“Riotsville, USA”, title of director Sierra Pettengill, a dark and intense documentary, sounds like a provocation on the part of the filmmaker. Then you realize it’s referring to the real name of a fictional location created by the US military in the 1960s. On two bases, both named after racists, a series of staged activities have were made on a false bottom created to look like downtown. These drills were meant to mimic riots and the recommended police and military response. The soldiers played the role of law enforcement and “troublemakers”. Not only did the artists have a live audience, but the exercises were also recorded for posterity.
Using only archival footage, Pettengill and his publisher, Nels Bangerter, paint a searing indictment of the militarization of police forces in response to civil unrest. The material comes from Army recordings, broadcasts on a PBS precursor, community hearing footage, and reports from the 1968 Republican Convention. Most of the time it is presented as it was recorded, but occasionally the director intentionally blurs or obscures the footage as if inspecting it under a microscope. The result draws even more attention to Charlene Modeste’s haunting reading of writer Tobi Haslett’s masterful narration.
“A door opened at the end of the 1960s,” Modeste tells us. “And someone, something, popped up and slammed it. In 1967, President Johnson established the Kerner Commission, named after Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. The commission was made up of “political moderates” whose job it was to find out the reasons for the civil unrest. At that time, the United States had been aware of many rebellions; that year saw major uprisings in Newark and Detroit, and two years before, Watts’ Rebellion occurred in Los Angeles. These were black neighborhoods where the lack of adequate housing and jobs, as well as the excess of police violence, predicted the responses of people who were fed up with these situations.
In his 1968 speech, “The Other America,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “a riot is the language of the unheard of.” The strangers were finally speaking up and the government felt compelled to listen. However, LBJ had an ulterior motive in that he hoped his commission would conclude that “outside agitators” were the reasons for the burning of the cities. As if the townspeople were too stupid to see the injustices all around them, and therefore needed a smarter, sinister agent to stir the pot.
Instead, the Commission’s report was a 700-page published bestseller that concluded that “our nation is heading toward two societies, one black, one white. Separate but unequal. Their solution to fix it would cost $2 billion a week, roughly the same amount LBJ was spending on Vietnam. H. Rap Brown, who was in jail for incitement to riot, replied that “the Kerner Commission people should be in jail with me, because they say what I said.”
Of course, that was not the desired response. However, the Kerner Commission provided a backlash, and that was the only thing the government decided to rely on as a means of action: increasing budgets for law enforcement in major cities. This leads to police officers driving military tanks and even a square armored car that fired massive amounts of tear gas. There are also images of little old white ladies practicing their targeting to protect themselves from this evil black menace should it arrive in their pristine little towns. “I don’t like the idea of shooting anyone,” says a bespectacled woman, “but if I have to…”
Meanwhile, “Riotsville, USA” splits its narrative between scenes from the titular location and footage from a progressive precursor to the public broadcasting system that was eventually canceled by the Ford Foundation for being too incendiary. The latter offers community meetings between blacks and white cops. It’s no surprise that the cops swear loud and clear that there is no racism among their forces. It’s even less of a surprise when black people angrily counter this with evidence. “Here, we get our ass kicked by the police,” yells the church preacher who took part in one of these round tables.
In Riotsville, a group of all-white onlookers watch soldiers play cops and robbers, with black participants shouting “I’ll be back for you” when arrested. The audience cheers as these game-playing thugs are violently thrown into police cars and wagons. There’s even a re-enactment of Watts’ Rebellion, just for entertainment purposes. The footage is shocking and garish, but the filmmakers can’t be blamed for shooting it that way. This is how he was shot by the American army. There is also a constant mention of snipers raging during the riots, a lie refuted by Kerner’s commission that kept repeating itself anyway as a form of gaslighting to get people to believe it. .
This all leads to footage from the 1968 Republican National Convention. The Democratic convention drew all the press that year, but ‘Riotsville, USA’ shows the Miami-based GOP convention was a real test of concepts elaborated in the Riotsville simulations. Black residents of Liberty City, many of whom protested the nearby GOP presence, were the beneficiaries of this horrific show of force. This footage is complemented by coverage of NBC reporters covering the convention telling bold lies about the protests before pivoting to introduce advertisements for Gulf, one of the makers of tear gas used outdoors.
“Riotsville, USA” is certainly not an objective documentary. It’s angry and it dares the viewer to retaliate. The free nature of it may seem flawed, but I felt it served to force me to question what was being shown to me. The smartest thing Pettengill does is stay rooted in those past images without making a single comparison to today’s events. She doesn’t have to; when a black woman says, “If we were told to arm ourselves like these white women are told, the answer would be different,” her comment makes any contemporary reference redundant. Then, as now, rebellions were judged by the color of the participants.