is your tool…You are men and women of violence. You master it, or it will destroy you.”
A charismatic showman with a flair for the outrageous, Grossman can’t help adding that after a day of fighting bad guys, his students will have the “best sex” they’ve ever had.
“Very few perks come with this job. You find one—relax and enjoy it.”
In an early scene of Do Not Resist—the end of a rain-soaked, lightning-punctuated night of tear-gas choked demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, 10 days after a black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson—Atkinson’s camera catches two helmeted cops in full riot gear, a man and a woman, comparing notes on the evening’s adventures as they walk to their vehicles and head home.
“Did you have fun?” the man laughingly asks the woman, who answers in the affirmative.
“Shield bump?” he suggests, and the two raise their plexiglass antiriot shields in an after-action toast.
Atkinson was his own cinematographer, and he and a colleague acquired Israeli Defense Force surplus gas masks after breathing the noxious vapors from canisters fired by the cops into peaceful protests during the August 2014 Ferguson drama.
He also risked life and limb to record the fires and looting of the riot that exploded after St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced, late on a November night, that Officer Wilson would not be indicted.
A native of the northern Detroit suburb of Oak Park, Michigan (with an ethnically and racially diverse population of around 30,000), the 34-year-old Atkinson—these days an artsy-bearded, slightly-built denizen of Brooklyn—grew up assisting in the work of his dad Steven Atkinson, a SWAT team leader who retired with the rank of lieutenant after 29 years on the Oak Park police force.
“He was forming the SWAT team, and sometimes they would need people to help with training,” Craig said, noting that he and his older brother Daniel participated in mock SWAT operations over the objections of their mother Paula. “My dad brought my brother and I along, and at first we would be hostages. So there would be a hide-and-seek scenario.
“As I got older, around 15, I would more often be an armed assailant. I’d have a revolver shooting blanks. It was very realistic training. The SWAT team would be coming after me in a factory, and judging by their tactics, I would position myself to see if I could take them out before they could take me out.”
Burnishing his pro-cop bona fides, Atkinson cited a cousin who’s a state trooper in Massachusetts and a close childhood friend who’s a police officer in Hawaii. He added that other than parking tickets, he’s never had a scrape with the law.
“Cops’ kids know how to get away with everything,” he confided. “That’s the real reason.”
Atkinson said his movie—which won the Best Documentary prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival—has so far received positive reviews from law enforcement officers, especially at a recent screening at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where members of New York Police Department were in the audience.
“An active duty guy stood up and publicly thanked me for making it,” Atkinson recounted, “and he said he was really encouraged that the whole idea was not to condemn officers but to point out areas that need fixing immediately in police work.”
Atkinson said his 63-year-old dad, meanwhile, was “devastated” when he screened the film, especially a scene in which a SWAT team on their way to a gun bust in an “MRAP” (as Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected military vehicles are nicknamed) initially had the address wrong, and had to search for it on a smartphone.
“He just couldn’t believe it,” Atkinson said, adding that his father remarked that if he were still a SWAT supervisor, he probably would have ordered disciplinary action.
What’s more, Atkinson added, “he was embarrassed that he had just purchased one of Dave Grossman’s books and given it to a friend.”
Atkinson pointed out that Jeronimo Yanez, the Minnesota police officer who last July shot and killed a black man named Philando Castile as he reached for his ID during a traffic stop, had attended a seminar at which Dave Grossman was an instructor.
“This is an officer who said afterward, ‘I don’t know why I shot him,’ ” Atkinson said. “He just automatically resorted to using his gun.”
It probably goes without saying that the 60-year-old Grossman, who more often than not is flying around the country to his law enforcement training seminars, is equally unappreciative of Atkinson and Do Not Resist.
“He may say, ‘I support cops, I’m the son of a cop,’ but that doesn’t matter,” Grossman told The Daily Beast, noting that he had not yet seen the film but was basing his comments on the trailer, in which he’s presented as wrong-headed and trigger happy. “That video will be feeding the cop haters, and by feeding the cop haters, the blood of those cops who are killed will be on his hands.”
Grossman, who complained that the trailer take his remarks out of context—suggesting that he was speaking about how police should interact with communities when he was actually talking about ISIS and other terrorists—predicted many more people will see the trailer than watch the entire documentary, and that “it will continue to feed the war on cops, and more cops will be murdered” as a result.
Already this year, 93 have died, 40 by gunfire, one by stabbing and 10 by vehicular homicide, according to the Officer Down Memorial web site, which tracks police deaths.
Atkinson, who said he filmed six hours of a Grossman training session and obviously doesn’t believe he will be responsible for the deaths of men and women like his father, fired back in an email to The Daily Beast: “What we put in the trailer and in the film is by no means the most offensive messaging in Dave Grossman's training. The material that we included in the film speaks for itself. Dave Grossman's comments are not mischaracterized or taken out of context.”
Indeed, Grossman, who told The Daily Beast that a “9/11 magnitude” terrorist attack is coming soon, gets the last word in Atkinson’s movie.
“We are at war, and you are the front line troops in this war,” he is shown exhorting his charges. “And folks, I want you to understand something. When they [the terrorists] come to murder the children, the individuals who try to disarm our cops”—presumably a veiled reference to critics like Atkinson—“they will be hunted down and across the nation they will be attacked, they will be spit on, they will be driven deep into their slimy little holes, so they never come out again. In the very near future—the idiots trying to disarm our cops.”
Grossman adds: “Folks, there ain't nobody in Mexico right now complaining about the militarization of police. There ain't nobody in Russia complaining about militarization of police. They will look like the biggest idiots the world has ever seen and we will staple a sign to their forehead that says ‘idiot—never listen to this fool again.’ In the very near future, you will be vindicated.”
For the moment, however, it seems like Craig Atkinson is doing just fine.