Sep 18, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Film shows origins of police response to 1960s riots

A scene from RIOTSVILLE, USA, a film about  a fictional town built by the U.S. military to train police on riot control.
A scene from the documentary, Riotsville, U.S.A. Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

A new documentary examines how the U.S. military in the 1960s prepared police for unrest in cities by using a fictional town and soldiers as actors.

The big picture: "Riotsville, U.S.A.," released Friday in selected theaters, shows the origins of the militarization of police amid demands by poor communities of color to end police brutality -- demands that continue today.

  • The film only uses archive footage from the military, newscasts, and police from the era.
  • Filmmakers used those to piece together a story of how police departments in the U.S. came to use military tactics, mainly against Black and Latino residents, for decades — immediately after the civil rights movement.

Details: In the late 1960s, the U.S. Army built fake towns, known as "riotsvilles," on its bases to stage and film the military response to riots.

  • Soldiers posed as white rioters instigated by Black agitators (also played by plain-clothes soldiers) as the military and police used tear gas and ferocious force to quell the staged unrest.
  • The Amy filmed the performances for training and for officials to analyze strategies.

What they're saying: "At some points, it seems like a joke. And then in other points, there's real violence. There are people being arrested and shoved into a tank," film director Sierra Pettengill told Axios.

  • Pettengill said she was stuck that the footage appeared to show trainees really beating up Black soldiers, who were acting out a part.
  • Then news footage of actual riots showed how that training became a reality.

Between the lines: Just two years ago the killing of George Floyd, the nation still is grappling over policing, systemic racism, and poverty.

  • Pettengill says the film reminds us that these issues have not been resolved.
  • "I felt like I'm in Alice in Wonderland. We're hearing the same thing over and over again."
  • "I also find that I hope that by showing how a system gets built...we can start to imagine how to unbuild it."
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