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A Theater of State Panic

Bench Ansfield
Beginning in 1967, the Army built fake towns to train police and military officers in counterinsurgency. Sierra Pettengill’s new documentary lays bare the fears and false promises behind them. 

Magnolia Pictures

Sierra Pettengill: Riotsville, USA, 2022

A small-town business district glides across the screen in grainy 1960s Technicolor. The shot shows a pawn shop, a drug store, and advertisements for cottage cheese and white potatoes. The town is passing itself off as Anywhere, USA, but something is amiss. The brightly colored façades are fabricated and flimsy. Atop the liquor store, a uniformed sniper crouches low. Two cars lie belly-up outside Joe’s Place. A voice-over asks, “What are we looking at?”

The place captured in this footage from Riotsville, USA—a mesmeric documentary by Sierra Pettengill, with narration written by Tobi Haslett—is no ordinary Main Street; it’s a staged battle scene. “Riotsville” was the name the Army gave to the training grounds it built, beginning in 1967, to school police departments and military personnel in the art of domestic counterinsurgency. As a crowd of top brass watched from the bleachers, police and military cadets would game out various scenarios of civil disorder within the two blocks of this diorama town.

Riotsville was constructed with a singular purpose: to hone politically acceptable forms of state repression. It came into being in the aftermath of the gratuitous response by the National Guard and local law enforcement to the uprisings in Watts, Newark, and scores of other cities. Thirty-three Black residents were killed during Detroit’s uprising alone. “If we see anyone move,” one guardsman told The New York Times,“we shoot and ask questions later.” State violence this excessive drew widespread censure—even the Times editorial board published an op-ed titled “Trigger-Happy Guard”—and by 1967, the domestic law enforcement apparatus had embraced formal riot-control training as its favored corrective. The Riotsville exercises, staged first at Virginia’s Fort Belvoir, then Georgia’s Fort Gordon (both Army bases named in tribute to slavery and the Confederacy), gave law enforcement a simulated arena in which to rehearse bulletless tactics for defusing Black rebellion and antiwar militancy.

In a supposed reenactment of the Watts rebellion, a large, multiracial posse of actors—cops and soldiers wearing street clothes and wigs—work themselves into a frenzy after witnessing an anodyne police traffic stop. Looting commences, the horde of bogus radicals pantomiming insurgency, and an antiriot regiment performs a nonlethal ambush. Once detained, a Black protester yells “I’ll get you!” at the white arresting officers. From the bleachers, the commanding officers chuckle.

Pettengill unearthed the footage from the National Archives, and in her hands it becomes the material for a sort of reverse mockumentary. The simulations, recorded by news broadcasters and the military itself, are steeped in unintended parody, caricature, and buffoonery; one scene features a Zamboni-like tank that squeals incessantly, drawing involuntary chortles from reporters. There’s an element of security-state slapstick here. But any humor is freighted with the recognition that we are witnessing a dress rehearsal for the rapid militarization of the police that took place over the next five decades. This isn’t just a fantasy of the state—it’s the prefiguration of a new mode of urban governance. From our vantage point in 2022, Riotsville can be found in every municipality of the United States.

Pettengill’s film is thus a meditation on the perversities of reaction. “A door swung open in the late sixties, and someone—something—sprang up and slammed it shut,” the narrator—the actress Charlene Modeste—seethes, over footage of a helicopter deploying tear gas. Not since Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour (2014) have I watched such a damning indictment of the security state.

The documentary works so well in part because Pettengill allows the state to speak in its own words, which bristle with cold, technocratic disdain. The footage is entirely archival, and only state and newsreel images are used (though these are mediated through Haslett’s piercing narration). Riotsville offers a sustained visualization of state panic, a theater in which the authorities playact their paranoia: Black radicals inciting a riot among white antiwar protesters; snipers lurking on rooftops; police and soldiers learning what to fear and how to handle their fright.

The horror of the film lies in the realization that this entire operation is being conducted in the name of a more humane police force. The blood-soaked lesson of this era, at the dawn of mass incarceration, is that police reform begets police power.1 Riotsville, USA presents a kaleidoscopic survey of reform’s many guises, from the professionalization promised by data-driven crime mapping to the undue faith that police training can curb police violence.

Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in the billowing clouds of tear gas that waft through the film. As the scholar (and Riotsville research consultant) Stuart Schrader has written, tear gas and other “so-called nonlethal weapons redeemed US policing after disastrously violent responses of police and soldiers to Black freedom protest in the 1960s.”2 The film captures the precise moment that domestic police forces embraced tear gas, inaugurating, especially for Black and Brown communities, the present age of asphyxiation.

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The filmmakers take us to the tear gas assembly line at Federal Laboratories in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, where women in civilian clothes package the gas canisters for shipment to Cleveland and Khe Sanh. When the Pentagon was accused of violating chemical weapons bans for its use of tear gas (among other agents) in Vietnam, it cited such domestic uses in its defense. “This is a humane method of handling difficult situations,” a spokesman for the company insists, “just like the dentist gives you a shot of novocaine before he pulls your tooth.” Tear gas had the blessing of the Kerner Commission, the decade’s preeminent blue-ribbon panel, convened in 1967 by Lyndon B. Johnson while Detroit was still ablaze.

Comprised of policymakers, mainstream labor and civil rights leaders, a police chief, and a defense contractor, the Kerner Commission is remembered for responding to the uprisings with a set of improbably progressive recommendations, including redistributionist and desegregationist policies, few of which ever became law. But appended to the report were recommendations to increase funding for the police and an endorsement of putatively nonlethal weapons. These proposals, unlike the thrust of the report, were soon enacted by a Congress a few years into the federal “war on crime,” when calls for law and order were taking on a psalm-like sway. By underscoring the dissonance between the more progressive Kerner recommendations, limited though they were, and Riotsville’s acrid plumes of gas, the film exposes just how contradictory the state project was in these years. The “civil rights carceral state,” as the political scientist Naomi Murakawa calls it, could speak out of both sides of its mouth.3

Riotsville’s raison d’être was the threat of civil disorder, but its techniques—tear gas, preventative police detentions, tanked-up police departments—quickly ramified far beyond this original remit. The historian Elizabeth Hinton has chronicled how these strategies, though intended for riot prevention, rapidly became institutionalized in the everyday practices of police precincts. Once police were encouraged “to initiate interactions with residents in targeted areas as a way to find potential criminals or rioters before they engaged in violent acts,” she writes, “cops and Black residents were brought into contact much more frequently.”4

The filmmakers rightly resist the temptation to present this episode as an origin story for today’s souped-up carceral state, which cuts across too many sites and scales to be reduced to a single genesis. But Riotsville had a pronounced effect on law enforcement nationwide. In 1968 and 1969 alone, ten thousand cadets took the training. In his history of the program, Schrader estimates that it “touched up to half a million US police officers, meaning nearly all US police, in some way.”

*

A palpable absence tugs at Riotsville, USA. It is a film about reaction that holds off showing us the action it impersonates—that is, actual and unrestrained Black revolt—until its final third. Not a single clip of the decade’s copious uprisings is shown in the first hour of the ninety-one-minute feature. Nevertheless, the power of those collective eruptions saturates every frame, their radiance somehow amplified: an eclipse avowing the heat of the sun. In explaining this editorial choice, the filmmakers assert that the mass circulation of uprising images has disarmed them of their radical potential, like “all those snapshots of chaos which swarm us and lose their meanings.”

These are Haslett’s words (read by Modeste), and it is his narration that shows us the way out of Riotsville. Haslett’s prose breathes halting life into the film, accenting its ambiguities and horrors, and tearing at its seams. He and Pettengill never let us forget that the drama at Riotsville was a measure of just how great a threat the 1960s uprisings posed to the order of things. In the severity of the state’s response, we catch a glimpse of the power held by the people in the streets. “The riots blew the roof off daily life,” Modeste narrates. “Nothing that big, or bright, or sudden had ever happened, and in so many American cities. Nothing so fierce or hard to grasp.”

These lines could have been lifted from Haslett’s bracing 2021 essay “Magic Actions,” on the George Floyd rebellion and its global reverberations, and in some ways Riotsville is its cinematic prologue. “Black struggle struck the match,” he wrote of the rupture wrought by the Floyd uprisings. And so too with Riotsville: the excess and paranoia of the late-1960s reaction tell you all you need to know about what incited the action in the first place.

Riotsville, USA lays bare the civil rights carceral state—its fears, its reforms, its miasmas, its false promises. “The rioters might not just be revising their role in the social drama—they were trying to torch the whole script,” the narrator intones. This is the work of abolition, and Riotsville, in turn, could be called a work of aboliterature.5 Like the writings of James Baldwin, June Jordan, and James Boggs, authors Haslett cites in the film and the essay whose work has influenced the contemporary prison abolition movement, the film finds freedom in the shattering of police power. The way out of Riotsville, it suggests, is not through reams of new reforms; it’s the torching of the whole carceral script.

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In the film’s final minutes, the narrator observes that the images we’ve just seen have “aged strangely.” “What to make of them now,” she asks, “embedded as we are in the future they were meant to ensure?” A question only aboliterature can answer.


“Riotsville, USA” opens today at Film Forum

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