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Riotsville, U.S.A. is a window onto the bizarre beginnings of police militarization

How the director of an astonishing new documentary used old government footage to shed light on the present.

Archival footage of men in riot gear.
Riotsville, U.S.A. spotlights the surprising tactics that were used to help police forces militarize in the 1960s.
Magnolia Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In fuzzy, grainy footage, a crowd of protesters on Main Street clamors, shouting, signs in their hands. Toward them moves a group of police officers, armed and ready to put down an uprising. Men dressed in 1960s-style shirtsleeves and slacks run in and out of buildings with law enforcement in hot pursuit. It looks stilted and unreal, like they’re rehearsing a scene. Like something from a movie.

While it’s not a movie set, it’s not real life, either — or, well, not exactly. These are scenes from Riotsville, U.S.A., a new documentary made entirely from archival footage, much of it shot by the US government in the 1960s. It shows something extraordinary: As uprisings became more common across the country and the turbulent decade wore on, the government constructed “Riotsvilles” on two military bases. There, they staged protests and rebellions using soldiers from the US Army to play both protesters and police, then allowed police forces from across the country to learn from the military how to put them down.

Riotsvilles became rehearsal stages for swatting down dissenters whom law enforcement deemed out of hand — striking, because the more than 150 riots across the country in the summer of 1967 mostly were in response to police brutality.

As the staged combat at Riotsville plays out, audiences of fellow law enforcement and military looked on from the stands, observing their efforts and comparing notes. In the footage are tactics and weapons usually reserved for warfare, used against ordinary citizens on the streets. Riotsville, U.S.A. shows the same methods used to quash unrest that occurred, for instance, in the Miami neighborhood of Liberty City during the 1968 Republican National Convention. The film shows the birth of the militarization of police in America.

Soldiers in riot gear face off with demonstrators.
Soldiers play both sides at the Riotsville training demonstrations.
Magnolia Pictures

The Riotsvilles were built at about the time that the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, released a 1968 report that found that white racism, rather than Black anger or “outside protesters,” was behind instances of unrest in American cities. At 708 pages long, the commission’s report was a doorstopper, but that didn’t prevent it from becoming an instant bestseller. The report called for funneling money toward fostering equality between Black and white populations in cities. Yet LBJ backed away from the report, and its insights were ignored by the government — all except for one: increasing funding for police forces in major cities.

All of this sounds like an exaggeration, but as Riotsville, U.S.A. works poetically but damningly through the footage and the story, it makes its case keenly. Yet if this was a matter of such interest 60 years ago, why do so many of us not even know it happened?

I was eager to speak with director Sierra Pettengill about the film, making old footage alive to today’s viewer, our horrendous historical amnesia, and why she sees glimmers of hope in it all.

It would be tempting to say you are “exposing” something, but you really aren’t. The existence of Riotsville was well known. The government filmed its own footage. It was on TV.

That’s the point, to me. This is under-known, but not because it was covert or classified. If you put “Riotsville” into any historic newspaper database, you get coverage as if it’s a lark of some sort. I think the [New York] Times headline was “Army Defeats Hippies.” It was covered; a lot of the footage in the film comes from ABC and BBC. I find that much more pernicious.

What the film documents to me is a historical amnesia that feels much more telling. That the Kerner Commission report was bestselling is wild. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, particularly during the Trump administration — what it means to watch a narrative be re-formed or hidden in real time. The film, I think, is a documentation in some ways of that process.

So you got the footage of Riotsville, and you watched it, and it’s amazing. What’s the next step in turning it into a film that people in 2022 are going to watch?

[The existence of Riotsville] was on public record, but there weren’t really any secondary sources covering it, contextualizing it. So [the research process] took a really long time. Stuart Schrader, who came on as an adviser for the film, wrote a really incredible book in 2019 called Badges Without Borders, which was just really gratifying. He had done a lot of the same research, and much more. But when I started, there was very little. So I worked with a researcher, Jonathan Rapoport, and we started by screen-grabbing some of the slates and trying to track down people based on their names, the people who shot the footage. We went to the National Archives and pulled text records. I did a lot of phone interviews with anyone we could track down. We figured out which military police battalion was pictured in the footage, found their reunion group. A lot of minutia of research and tracking things down, Googling any person we found mentioned in any article.

And so that part of the research was figuring out the basics. Did this come out of the Kerner Commission? Where does this fit in to a historical context? I know very well that this is just one of an endless number of disturbing programs, covert or public, that the US government and military have carried out.

When you have a piece of footage like this, it’s like getting access to some sort of fantasy imagination of the government or the state, which feels rare. They made a moving picture and a cinematic image. We had to take that in its larger metaphorical and emotional possibilities. It felt like a big opportunity.

So the research really was two tracks, and hopefully what the film feels like: laying out a historical narrative and also trying to understand what this means in the larger sense, as citizens of a country. What to think of it, as the narrator asks a lot.

You steer away from footage of the “real” uprisings in the film, which seems extra significant since you were making it partly during a summer when those images were flooding our TV screens and social feeds.

There is one uprising in the film at the very end, in Miami. Originally, I had thought for years I didn’t want to show them at all — for many reasons, one being that we are oversaturated with those images.

One of my main goals in archival filmmaking is to show images that either feel new, or that are recontextualized, so you’re actually looking at them. When something feels familiar, you just store it in the part of your brain where the shorthand for that image lives. Images of rebellions have been used to justify police repression against Black communities, against protesters.

A group of men hold signs reading “We Want Action,” “Help Help,” and “What Are You Waitin’ For?” A tank looms over them.
Invented riot posters held by “rioters” (played by soldiers) at one Riotsville.
Magnolia Pictures

We used the images in Miami for a lot of reasons. On the one hand, the story of [Miami’s] Liberty City protests and what happened around the 1968 Republican National Convention is a really under-known narrative, especially when compared with the Chicago DNC. There’s very little footage of Liberty City. I think the most famous chronicler of the ’68 RNC is Norman Mailer, and he writes, in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, just something like “Oh, whoops, there were some protests outside and I didn’t go.” So it’s a really under-told story.

Then also, once we started looking at that footage — which had to be pulled from a very local archive — you can really see what has been developing in the Riotsville re-creations play out. It was much more literal than I would have assumed earlier in the process.

Like Riotsville was a dress rehearsal.

Yeah, a dress rehearsal.

So we put Miami at the end. That reverses the typical [assumptions we have of] causality: that people are protesting in the streets, or at the airport, and the police and the military have to come in. That is utterly backwards. The Kerner Commission at the time even found that what they call “riots” are in response, usually, to police brutality. So by putting that footage at the end of the film, you see — I think in a correctly contextualized way — that what’s happening in Liberty City is a response to what you’ve seen develop over the course of the film up until that moment.

We put a lot of time into figuring out how and when and what images of unrest to show. That section of the film, I think, took as long to cut as a prior hour.

Did you find any hope in making the film?

Where I find the hope in the film, counterintuitively, is that the crises we’re in are not a failure of imagination. We’re watching the same conversation. Police abolition is on the lips of everybody in this film, in different words, but you’re seeing the same tone of people are already weary of explaining this over and over again ... So it’s a political failure. We’re continuing to choose the wrong thing. The solutions are there, and they are well documented and well established. And I find some faith in that.

Riotsville, U.S.A. is playing in select theaters. See the film’s website for details.

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