This summer was the hottest on record, and the scorching temperatures coincided with an endless succession of violent tragedies across the U.S. In June a 29-year-old security guard gunned down more than a hundred people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, 49 of whom died, before police stormed the building and killed the perpetrator in a shootout. Less than a month later, at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, a 25-year-old army veteran killed five cops and wounded 11 other people, holing up in a community college building for a few hours before he was taken out by a state-of-the-art robot armed with plastic explosives (his death marked the first time a police robot had killed a suspect in the U.S.). And here in Chicago, homicides on the south and west sides spiked, the annual murder rate soaring past 500 people by Labor Day weekend. More than ever our cities seem like battlegrounds, swept this way and that by fear of terrorism and growing outrage over law enforcement abuses in black communities.
Two new documentaries opening Friday reflect on the fragility of civil society, though they record events that happened nearly a half century apart. Tower, directed by Keith Maitland, combines talking-head interviews, archival footage, and rotoscope animation to re-create the August 1966 sniper massacre in which Charles Whitman, a former marine, killed 14 people and wounded 32 others from the observation deck of the Main Building that towers 307 feet above the University of Texas campus in Austin. The incident stunned and terrified Americans, though the movie might make you nostalgic for an era when there was more of a peace to be preserved. By contrast, Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist opens in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, as local law enforcement officers brace themselves for rioting over the controversial police shooting of Michael Brown. Yet Atkinson’s true focus is the militarization of local police forces by the Department of Homeland Security and the culture of so-called “warrior cops” who take their cues from the battlefield.
Animation has come to play a greater role in documentaries, and it dominates the action of Tower to powerful dramatic effect. Maitland interviewed surviving eyewitnesses, cast actors to read their words on the soundtrack, and brings those voices to life with clean, minimally drawn characters that are sometimes set against black-and-white archival footage from the 96-minute siege on the university mall. The movie tells us nothing about the killer, but there’s plenty about the people whose lives he ended or upended, among them Claire Wilson (Violett Beane), a pregnant 18-year-old who was walking with her fiance when Whitman’s first shot entered her abdomen and killed her unborn child; John “Artly” Fox (Séamus Bolivar-Ochoa), who rushed to the scene and, with a friend, risked his life to carry Wilson to safety; and Ramiro Martinez (Louie Arnette) and Houston McCoy (Blair Jackson), Austin city cops who made their way to the tower upon hearing the first radio reports and took the initiative to mount a courageous armed assault against Whitman.
Despite the grim topic, Tower offers moments of genuine hope in the acts of bravery and kindness that took place during the siege. Wilson lay bleeding on the hot pavement for many minutes, her fiance dead beside her, but at one point another student named Rita Starpattern (who died in 1996) rushed out and lay down beside her, making conversation to keep her conscious. Allen Crum (Chris Doubek), who worked at the university co-op, raced to the tower and joined the assault team with McCoy, Martinez, and a third cop, Jerry Day (Jeremy Brown). Artly Fox remembers being inexorably pulled toward the mall when he and his friend heard about the shooting on the radio, then cowering in the bushes for some time before Wilson’s plight became too much for them and they bolted from cover to rescue her. When the real Fox shows up onscreen at the end of the movie, he’s still traumatized: “One of the truths I learned is that there are monsters that walk among us. There are people out there that think unthinkable thoughts and then do unthinkable things.”
Whether or not Whitman was a monster, he was definitely a soldier, and his military training had as significant an impact on the planning and execution of his attack as the military gear in Do Not Resist has on civil life here in America. Whitman’s attack was the first modern gun massacre, and like so many subsequent massacres it was carried out with paramilitary discipline. He had distinguished himself as a marksman in the U.S. Marine Corps, and he assembled a full arsenal for the tower assault: three handguns, three rifles, and a 12-gauge shotgun. He never fired on any of his victims more than once, leading some to believe he was following corps tradition. The Austin police department was so slow to grasp the situation that, before it could establish a command at the scene, radio reports drew armed vigilantes to campus, who took up positions in a nearby building and fired back on the sniper. For a while the greensward of the university mall became a civil battlefront, a visible indication that any city can become a war zone at a moment’s notice.
Tower is a thoughtful film, but the climactic assault on the tower is also genuinely gripping. Officer Ramirez hears about the shootings on TV, promises his wife that he’s going to campus only to direct traffic, but then finds himself alone on an elevator with his .38 police revolver drawn, praying aloud as the car ascends toward the observation deck. Once he and the other three men, all armed with rifles, have broken out onto the deck, they split up, Crum and Day going one direction and Ramirez and McCoy the other, to corner Whitman. The weapons involved seem so fundamental now, nothing compared to the computer-age gear in Do Not Resist. But then, Whitman’s greatest weapon was his audacity: before him, no one in American had ever dreamed of doing such a thing.
Now plenty of people dream of it, and as Do Not Resist argues with force and clarity, police departments nationwide are responding to the threat of domestic terror by morphing into semimilitary operations. Craig Atkinson, a cinematographer directing his first documentary feature, opens with a horizon shot straight out of a John Ford western: National Guardsmen stand along a sidewalk, lightning flickering in the clouds behind them, as protesters with placards enter the frame and stream past; parked in the background are two giant black armored vehicles. A midnight curfew arrives, but protesters won’t go home, and police in black riot gear arrive on the scene. After repeated verbal warnings, a policeman fires tear gas from the roof of an armored vehicle into the crowd, dispersing the protesters; vehicles roll through the streets flanked by cops, who clear the sidewalks and burst into a department store in search of looters. One young woman involved in the protest sums up the movie’s theme: “They need to stop giving these boys these toys, ’cause they don’t know how to handle it.”
According to the movie, Homeland Security has given local law enforcement $34 billion in grants for military gear since 9/11, in addition to another $5 billion from the Department of Defense. A staple of this largesse has been the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle, designed to withstand improvised explosive devices in warfare but now standard gear for local municipalities. Atkinson attends a city council meeting in Concord, New Hampshire, where concerned citizen after concerned citizen testifies to the folly of the city buying a BearCat-brand armored personnel carrier, before cutting to a closed-door session in which the council votes 11 to 4 to move forward with the purchase. At the same time, Atkinson asserts, SWAT deployments are skyrocketing across the U.S., from about 3,000 a year in the 1980s to as many as 80,000 now. He rides along on one such drug raid in which officers pile out of a van and smash their way into someone’s home, their overwhelming show of force turning up nothing except a few loose grams of pot in the bottom of the suspect’s book bag.
Atkinson tracks the bureaucracy that surrounds this domestic military buildup, dropping in on a Senate hearing where Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republicans Rand Paul and Tom Coburn try to pin down slippery officials from Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. But Do Not Resist also opens out to consider the gung-ho philosophy turning our police departments into armies. “You fight violence,” declares Dave Grossman, a retired military man and author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, as he lectures military and law enforcement personnel. “What do you fight it with? Superior violence, righteous violence, yeah? Violence is your tool, violence is your enemy, violence is the realm we operate in. You are men and women of violence. You must master it, or it will destroy you—yeah?” Later Atkinson visits a SWAT training camp where a veteran recalls his jubilation the first time he rode in an armored vehicle. He always watches new recruits to see their reaction: “They’re just smiling ear to ear, they feel like they’re on top of the world.”
By the end of Do Not Resist, Atkinson has widened his scope even further, reviewing such state-of-the-art law enforcement tools as facial-recognition systems, aerial surveillance programs, CCTV and social media monitoring centers, computer software that forecasts a person’s level of criminality, and even drones. Addressing the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference, FBI director James Comey opens with an anecdote about telling his young children that monsters aren’t real and they should go to sleep. “Monsters are real,” Comey declares, correcting himself. “Monsters are barricaded inside apartments waiting for law enforcement to respond, so they can fire rounds that will pierce a ballistic vest. Because of that reality, because monsters are real, we need a range of weapons and equipment to respond and protect our fellow citizens and protect ourselves.” Outside on the sales floor, a sign advertises the Avatar III robot, a little brother to the military robot that killed the Dallas gunman. The problem of civil violence gets worse and worse, but the toys get better and better. v