How the Police Became an Occupying Army

How the Police Became an Occupying Army

How the Police Became an Occupying Army

Riotsville, U.S.A. documents the origins and rise of what the activist George Jackson called the “the corporate-military-police complex.”


Riotsville, U.S.A. begins without fanfare: the camera centers grocery store ads for white potatoes, canned hams, fresh bread, before panning across a row of multicolored buildings. But the windows are off-kilter; the structures look unstable—something is off. Could it be a movie set with a modest budget? The disarming opening shifts in tone when a zoom-in reveals a sniper on a roof. This is not a real town, but a Riotsville.

Loosely constructed as model towns, Riotsvilles served as training grounds for the police and military, stages for mock riots, with officers and service members role-playing as protester and police to rehearse scenarios for quashing uprisings. The reenactments, filled with ridiculous wigs and bad acting, were filmed by the military, and they remain in the public domain. The intended targets of their training were labeled as riots to avoid recognizing them as exercises in political dissent—precisely because they called into question the authority of the state. Sierra Pettengill’s documentary, an essay film composed entirely of archival footage, dramatizes the reality of this power struggle.

The archival approach can also be found in Pettengill’s previous films, The Rifleman (2021), which examines the history of the National Rifle Association, and The Reagan Show (2017), which is about Ronald Reagan’s use of media to manufacture the political theater that secured his rule. This method puts a particular pressure on the editor, in Riotstville’s case Nels Bangerter. His handling of this film draws from his experience on other projects in the same vein of what has sometimes been called “archival verité,” such as Let the Fire Burn (2013), which told the story of the police bombing of the Black community organization MOVE in Philadelphia. The assembled footage is also organized through textual inserts and a narrative script written by Tobi Haslett, delivered in voiceover by Charlene Modeste. The two components work hand in hand, as the text on the screen gives the images historical context while the voiceover analyzes them. Jace Clayton’s score, meanwhile, adds a disquieting atmosphere through the use of analog synthesizers, with dreamily sinister tones sitting between jagged industrial textures and something warmer.

By retrieving the military documentation of the Riotsvilles and TV coverage of the civil unrest they were meant to suppress, the film offers an interrogation of viewership. Exposing the contradictory ways media is absorbed by different groups of everyday people, Black and white audiences, state actors and TV pundits—Riotsville, U.S.A. serves to undermine any sense of a homogenous, standardized reading of the past.

Riotsvilles were a response to the “long, hot summer” of protest in 1967, when upwards of 150 uprisings burned their way across the United States, fueled by the fury and grief of Black communities experiencing renewed and mutating forms of racist discrimination, police aggression, poverty, and unemployment. The voiceover sets the stakes: “That summer, the people took revenge on the cities that confined them. Retribution for a history of containment and contempt.” Riotsvilles were a lab for experimenting with new tactics of punishment and control—a counterpoint to the dynamism of the emerging anti-war movement and the rise of Black Power. Armed forces are shown marching in formation over the streets of these Riotsvilles—which resemble cartoonish and intensely generic imaginings of Anytown, USA—releasing tear gas, deploying tanks and helicopters.

One of Pettengill’s most effective tactics is depicting what the militant activist George Jackson called the “the corporate-military-police complex.” In the film, military personnel and police are barely distinguishable, appearing as a unified conglomerate of brute force and hyper-discipline working to protect the interests of empire. The narration, citing Frantz Fanon, the decolonization struggles in Algeria, and American warmongering in Vietnam, indicates how these conjoined forces were part of repressive global counterinsurgency. Black liberation, anti-colonialism, and anti-war movements were connected on an international scale—both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. condemned the war in Vietnam, Black Power in the United States was linked to the Pan-Africanist liberation struggles, and all were in one way or another set against precisely the complex of imperial domination represented by the Riotsvilles. The tear gas used against the Vietnamese by the US Army was the same as that used by the police against Black Americans. We saw one horrific recurrence of this in 2014, when activists in Ferguson and Palestine were able to share strategies of survival because they were being assaulted by the same policing tactics. What was also evident in 1967, as in 2014, as in 2020, was how visual documentation, recorded by the news media or by civilians, shaped the way we understood these moments of rupture: The 1968 Democratic Convention, referred to multiple times in the film, is not only a paradigmatic case of unchecked police brutality and escalation of violence, but also one that was caught on film.

There are numerous other striking clips in Pettengill’s documentary that remind us how that period of upheaval was being metabolized through television in particular. An intensely moving performance of the protest song “Burn Baby Burn” by Jimmy Collier and Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick is included in its entirety—a notable decision given that the rest of the film is entirely composed of fragmented footage. The head of a tear gas factory is shown referring to the use of the toxic substance as a “public service” and a “humane method of handling difficult situations.” Another clip shows a group of middle-aged white women being taught how to shoot, followed by an interview with a group of Black people who point out the absurdity of a scenario in which the government would support them being armed.

Operating during the time chronicled in Riotsville, U.S.A. was the US-based filmmaking collective Newsreel, which made numerous works documenting the militant activities of the 1960s. The catalyst event for the group’s formation—the large-scale anti-war demonstrations outside of the Pentagon in October 1967—was the subject of Chris Marker’s The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, a film that exemplifies a lineage of radical documentaries. There are important differences between then and now. The earlier period of leftist documentarians in Europe and America (mostly working in collectives that have few extant iterations), used real-time footage to record their immediate present, which is arguably the opposite of using only archival materials. Pettengill’s Riotsville, U.S.A. focuses only on the past, but it is an inheritor to the visual practices used by these earlier works, which used the documentary as a form of intervention, challenging the public to question the authority of the state and its rhetoric.

The film focuses on the report issued in February 1968 by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, more commonly known as the Kerner Commission. The purpose of the report was to diagnose the previous summer’s national uprisings and prevent their recurrence. Although it had inevitable limitations, the Kerner Commission’s summary was fairly accurate. It noted that “the nation is moving toward two societies, one black and one white—separate and unequal”—and placed the responsibility for the civil unrest on white racism and economic disparity. It called for attention to education, housing, and employment. In the Manifesto for a Black Revolutionary Party, published in 1969, the historian James Boggs offered a similar analysis, substantiating the film’s claim that this government report contained uncanny echoes of Black revolutionary language.

As politically substantive as the Kerner Commission’s findings might have been, they did nothing to bring about consequential changes. We are shown a television panel discussion of the Kerner Commission with three Black intellectuals, Charles V. Hamilton, Kenneth Clark, and Bayard Rustin, who conclude that, despite its findings, the commission was nothing but liberal theater. Hamilton sums it up: “That’s what we do in this society, we appoint a committee, and we investigate, ergo something’s being done. That’s simply not true.” Earlier in the documentary we are shown how the report was being absorbed on the other side of the TV screen: A Black and white audience watch President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement of the report, which was bolstered by the rhetoric of “law and order,” with divided reactions. The white people who speak see it as an apolitical call for unity in the face of collective failure, while a Black man questions the sweeping claim of unity and a Black woman speaks volumes with her skeptical expression.

What emerges from this archival debris is an insight that appears throughout Riotstville, U.S.A.: Responses to the 1960s uprisings were not uniform, but they were telling of the history that produced them. The audience reception in the Riotsvilles themselves were the clearest display of the norms that criminalized the violence of the rebellions while celebrating the violence of state forces. Toward the end of one simulated riot, two Black men—the fabled “outside agitators” that even the Kerner Commission admitted were convenient myths—are shown being violently carted away, kicking and screaming. Sitting on packed bleachers, the audience of police and military personnel react with gleeful laughter and clapping.

In exposing how these viewers were attached to enduring forms of patriotic militarism and racialized state violence, Riotsville, U.S.A. asks how different they are from the audiences cheering on the “good cop” in any number of propagandistic TV shows. Both are dress rehearsals for law and order, attached to the theater of terror that pervades American mass media. Pettengil’s documentary offers an entry point into thinking about how this footage of the past, whether it is an old news broadcast or a snippet of a military exercise, operates as a set of power relations—vehicles of indoctrination that are yet open to being contested. Riotsville, U.S.A. provokes an examination of how archival images are put to work, illuminating their role in shaping a present political landscape whose relationship to the past is critically alterable.

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