By Gar Smith
From the Berkeley Daily Planet (October 21, 2016)
Filmmaker Craig Atkinson’s dad was a Detroit-area cop for 29 years and a member of his town’s first SWAT team in 1989. Both the filmmaker and his retired father are troubled by the direction policing has taken in the US over the post-9/11 years and Do Not Resist—a visceral, unnarrated 73-minute documentary—presents a powerful warning about the perils and growing presence of an American Police State.
Director/cinematographer/editor Atkinson’s pro-police background enabled him to gain uncommon entrée into the world of policing—hanging out with cops, attending their conferences and training sessions, even squeezing his camera inside urban tanks crowded with automatic weapons and combat-ready enforcers heading to suburban drug raids.
The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act prohibits the federal government from using military personnel to enforce domestic laws. In the 1960’s, however, when UC Berkeley was besieged by bayonet-wielding soldiers, we saw how the National Guard could be deployed to avoid this law. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon and the War Lobby found a new way to entrench their powers and enrich their coffers—by turning domestic police into a virtual army equipped with full-scale combat weaponry including assault rifles, drones, and armored personnel carriers.
But here’s the problem: when you adopt these weapons, you also adopt the killer mentality they are designed to serve.
Atkinson’s camera was on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri, as a crowd awaited a Grand Jury verdict on whether officer Darren Wilson would be charged with the shooting death of Michael Brown. Under a nighttime sky bursting with bolts of lightening, the situation had reached a dicey equilibrium—as long as protestors kept moving, the police would make no arrests. But when midnight came, the police ordered everyone to disperse.
“We are not armed! We are not looting!” the protestors yelled, standing firm on their First Amendment turf.
There was no real reason for the order to disperse—other than for the police to establish that they were the ones who give the orders and everyone must obey. It’s one of the oldest friction points in human history: the conflict between Master and Slave. The demand had the predictable result: an initiation of police violence enhanced by blasts of tear gas grenades, followed by angry words, broken store windows and burning cars.
In the midst of the turmoil, the filmmakers captured an emotionally searing moment with an African American police officer and an impassioned protestor standing face-to-face, yelling and desperately trying to be heard by the other.
Some officers subsequently called the police response to the Fergusson demonstrations an “embarrassment,” with police responsible for escalating the situation.
During a national task force hearing on police violence, one speaker (a man who spent years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit) reminded the panel about something that is typically forgotten: “This country was founded on riots.” He went on to observe that “a badge is a powerful thing and sometimes it’s like money. It plays tricks on people’s minds. They think they’re God.”
The Cop as Superhero, Caped Avenger, and God
Dave Grossman is “America’s Number One trainer of all US military and local law enforcement” personnel. He’s a cheerleader for tyranny who flatters his audiences by telling them they are exceptional, necessary and all-powerful.
“The policeman is the MAN of the city,” Grossman grins as the camera rolls. “You fight violence with superior violence. Righteous violence, YEAH! Violence is your tool. You are men and women of violence. You must master it or it will destroy you, yeah?”
And Grossman describes some unexpected fringe benefits. “End of shift. Gunfight. Bad guys down. I’m alive. Finally get home at the end of the incident and they all say: ‘Best sex I’ve had in months.'” One of the little-known perks of police-work—violence as Viagra.
In one emotional wind-up, Grossman tells his spell-bound listeners to take a moment some night to illegally park on a freeway overpass, step out of their cars, place their hands on the bridge railings, gaze out over the city they protect, and “Let your cape blow in the wind. Hoo-ahh!”
According to Do Not Resist, Grossman is required reading at the FBI and police academies across the US.
Do Not Resist shows the human side of these officers—many of them decent people trapped in an indecent proposition. “I’m just doing my job,” one young white officer says apologetically after smashing his way into a home in a black neighborhood, “You just got caught in the middle.”
And there is an unexpected moment that answers the question “How do cops flirt?” Keyword: “Shield bump!”
Militarizing the Cops. Subverting the Constitution
FBI chief Robert Comey appears on screen before a conference of US police officers and praises the controversial urban surveillance centers known as “fusion centers.” Comey hails them as a key tool for police to stay “in touch” and respond “to a metastasizing threat.” And just how dire is the “metastasizing threat” of domestic terrorist violence? According to the US National Safety Council, Atkinson notes, the likelihood dying from a terrorist attack is about 1 in 20 million.
In August 2013, in a small town that has seen only two murders in the past 12 years, a city council is meeting to consider accepting a $250,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security. But there’s a catch: the money can only be used to buy a heavily armored Bearcat military assault vehicle.
One local resident, a retired Marine Corp colonel, advises the council: “You don’t need this. . . . What’s happening is we’re building a domestic military because it’s unlawful and unconstitutional to use American troops on American soil. . . .We’re building an army over here and I can’t believe people aren’t seeing it.”
Since 9/11 Department of Homeland Security has handed out $34 billion in tax dollars in programs designed to militarize our domestic police force. The Pentagon has thrown in another $5 billion to up-arm America’s cops.
In some cases, $1.2 million MRAPs (war-surplus vehicles used in deadly combat in Iraq) have been handed out for free. But there are a couple of downsides. Sometimes the new owners find a severed finger or a patch of burned flesh in the recycled war tools. Also, the 25,000-pound MRAPs are prone to roll-over accidents. Avoiding this requires special training, but that is not included when the cops are given these top-heavy war toys.
One police chief argues MRAPs are useful when executing “no-knock warrants.” You know, the kind of unannounced armed police home invasions have a tendency to spark unpredictable and potentially threatening responses from started residents who suddenly find themselves under attack.
In a Senate hearing, Sen. Rand Paul asks a government official why the Pentagon has handed out 12,000 bayonets. Another Senator wants to know why a small town with only one deputy was given two MRAP assault vehicles. The government official has no explanation.
Nearly 40% of the supposed “hand-me-downs” are actually brand-new-never-been-used. When these expensive gadgets of war are given away, one savvy Senator asks, doesn’t that mean the government has to pay through the nose when the Pentagon needs to purchase replacements?
SWATing Down Civil Rights and Civilians, Too
Under Pentagon rules, none of these combat-level weapons are to be used for the suppression of domestic disturbances. But that is, in fact, exactly what has been happening.
A SWAT training exercise in South Carolina filmed by Atkinson shows a line of 20-plus combat-ready cops (some in military camo suits) advancing on a row of paper targets. But this is neither a combat situation nor a standard policing operation.
The soldier-cops are not crouching behind barricades to fire. They are not carrying shields. The are marching forward together in a line. Five steps forward: halt and fire. Five steps forward: halt and fire. This continues until the cops are standing three feet in front of the targets.
Look closely. The targets are lined up like the participants in the front of a protest march. All of the targets show the silhouette of an unarmed male with his hands at his side. The set-up for this exercise does not reflect anything that resembles a realistic “threat situation.” What it suggests instead, is practice for the mass murder of unarmed civilians. Five steps forward: halt and fire. Wait for the first row of victims to fall to the ground and . . . . Five steps forward: halt and fire.
We’re the Cops of the World, Boys
We used to talk about the stabilizing role of America as “the world’s policeman” but the militarizing of our domestic police has brought the real truth of this fictious Global Cop home to roost. When those same weapons that our troops used to point at people in Iraq are pointed at us, cops no longer look like saviors. The truth is that the modern police force is not entrusted to “Protect and Serve.” The real mission is to “Control and Oppress.”
Not surprisingly, there is a growing overlap between our troops and our cops: today, as many as 40% of a typical police force may be former military vets.
Interviewed after one “domestic training exercise,” a burly supervisor admits his focus is on (1) “anything dealing with ISIS,” (2) “weapons of mass destruction,” and (3) “any type of unruly crowds that we would have to deal with on civil disturbance.”
In 1980s, Do Not Resist tells us, there were, on average, 3,000 SWAT incidents a year. Today, SWAT teams are being unleashed at a rate of 50-80,000 times per year.
On several occasions, Do Not Resist places the audience inside the cramped space of an armored personnel carrier as militarized teams of Grossman’s caped crusaders prepare to storm into suburban neighborhoods and pounce on unsuspecting family homes.
In Richland County, South Carolina, a SWAT team being prepped for acting on a warrant involving suspected drug activity is advised that the suspect has children who may be in the home. But there were “no children’s toys visible around the house,” a supervisor announces, so the raid will proceed with the goal of “taking them all down.”
The unnecessary violence that unfolds is shocking, unnerving, and unnecessary. The largely white SWAT team leaves an African American family traumatized. And yes, there were children in the house, including at least one infant.
The break-in fails to find anything more than a few small crumbs of marijuana for personal use but one of the cops seizes an opportunity to confiscate several hundred dollars of cash from the pockets of one of the residents.
The Future of Policing Is Here
It’s already happening, Do Not Resist reveals. Aerial surveillance and facial recognition programs already are being used by the FBI and other government agencies. One commercialized system employs techniques developed under the Pentagon’s “Angel Fire”—an aerial spy program once used inside Iraq to monitor the citizens of Fallujah as they went about their daily lives.
In Los Angles, a police officer shows off the onboard spy system in the patrol car she uses to patrol the streets. Cameras capture license plate numbers and facial recognition software spots people on the street who have outstanding warrants and can be targeted for arrest.
“When you’re out in public,” the officer explains, “there is no expectation of privacy.”
LA police reportedly command 1,000 surveillance cameras for monitoring people in the urban outdoors. At the same time, the LAPD is busily spying on social media sites, trolling for keywords that might reveal any plans for imminent public “protests.” And once those protests “metastasize,” a new generation of military-based robotic drones—sophisticated devices that can “swarm” and communicate with one another—can be used to monitor the marchers. The potential use of drones armed with teargas, rifles, and Hellfire missiles remain, as they say, “on the table.”
Other agencies are preoccupied with a new branch of police science—forecasting who is likely to commit a crime in the future. A criminologist expounds on the promise of “pre-crime” enforcement—an policing technique straight out of the Tom Cruise sci-fi film Minority Report that allows police to arrest people before they commit a planned crime.
As one academic tells the Do Not Resist crew, he would be willing to mistakenly arrest “a couple of Luke Sykwalkers” if that also meant arresting a single “Darth Vader” along the way.
At the end of the film, Grossman, in a wild-eyed messianic frenzy, sums it all up when he tells a roomful of uniformed listeners: “We are at war and you are on the frontlines of this war.”
That statement is increasingly true for both the cops in Grossman’s tutorials and for every citizen on our country’s increasingly embattled streets.
Postscript: More more information on the militarization of America’s police, see Radley Balko’s 2013 book, Rise of the Warrior Cop.