Smile Politely

I’m not doing nothin’, a film review

Right after the Cop says the second time, “Step up to my car,” you can barely hear the Kid’s response: “I’m not doin’ nothin’.”

The Kid and his friends weren’t doing anything much out of the ordinary for a warm Saturday night in June on the campus of the University of Illinois. Along with dozens of other people, mostly young, they are sauntering down the sidewalk on Green Street, unconcerned. When the squad car pulls up behind them unexpectedly, almost rear-ending these unaware and startled pedestrians, one of them says, “What the?!?!”

CHAMPAIGN POLICE PEPPER SPRAY ALLEGED BRUTALITY, a 53-minute found film was leaked onto the Internet by unknown artist Xdtact. For its fascinating revelations, it should be considered the movie of the year.

CHAMPAIGN POLICE PEPPER SPRAY ALLEGED BRUTALITY was filmed on June 5th, 2011, 2:00 to 3:00 am, from inside a Champaign Police Department squad car. It starts like many cheap 1940s films noir, a black and white cityscape of students exiting the bars, walking in clusters, talking on cell phones, stumbling off the sidewalk, some drinking out of cans.

Most critics of the film have focused on the acts of pepper spraying and choking of a young black man, the Kid, by a Champaign police officer, the Cop. But the dialogue, the off-screen action, the extra-textual information, and a riveting sexual undertone allow deeper meanings to stand out, a backwards revelation on the simmering racial tension – and the denial of that tension – plaguing this central Illinois community for so long.

THE FILM THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO SEE – The News-Gazette, as of this writing, has not mentioned the fact that this film is available for anyone to study. In contrast, WILL radio announced it the day it was posted on the Independent Media Center site and in Smile Politely.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE – The scene on the street on June 5th is banal. People are walking to their various destinations, dorms or home. They are returning from the night out. Many are wearing shorts. There is no sense of urgency or threat, even in the police dispatch radio. “OK,” replies the dispatcher in a high, just-another-workday voice, after getting an update on the scene, as though he were asked to pick up a ream of copy paper from the shelf.

SOUNDTRACK – The Cop is listening to oldies radio. The Young Rascals sing “Good Lovin’” and Santana continues the set with “You’ve Got To Change Your Evil Ways, Baby.”

CRUISING – The Cop turns off Green Street to go down Fifth Street. He begins to circle the block slowly, much in the way teens used to cruise in circles in their souped up muscle cars, “American Grafitti”-style, looking for action. Cruising, for non-police, has sexual connotations, but cruising is also the word used for beat cops on the move.

ONE-WAY STREET – The Cop turns right down Healey Street, going the wrong way down the one-way street, a symbolic flexing of muscle, a demonstration of power and privilege, to be able to do what others are not. A pedestrian crossing mid-street, ignoring the crosswalk, scurries to get out of the way of this unexpected wrong-way vehicle.

BLACK AND WHITE – At 2:20, the first identifiable words in the movie are heard coming from the police radio. “All these white kids are affiliated with them,” the scratchy dispatch says. “These are all out of towners.” Subsequent communication on the dispatch also indicate that racial identification is the currency of the dialogue. Making sure a white girl has gotten to a destination. Identifying others with the dispatch question, “White or black?”

THE SPARK – Circling back to Green Street and going west, the Cop glides along the street, hand turning the camera once – the only hand-held camera movement – to observe two black high-heeled girls who are standing and talking. At 2:24, two police on the street question a group of five who appear to be talking loudly. The Cop sits in his car and observes from a distance. The issue is resolved, but when loud talking recurs, the police return to the group, talk some more and leave again. The two girls in heels walk back to the heart of Campustown; the other three, which includes the Kid, continue east toward Fourth Street.

POSITIVELY FOURTH STREET – There is little traffic at the intersection of Fourth and Green where the Cop waits, parallel to the Kid and his two companions on the sidewalk. A bicyclist pedals down Fourth Street, reflective lights in the spokes. The three being followed begin to cross the street (off-camera) until they reach the corner, when the Cop veers his car perpendicular to and blocking Fourth Street, almost bumping up into the backs of the three youth. One of them turns, startled, and says something like “What the…” A thump is heard. Maybe one of them touched the car. Jefferson Starship is singing on the radio, “If only you believed in miracles…”

GRAMMAR LESSON – “Step up to my car,” the Cop calls out to the Kid, who has walked some distance from the corner. There are several other pedestrians between the Cop and the Kid. There is no indication that this personal command (“MY car”) is related to police work. After the phrase is repeated, the kid turns slightly and says, “I’m not doin’ nothin’.”

The Kid may believe he is saying, albeit ungrammatically, that he is not doing anything wrong, a refrain he will continue to express repeatedly for the rest of the film. To the Cop, the same words could be construed to mean “I am not doing anything you tell me to do, I am not going to step up to your car, I am going to disobey you.” This deconstructed phrase is a clear example of the ambiguity of language; the final meaning can never be decided.

PEPPER SPRAY – The Cop has exited his car carrying the can of pepper spray in his right hand, a loaded weapon, his finger on the trigger.

RAP ARTIST – The Kid has no weapons other than his mouth, which he uses with abandon, recklessly, continuing to question his arrest, defending himself with words, the only power he possesses to control any sense of personhood or dignity.

INFINITY – The Kid standing up facing the squad car, continuing to protest his innocence, when the Cop sprays the Kid directly in the eyes, a sucker punch, suddenly and without warning. He then sprays the can off-screen, randomly, to ward off any standers-by, although seconds earlier he had half-heartedly commanded someone off-screen (“You too,” he says) to join the Kid at the car.

What follows in the next 20 minutes could take volumes to describe, the hand gestures, the facial reactions, the shock, the torrent of words from the outraged and (at least in his own mind) wronged Kid, an infinity of crossed communication.

“Why are you doing this?,” the Kid protests. “Why are you doing this? I’m didn’t do anything wrong.”

The Beatles are singing inside the cab of the vehicle. “Baby you can drive my car, baby you can drive my car…”

Gradually, both the Cop and the Kid start to treat each other as humans. The Kid calls the Cop “sir” at the same time his agony increases, his hands tied behind his back. “Where are you taking me?”

The Kid knows the Cop has jumped over protocol and, continuing to rail loudly with his word-weapon, points it out. The Cop realizes, too, he has been impulsive and, much belatedly, begins to recite Miranda, but they both realize it’s pointless.

The film could essentially end here. But there is a big second act to come.

The Kid keeps rapping, crying, howling, complaining, arguing. “Don’t touch me, I’m not going to let you touch me, take me to jail, you don’t have any right to touch me, don’t touch me.”

In the film’s only edit, the camera changes from the view of the street to the back seat of the squad car.

At 2:31, the Kid still demanding to see another officer and saying “Don’t touch me,” the Cop makes his second mad, impulsive move of the evening. He leaps into the car, grabs the kid by the throat as if to say, please please please just shut up, and lands full body contact, face to face, prone in the backseat of the car, a date gone bad.

The sexuality of this moment is undeniable. The Cop keeps getting rebuffed, denied, and frustrated and he jumps the bones of the handcuffed Kid in the backseat. Two prone bodies, face to face. The Cop lays himself down right on top of the Kid, almost as if to say, I can have my way with you, I’m the man here, I could KISS you if I wanted to.

The Kid is astonished. Earlier he had said, “I cannot wait until I tell my mom about this,” which indicates he has some parental guidance as well. And now he has been shamed, humiliated, assaulted in the back of a car.

“Sir, you had no reason to choke me. You had no reason to choke me, sir.”

The Cop tries to calm things down. He says, “You shouldn’t be acting like this,” as though it were all part of a play, a scene.

Eventually, the Kid keeps quiet. He’s listening. He wants it to be over as much as anyone. But it’s too late. Beep beep um beep beep yeah…

ACT THREE – There is more, much more. The Cop tries to wash off the evidence, cleaning up the Kid, like post-pseudo-coital effort. “I’m going to get another wipe to wipe off your face.”

The Kid: You cannot imagine how much it hurts. I can barely even breathe right now, sir. I will not run. I will not do anything.

The Cop: You’ve got to calm down. You’re talking a mile a minute.

The Kid: I’m not talking a mile a minute because I’m not used to not being able to do nothing on my own, man.

The Cop: Open your eyes, lift up your head and I’ll pour water into your mouth. It’s only because you didn’t comply. I understand. I understand how it feels. I was pepper sprayed too.

And, later, when the claustrophobia of the handcuffs and the confinement hurts too much, the Kid says, “Will you take my pants off then?”

The Cop (kindly): “No, I will not take your pants off.”


Somewhere along the way, the soundtrack had stopped.

On the long drive to the lockup, the street lights are waving in shadows inside the back seat of the car, the kid shaking his head. Black and white patterns, checks, slats, designs, flickering scenes from an old movie, scenes that happen a hundred times a day every day, all across the country.

Will the Kid ever trust police again? The next time he drives 35 miles per hour in a 30 MPH zone, or forgets to use his turn signal, or buckle his seat belt, or cross in the middle of the street, or any of the dozen other things we do every day without thinking, and the police approach him, will he comply or will he be tempted to do what his survival instincts tell him to do and flee?

The last ten minutes of the film are at the station, quieter now, no music playing, paperwork underway. All the camera reveals is total darkness.

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