Fake pawn shop. A fake liquor store. A village made up of fake storefront after fake storefront, like something out of a Hollywood backyard. What was this weird surrogate Main Street built on an Army base in Virginia in 1967? A place called “Riotsville.”
Modern America has forgotten it, but decades ago the US military built a mock city where law enforcement and military personnel could perform a kind of pantomime – rehearsing how to successfully quell an urban riot. It wasn’t an abstract exercise. The training ground was built in direct response to revolts that broke out in 1965 in the Watts area of Los Angeles and two years later in Newark and Detroit.
The new documentary Riotville, USAdirected by Sierra Pettengill and written by Tobi Haslett, examines the makeup of this mock urban hotspot and what it says about this country’s unrelenting response to anything that threatens the status quo – that is, a well-ordered society ruled by whites.
“[Riotsville] was built as part of the Civil Disturbance Orientation Course, which the military called CDOC for short,” explains Pettengill, “which trains police officers, governors, the military, the FBI, the Secret Service and many local junior records officers. They basically did a ‘re-enactment’ – loosely used – because they were fictionalizing a typical way a riot would unfold.”
Riotville, USA, by Magnolia Pictures, is now set in Los Angeles and other cities. Pettengill made the film entirely from television news footage of the period and archival footage recorded by the US military. The “cast” of these performances consisted of soldiers in uniform and other soldiers in civilian clothes playing “rioters”.
“The recreations of Riotsville begin with a case of police brutality,” Pettengill notes, “and then document the response of the citizens of the fake city of Riotsville.”
Haslett’s incisive narration offers a deeper examination of the context of these Riotsville re-enactments. They were staged at a time when large-scale uprisings against injustice had led some to question structural inequality and others to mann the barricades.
“A door opened at the end of the 1960s,” says the narrator. “In so many American cities nothing so big or so bright had ever happened. And somebody, something jumped up and slammed it.”
The challenge for Haslett as a writer and for the filmmaking team, he tells Deadline, “was to turn these collections of thematically specific montages of archival footage into basically an exploration of time, of policing history, and also of some of the deeper political and… social issues exposed by the riotsvilles and the social response to the riots. So why the police? What is the relationship between the security apparatus and redistribution?”
The documentary reveals that the Riotsvilles were the unintended result of a commission set up by President Johnson in 1967 to investigate the causes of civil unrest in Newark, Detroit and elsewhere. The 12-member unit that became known as the Kerner Commission was staffed mostly with moderate white politicians, but against all odds it came out with a substantive report that blamed the riots on the impact of white racism. To address the root causes of urban riots, the commission called for a more equitable distribution of wealth, a guaranteed minimum income, robust employment and housing programs, and improved schools.
“What white Americans have never fully understood — but what Negroes can never forget — is that white society is deeply entangled in the ghetto,” the report says. “White institutions created it, white institutions nurture it, and white society condones it.”
Embedded in the report was an addendum on funding efforts to quell future revolts. In the end, Congress poured money into this and that alone. She ignored the commission’s plea to avert future uprisings by investing in a fairer society. The political winds quickly shifted from a serious examination of the conditions of urban life to an embrace of “law and order”. Congress sent billions to the police to buy riot control gear and poured additional funds into founding the Riotsvilles.
“I feel like the footage, and inevitably the film itself, takes place on three different levels. There’s the footage of Riotsville demonstrating the elaboration of a particular tactic — the specific counterinsurgency techniques and tactics,” says Haslett. “At a slightly higher level of abstraction, there is no tactic, only strategy. The tactics are part of a larger strategy, namely containment and control. You can see that in discussions about why it is important to enforce law and order.”
Haslett continues: “At the highest level of abstraction is the general drive or desire and the whole type of building that we are looking at – and this is embodied by the news camera footage – for society to reproduce itself with as little friction as possible , although the main driving force of society is the production of inequalities that make this kind of friction inevitable.”
A fateful and often deadly paradox.
It didn’t take long for the war scenarios of the original Riotsville to be deployed. The Kerner Commission had warned against “over-preparing” for possible unrest in the summer of ’68. However, when protests by black-and-white protesters erupted at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the resulting violent response from law enforcement was later classified as a police riot.
Chicago has received undue attention in popular culture, but the filmmakers are focusing on the overlooked Republican National Convention that took place in Miami Beach that summer. Richard Nixon, running on a law-and-order platform, was nominated for President, with Spiro Agnew as his running mate.
“We heard about Chicago,” intones the narration (voiced by Charlene Modeste). “But we lived through Miami Beach.”
The RNC choked off access to their event by holding it in an enclave accessible only by causeway paths. When protests timed for the RNC took place in the black-majority neighborhood of Liberty City, the national news media, which rallied en masse for the RNC, largely ignored them. Violence erupted after a white man drove into Liberty City in a car with a “George Wallace for President” bumper sticker and police cracked down. The network’s news teams caught a bit of it.
“It’s about what’s covered and what’s not,” says Pettengill. “The many days of organization [in Liberty City] is not a single image as sparse as a burning police car. But they tell you very different stories about what is happening.”
Riotville, USA does not deviate from that time, but there are clear parallels to today for anyone who wishes to make the connection. The widespread upheaval following the police killing of George Floyd led to another “societal reckoning” with systemic racism and injustice. Calls for a reassessment of police funding and the militarization of the police force were debated, but what was the outcome? A return to the crouch of “law and order”.
Similarly, in 1967 President Johnson was convinced that “outside agitators” were responsible for fomenting riots in urban centers, apparently unwilling to believe that they could have arisen organically in communities marred by racism, over-policing, poor housing, limited economic opportunities and the like were suppressed. Flashback to 2020 as advocates for the status quo blamed “Antifa” for fomenting riots.
“It’s interesting how the myth of the outside agitator repeated itself,” Haslett comments, “but I think at some point in the course of George Floyd’s rioting it reached its own kind of inside limit because it was so clearly insufficient to explain.” was just the magnitude of what happened in 2020.”
Riotville, USA speaks today in other ways. Pettengill points out that while we’ve forgotten about the Riotsvilles of yesteryear, a modern episode persists.
“This kind of [Riotsvilles] still exist and are being built today,” says Pettengill. “If you google “tactical scenario village” and “police” they are just endless. One is being built in Chicago and one is being built in Atlanta, which is being opposed by a really lively protest movement.”