.Riot Goin’ On: ‘Riotsville, USA’ shows how military and civilian police used fear and film to sell their agenda

Police brutality and violent infringement on civil rights might somehow appear to be a spontaneous outburst, in light of the outrages of the past few years. Something so disturbing and ubiquitous surely must have erupted at first organically, in isolated instances, right?

The new documentary, Riotsville, USA, begs to differ. It shows us that the police war against their fellow citizens didn’t sprout up all by itself, like weeds, in America’s cop shops and sheriff’s stations. Official overreach and the ongoing militarization of the law enforcement apparatus were previously planned and prepared for, in this particular case more than 50 years ago.

Riotsville director Sierra Pettengill and writer Tobi Haslett dunk us headfirst into the late 1960s, when anti-Vietnam-war protests and the hardening of attitudes around the civil rights struggle scared the American power structure so much it decided to fight fire with fire—to hell with the human cost.

The 1967 Kerner Commission Report warned the country about racial inequality and urged the federal government to take action against racism and urban poverty, but the powers that be ignored the positive approach. Instead, they focused on the fuzzy concept of “law and order” while stirring up fear of apocryphal “outside agitators.” 

That reactionary stance led the U.S. Army to build a model of a “typical town” at Ft. Belvoir, VA, complete with storefronts and side streets, in order to train military troops and local police forces to respond to domestic civil disorder. The fictional locale was named “Riotsville.”

Following a mock-battle script, soldiers in civvies would pretend to hold demonstrations and scuffle with the cops (also portrayed by GIs), and the war games were filmed. The official “riot” footage was then made available to national broadcast television in a concerted effort to sway public opinion, in the wake of actual civil disturbances in Detroit and Watts. Events were staged that had no relation to reality—such as the myth of “second-story snipers,” which gullible police departments swallowed whole.

Looking at Riotsville footage today, we can see the “actors” obviously clowning around for the camera in their roles as provocateur hippies. They’re completely unconvincing. And yet the intent was clear. Riotsville, USA displays things that anyone could have seen for themselves in the turbulent late 1960s. It was all around us, in city streets and college campuses. Battle lines were being drawn.

Pettengill and Haslett’s doc is not exactly a stylish piece of armchair investigative reporting. The original camera work is as homemade as we would expect from the Army. There have probably been more entertaining PSAs about the dangers of teenage glue-sniffing or illegal right turns on red lights than any of the “dream riot” and “invasion” stuff shot in Riotsville. 

But the government’s efforts to paint “a pointillist picture of social collapse” had little need for subtlety. In 1968, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration issued billions of dollars in grants for police computers and heavy equipment, while fearful suburban whites stocked up on firearms. Meanwhile, the chaotic “police riot” against peaceful demonstrators at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, aka “the TV event of the century,” stoked fear in places like Ferguson and Sheboygan. The seeds of repression were sown for harvesting later.

In the era in which the Riotsville films were produced, charges of police brutality were routinely criticized by law enforcement agencies as well as by Republican politicians. The Vietnam war and its fallout came first on the public problem-solving agenda; social change was far down on the to-do list. 

In that era, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was moved to offer this critique of American social priorities: “When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process. This fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past decade have been obtained at bargain rates.” The charades depicted in Riotsville, USA were part of a delaying tactic.

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In theaters

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