Riotsville, USA sounds like a provoking title for director Sierra Pettengill’s bleak and intense documentary. Then it dawns on you that it’s a made-up name for a fictitious place invented by the US military in the 1960s. On two bases, both of which are named for racists, a series of staged activities were carried out against a fake backdrop that was designed to resemble the inner city. The scenarios were intended to replicate riots and the appropriate police and military response. Soldiers performed the roles of police officers and “nuisances.” There was a genuine audience for the performance, as well as recordings of the drills to be preserved.
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By only using archival footage, Pettengill and her editor, Nels Bangerter, create a powerful argument against the militarization of police forces in response to civil unrest. The recordings are from the military, precursor shows to PBS, community hearings and news reports of the 1968 Republican Convention. Directors often show footage as it was recorded, however there are times when they intentionally blur or obscure parts of the scene. This result is even more effectual due to Charlene Modeste’s chilling performance of writer Tobi Haslett’s captivating narration.
According to Modeste, in the late 1960’s, a door opened suddenly, and somebody shut it just as quickly. In 1967, Illinois governor Otto Kerner inspire President Johnson to form The Kerner Commission. The investigating commission was made up of political moderates who were tasked with discovering the reasons behind civil unrest. By that time, the U.S. had seen many rebellions; in that year alone, there were major uprisings in Newark and Detroit, and two years prior, the Watts Rebellion happened in Los Angeles. These were black areas where people were unhappy with the lack of adequate housing and employment, as well as the overabundance of police violence.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his 1968 address “The Other America,” Martin Luther King, Jr. refers to a riot as the language of the unheard, which is “the speech of those who have no voice.” The voiceless finally started screaming, forcing government officials to pay attention. LBJ establishing the Kerner Commission had an undisclosed motive; he desired the commission would find that “outside agitators” were to blame for cities burning.Surface-level, it would appear as if Johnson thought citizens were too ignorant of the social injustice around them and needed someone more intelligent to cause a commotion.
Instead of a brief, inconclusive report, the Commission produced a 700-page bestseller that concluded our nation is becoming increasingly segregated by race. Separate but unequal.” H. Rap Brown, who was in prison on an inciting to riot charge at the time, responded that the Kerner Commission people should be imprisoned with him because they agreed with his point of view. Of course, this was not the response that authorities were looking for. The Kerner Commission provided an out-of-kilter atmosphere, which the government seized upon as a pretext for change. They increasesd budgets for law enforcement in major cities. The “war on drugs” has transformed into a war on people. This, in turn, has resulted in cops driving military tanks and even a boxy, armored car that sprayed huge quantities of tear gas. White women, on the other hand, are shown going to target practice in order to defend themselves against the black menace should it ever reach their beautiful communities. “I don’t want to shoot anybody,” explains one bespectacled lady.
Meanwhile, “Riotsville, U.S.A.” switches between scenes set in the titular town and clips from a progressive precursor to the Public Broadcasting System that was ultimately defunded by the Ford Foundation for being too radical. The former facilitates discussions between Black people and White law enforcement officers. It comes as no surprise that the cops assure us there is no racism among their ranks. That’s even less of a surprise when the Black people become enraged, producing evidence. “The cops are getting our tails kicked out here,” the church’s preacher bellows during one such round table session.
All-White spectators at Riotsville passively watch the soldiers play cops and robbers, with Black participants screaming “I’ll be back to get you” as they pretend to be arrested. As the audience watches, play-acting rebellious characters are violently thrown into cop cars and wagons. There’s even a re-enactment of the Watts Rebellion for their enjoyment. The film is jarring and garish, but the directors couldn’t be accused of filming it in this manner. This is how it was captured by the US armed forces. “Sniper” stories were one of the many false narratives circulated during riots, a tactic known as gaslighting.
It all leads up to footage from the 1968 Republican National Convention, which was a real-life test of the ideas developed in Riotsville simulations. The Democratic Convention got all of the attention that year, but “Riotville, U.S.A.” reveals that the GOP’s Miami-based gathering was a genuine-life test drive of the concepts formulated in Riotsville trainings. The members of the Black community in Liberty City, many of whom opposed the GOP’s presence near them, were subjected to this macabre display of strength. Intercut with the actual footage of police firing tear gas into a crowd are shots of NBC reporters lying about the protests before moving on to play ads from Gulf, one of the manufacturers of the tear gas being used.
“Riotsville, U.S.A.” is not a documentary that pretends to be unbiased–it’s angry and daring you to argue with it. Its freeform nature seemed faulty at first, but I realized it was beneficial because it forced me to question everything I was seeing. The most effective thing Pettengill does is to stay connected with the past while making no comparisons to current events. When a Black woman articulates that she wouldn’t be able to arm herself in the same way as White women due to discrimination, her point is immediately validated through both history and contemporary examples. Even now, rebellions are often times judged based on the skin color of those taking part.