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Friday, January 20, 2017

DO NOT RESIST and 13TH Show Us The Past, Present, and Future of American Crime

When we see criminals and police officers portrayed in the media, there is typically a very standard narrative: This person is bad, and that person saved you from the bad one. On the news, in pop culture, this narrative is everywhere, and it begins young. It's an ironclad rule many children learn on the playground: Cop good, robber bad.

But like most things we learn as children, it's more complicated than that. A criminal isn't someone who does something wrong, they're someone who breaks a law -- and laws, made by man, are inherently imperfect. Some laws are racist. Some are sexist. Some are classist. Some are passed to protect the rich from everyone else, while others are passed to protect everyone else from the rich. They aren't handed down from above, but come from politicians over a period of centuries, each of whom is catering to a different electorate.

Ava DuVernay's 13th is an American history that begins just after the Civil War and goes up to, basically, today, but her focus is on criminality. In the last hundred and fifty years, where did our laws come from? How did they lead to a system in which blacks are vastly more likely than whites to end up with a criminal record?

She begins with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which freed the slaves:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Black Americans were free, but even within that amendment lay the seeds of further slavery. DuVernay's documentary makes a compelling case for how those seeds sprouted in the decades that followed, from pop culture like The Birth of a Nation through Jim Crow to the for-profit prison industry today. DuVernay's documentary is a comprehensive intellectual argument that demonstrates a legal system that is mostly good and often well-intentioned, but built upon a bedrock of lies, propaganda, and racism, a corrupting influence the necessitates sweeping reform of our criminal justice system.

Ava DuVernay's 13th was perhaps 2016's most essential documentary, a sweeping look at a history of race and criminality in America. But because of its very breadth, it rarely has time to dig deep into any one area. And, at heart, 13th is an argument, an appeal to rationality, made by dozens of seasoned experts in criminal justice and damning archival footage that demonstrates how administrations like Nixon's used race to corrupt justice. It's expertly edited and shockingly comprehensive, but its focus is much more on the criminals than on the cops. DuVernay is telling a big picture story, and that big picture often argues that when the system is so broken, enforcement of it is similarly destructive. But you may disagree. Can't good cops still do good work, even in a deeply damaged system?

That's where 2016's other excellent police documentary comes in, Craig Atkinson's Do Not Resist.

Do Not Resist opens with the Ferguson protests, which began after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. Atkinson captures stunning footage of the police in riot gear and armored vehicles patrolling an American street like a war zone, but he doesn't linger there. Instead, he makes a curious -- and ultimately powerful -- decision: He takes us to a seminar room, where nationally-respected law enforcement speaker Dave Grossman is hosting a police training session. We aren't there for long, maybe two minutes, but it's a chilling two minutes, one that re-contextualizes what we just saw in Ferguson. In it, Grossman explicitly connects masculinity, violence, and policing in one bubble, all before concluding: 
You fight violence. What do you fight it with? Superior violence. Righteous violence. Violence is your tool. Violence is your enemy. Violence is the realm we operate in. You are men and women of violence.
Do Not Resist uses this trick over and over again, alternating between on-the-street ride-along footage and interviews with cops with scenes of politicians and administrators, many of whom enable the worst impulses of these cops. And some of those worst impulses are on full display, between incredibly frank interviews, training seminars that display a naked hatred for civilians, and ride-alongs with cops on routine busts. Much of the information here is widely known already and available with more depth from books like Radley Balko's essential Rise of the Warrior Cop. But the footage that Atkinson captures here is powerful in its own right, the kind of thing that American needs to see, to feel, to understand a story like this.

A common refrain is that we can't judge the police based on a few bad apples. Ignoring the obvious flaw in that argument - a few bad apples spoil the bunch; by failing to root out corruption, you corrupt everything - I think Do Not Resist suggests a systemic cultural problem in policing itself. As I listened to FBI director James Comey describe American citizens as monsters and police trainer Dave Grossman describe American citizens as supervillains, I realized that the problem isn't 'a few bad apples', but a philosophy of law enforcement based more on action movie aesthetics than policy, built more around adrenaline than ethics. There is an inbuilt assumption of guilt in modern policing that upends fundamental American beliefs about innocence, and Do Not Resist is canny in showing how that assumption damages both the police and their communities' ability to trust the police.

I know there are people reading this and shaking their heads as I write this. I urge them to watch this Do Not Resist. Atkinson had the trust of law enforcement when they made this; they let him film these things, because they didn't understand how horrifying what they were doing was. They didn't think that we'd be shocked to see them destroy property and confiscate hundreds of dollars over a loose joint. They didn't think we'd be frightened to see them boast about using aerial surveillance drones to spy on civilians. They didn't think we'd be appalled at seeing their clumsy use of algorithms to craft a rudimentary pre-crime program, feeding in citizen data to try and predict criminality. This is a movie made with the explicit consent of the cops featured within it, and that's perhaps the scariest part of all.

13th is a powerful history lesson about how we got where we are today; Do Not Resist is about where we're going tomorrow. And where we're going tomorrow may be a very scary place indeed if it continues along this path. Together, the two films paint a compelling portrait of broad, systematic problems in the American justice system, and even for those who might doubt that these problems break the system, it's hard to see these two films back-to-back and not acknowledge that something is deeply wrong.

13th is available now on Netflix. It was directed by Ava DuVernay.

Do Not Resist is available now on Amazon Prime. It was directed by Craig Atkinson.
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