Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2016

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in NY, “Do not Resist” could not be more topical. It is a close look at the militarization of police departments in the USA as well as an evolving form of profiling that has an eerie affinity with the Tom Cruise film “Minority Report” based on a Philip K. Dick short story.

The film opens on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri as Black Lives Matter activists and their supporters fill the streets in August 2014 to protest the killing of Michael Brown. The forces arrayed against them are essentially the same as those that Iraqis confronted in places like Fallujah and Mosul: heavily armored troop carriers with cops in body armor toting automatic rifles. Unlike the automatic rifles that can be purchased in gun shops, these have not been altered to only fire single shots. These M-16’s are capable of firing 700–950 rounds per minute. Is this the right weapon for the streets of Ferguson or any American city for that matter?

In the 1960s, the left and the Black Panther Party in particular used to refer to the cops as an occupying army. Back then it might have struck some liberals as a hyperbole but reality has caught up with the rhetoric. This is exactly what police departments have become in a place like Concord, New Hampshire that has had exactly two murders in the past 16 years. Director Craig Atkinson films a city council meeting in which there is a hearing on whether to accept the “gift” of an armored troop carrier from the Department of Homeland Security that has dispensed $38 billion in military equipment to local precincts since it was formed. One of the people speaking to the councilman is a Marine corps veteran who served in Fallujah. Despite his insistence that the equipment has no use in Concord, they vote to accept it.

We see cops in a training session with David Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor, professor of military science, and Army Ranger who founded something called the Killology Research Group. No, I am not joking. He tells the audience that arresting a “bad guy” affords the same kind of pleasure as having sex and then goes on to say that cops are in the business of being more violent than the criminal since that is what it takes to keep the peace. Poor George Orwell didn’t see the half of it. Oh, did I mention that Grossman never was in combat?

Even further out on the insanity spectrum is Richard A. Berk, a U. of Pennsylvania criminology professor who tells Atkinson that we are moving closer to the point where criminals can be identified before they are born by examining the demographics of their parents, including race. At some point, this will become an exact computer-driven science that will allow preemptive strikes against the “bad guys” just like Predator drones.

In January 2013, Wired Magazine reported on the professor:

The software aims to replace the judgments parole officers already make based on a parolee’s criminal record and is currently being used in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Richard Berk, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania who developed the algorithm, claims it will reduce the murder rate and other crimes and could help courts set bail amounts as well as sentencing in the future.

“When a person goes on probation or parole they are supervised by an officer. The question that officer has to answer is ‘what level of supervision do you provide?’” Berk told ABC News. The software simply replaces that kind of ad hoc decision-making that officers already do, he says.

To create the software, researchers assembled a dataset of more than 60,000 crimes, including homicides, then wrote an algorithm to find the people behind the crimes who were more likely to commit murder when paroled or put on probation. Berk claims the software could identify eight future murderers out of 100.

What makes the film compelling above all else is the willingness of people like Berk and various Swat team officers to open up to Atkinson who accompanies them on raids just like in the awful reality show “Cops”. The footage is appalling. We see more than a dozen heavily armed cops raiding the home of an African-American family on the premise that a major drug trafficking gang lives there. They bust all the windows in the course of the raid for reasons that make about as much sense as any other forms of police behavior depicted in the film. It turns out that there is a tiny amount of weed in the house that belongs to a young man going to college who they take off in handcuffs. When asked by his father what they are going to do about the broken windows, they shrug their shoulders and say it was necessary.

In the press notes, Atkinson states how he came to make the film:

In April 2013, I watched the police response in the days following the Boston Marathon bombing in awe. I had never associated the vehicles, weapons and tactics used by officers after the attack with domestic police work. I grew up with the War on Drugs era of policing: My father was an officer for 29 years in a city bordering Detroit and became a SWAT commander when his city formed a team in 1989. What I wasn’t familiar with, since my father’s retirement from the force in 2002, was the effect the War on Terror had on police work. Making this film was an attempt to understand what had changed.

Knowing that interviews with experts would do little to communicate the on-the ground reality of American policing, we instead set out to give the viewer a direct experience. We attended police conventions throughout the country and started conversations with SWAT officers at equipment expos and a seemingly endless cascade of happy hours, offering the only thing we could: an authentic portrayal of whatever we filmed together. On more than one occasion, we were on our way to the airport, camera in hand, only to receive a phone call from our contact in the police department instructing us not to come. Our access seemed to be directly tied to the amount of negative press the police were getting at that time. It became increasingly difficult to get access after the events in Ferguson, and there were many times we thought we would have to stop production altogether. The urgency of the situation, however, motivated us to continue.

Like Craig Atkinson, co-directors Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi had extraordinary access to some sordid characters, in this instance the top cleric of the Red Mosque network in Pakistan rather than racist cops. The result was a compelling documentary that is essential for understanding the growth of jihadi-breeding Madrassas in Pakistan that opened today at the Cinema Village in New York.

Much of the film consists of interviews with Maulana Abdul Aziz, who despite his bland manner is just as toxic as any ISIS figurehead. While he claims to be a man of peace, he insists that Pakistan will endure bloody turmoil until it becomes an Islamic state.

His main adversary is Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor in Lahore who is one of the country’s most outspoken opponents of Islamic fundamentalism. It is a miracle that he has not been killed. He is particularly appalled by the total absence of scientific education in the madrassas that are mostly devoted to teaching young boys and girls how to memorize the Quran.

While the film does not exactly apply a historical materialist analysis to the growth of the Red Mosque network, it is painfully obvious why the schools are flourishing. For children from the Pakistani countryside, as well as those who came originally from Kashmir, it is the only way to have food and a roof over their heads. Their parents tend to be poor farmers and day laborers who are just one step beyond starvation themselves. According to the UN’s most recent Human Development Indicators report, 60.3% of Pakistan’s population lives under $1 a day. If memorizing the Quran means having something to eat, that’s motivation enough. Indeed, it might even motivate you to become a suicide bomber as is suggested by an 8-year old student of Aziz reciting a chant about jihad for the cameras that includes a line about killing anybody who attacks their mosque.

The Red Mosque network does have reasons to fear such an attack since an escalating series of confrontations between them and the government finally led to the siege of their main mosque in Islamabad in 2007 that resulted in 254 deaths. This led to a war in Waziristan that pitted Aziz’s allies in the Taliban against the Pakistani army that led to another 3000 deaths.

The film depicts a conflict that has ramifications for the entire world, not just in Islamabad or Pakistan. The boys who go to Aziz’s madrassas are cannon fodder for an Islamist movement that believes the solution to the world’s problems is Salafism of the most extreme variety. Right now the White House solution to this “threat” is Predator drones.

In November 2014, Steve Coll reported on Predator drone strikes for the New Yorker magazine, a weapon that Obama joked about in a White House Correspondents Dinner in 2010: “The Jonas Brothers are here; they’re out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you, ‘predator drones.’ You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking.” Most people understand how creepy the president was when he made this joke, especially in light of what was happening on the ground as Coll reported:

On January 23, 2009, three days after Obama took office, two C.I.A. drones struck inside Pakistan—one in South Waziristan and one in North Waziristan. Both attacks reportedly killed civilians. The strike in North Waziristan hit a private home in the village of Zeraki. According to an affidavit from two witnesses, filed in a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the dead included an eighth-grade boy and schoolteachers. The South Waziristan strike killed a pro-government peace negotiator who was a tribal leader and four of his family members, entirely in error, according to “Kill or Capture” (2012), a book about Obama’s counterterrorism policy by the former Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman.

When you keep in mind that Hillary Clinton is a big fan of Predator drones, approving 99 out of a 100 strikes, that’s reason enough to vote Green in 2016.

Finally, there is “The Hurt Business”, a film that unfortunately came to my attention only yesterday on the very day it was both opening and closing. I am not quite sure how the documentary got distributed on a single-day basis but it is an excellent film about a not so excellent subject—Mixed Martial Arts—that should be available on VOD before long (I will post a notice when that happens.)

In 2002 when I got cable, mostly as way to watch TV after the antenna on top of the WTC came crashing down along with the rest of the building a few months earlier, I stumbled across something called MMA that I found oddly compelling in the same way that “Cops” was compelling. Although I hate violence and police arrests, especially of people smoking weed as seen in “Do not Resist”, there was something morbidly fascinating about men beating each other up.

“The Hurt Business” has the particular merit of explaining why such spectacles can command the attention of a Marxist like me as well as millions of other Americans who do like to see people beaten to a bloody pulp. I am not a sociobiologist but there is something very deeply rooted in class society that allows it to become a spectator sport. In fact, the film points out that it was part of the Greek Olympics early on and even shows a vase from the 5th century depicting a fighter “tapping out” to show that he is surrendering.

Despite the senselessness of the “sport”, the participants interviewed by director Vlad Yudin, a Russian émigré, include some of the retired fighters I used to watch more than a decade ago (Tito Ortiz, Chuck Lidell, Ken Shamrock, Kenny Florian) and today’s top names including Ronda Rousey, who some regard as pound for pound the finest female fighter who ever lived (until she got knocked out last year), are all articulate, self-effacing, funny, and likeable.

Two things stand out in the film. First is the vulnerability the fighters have to being economically exploited. For many, a big payday is $25,000—hardly a sum that will allow you to live like a hedge fund manager. If you become a headliner like Rousey, the pay-off will be much larger but getting there is no easy matter. Unlike boxing, where eye damage and the like can keep you out of the ring for an extended period, mixed martial arts is a combination of boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu and just about every other form of hand-to-hand combat. This means that you can blow out a knee as happened to former light-heavyweight champion Rashad Evans whose struggle to recover and get back into the ring is just one of the human dramas that the film sensitively depicts.

While there is only a brief mention of concussions in the film, it should be abundantly clear that MMA fighters are just as susceptible to permanent brain damages as boxers. One fighter admits to a doctor that he has suffered 14 concussions in his career. Like baseball players, there is a big temptation to use steroids. For a MMA fighter, the incentive is even greater since their career is so much more short-lived.

I suspect that boxing, MMA and even football will die out when the capitalist system is replaced by one that values human life and happiness above everything else. Maybe in that better future, competition will take place over the chess board or even touch football. Or maybe people will just be tired of competition period. After 10,000 years it does become tiresome.



  1. Reblogged this on 21st Century Theater.

    Comment by 21st Century Poet — September 30, 2016 @ 10:08 pm

  2. “I suspect that boxing, MMA and even football will die out when the capitalist system is replaced”…

    What is the fate of golf in a post-capitalist society?
    As for boxing, I don’t know if you ever saw Rocky IV, in which Balboa went to the Soviet Union to fight Ivan Drago.

    Boxing enjoyed popularity in the USSR too:

    A 1985 match between the USSR and the US:

    Comment by Poppa Zao — October 1, 2016 @ 7:17 pm

  3. […] Do not Resist; Among the Believers; Hurt Business (September 30, 2016) […]

    Pingback by Another way to access my posts, including those that predate my blog | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 6, 2017 @ 4:42 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: