Police State/Civil Liberties

New documentary ‘Riotsville’ digs into police militarization in America

National Public Radio

NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe talks with Sierra Pettengill about her documentary “Riotsville, USA,” which digs into police militarization in America.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

At the start of the new archival documentary “Riotsville U.S.A.,” soldiers march in lockstep down a colorful American city street – past a liquor store, a pawn shop, an appliance center. And a helicopter buzzes overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “RIOTSVILLE U.S.A.”)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to Riotsville. This is a simulated riot in a simulated city. But as another summer approaches, it might be anywhere U.S.A.

RASCOE: Riotsville U.S.A. was the name given to fake towns built on army bases that were used to train law enforcement after the unrest in the late 1960s over racial inequality. Director Sierra Pettengill joins us now from Brooklyn to talk about it. Thank you so much for being with us.

SIERRA PETTENGILL: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So start off by telling us about these places. And how were they used?

PETTENGILL: Starting in 1967 and then really ramping up in in 1968, the military built these sort of fake towns on bases, and they would put on full-day re-creations, basically, of situations of rebellion and unrest in American cities. And it was part of a sort of massive increase of federal funding available to a newly declared war on crime.

RASCOE: What I found so interesting is that you have these depictions of, like, even the start of a riot, like a police officer arresting a person. And then you’ll have these other, quote, unquote, “civilians” start yelling about this person fake being arrested, and then it goes from there. Is that how they were actually doing the learning?

PETTENGILL: Yeah, I mean, that’s ridiculous, right? And it does what you just described – points out sort of a major and not accidental, you know, flaw in this program, which is that it was found pretty readily that the majority of moments of unrest in American cities in 1967 came from violence by the police. And they themselves are re-enacting that same sort of inciting incident within Riotsville. You know, it’s a very disturbing way of kind of predicting and writing and imprinting future behavior based on fictional scenarios.

RASCOE: Looking at “Riotsville,” that’s a jumping off point for the documentary to talk about the the larger political moment that was going on in the late 1960s. Here’s a clip from the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “RIOTSVILLE U.S.A.”)

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