Sierra Pettengills Riotsville, U.S.A.
Riotsville everywhere, Utopia nowhere in this ground-breaking documentary-essay film.
On Main Street at the corner of Franklin and Abbott Road, there are old-fashioned general stores, a cut-rate supermarket advertising white potatoes, canned ham, and cottage cheese and a City Hall recruiting for the Army. It appears to be a small town, bustling with local mom-and-pop shops. But something doesn’t feel right. There’s an eerie silence. The shot zooms in on uniformed individuals holding snipers, observing, waiting to pounce. For a split second, the camera quickly shows the audience watching—the town is fake? A voiceover (Charlene Modeste) asks, “What are we looking at?” It’s Riotsville.
In a magical symphony of literary prose and archival scenes, Sierra Pettengill’s ground-breaking documentary-essay film, Riotsville, U.S.A. (2022) scrutinizes unearthed archival footage captured by the US military of fake model inner-city towns, used as training grounds to equip police departments in the art of domestic counterinsurgency tactics and riot-control training to subdue and contain “civil disorder.” As a response to the “Summer of Love” in 1967, when 150 uprisings erupted in cities across the United States, Riotsvilles were manufactured as punishment for voicing discontent against racialized state-sanctioned violence, poverty, and unemployment. They served as sites of damage control against insurgent movements and acts of rebellion.
During the “long, hot summer” of 1967, the stakes were high: Black unfreedom, social degradation, disintegration, and en masse unemployment were sweeping across American cities. “That summer, the people took revenge on the cities that confined them,” Modeste says, “retribution for a history of containment and contempt.” Taking their pent-up anger at the inhumane conditions in which they were being forced to live, Black and urban communities took to the streets in cities across America. The urban crisis of the 1960s laid bare what divestment and deindustrialization looks and feels like for society’s most disposable communities––deplorable housing, police brutality, poor schools, and drastic unemployment, among others. These conditions were the results of abandonment, an abandonment intentionally organized by local and national fiscal policies.
The summer of 1967 saw a crisis that led to the creation of the Kerner Commission, or the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Riotsville, U.S.A. explains how the commission was tasked with locating what was causing the political protests and uprisings across the country. In a seven-hundred-page report, the commission—primarily made up of political moderates—painted a picture of social decay that could only be remedied with massive social welfare. The report stated that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white—separate and unequal” and called for better education, housing, and employment. Instead, the government responded by ramping up policing.
The Johnson administration doubled down on a law-and-order agenda. Six months after the Kerner Commission submitted its report, Johnson signed the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968. The new law authorized 400 million dollars in grants to states to provide new equipment and technical assistance to local police forces. A similar trend occurred after the 2020 rebellion and the murder of George Floyd, when “defund the police” became a nationwide mantra thanks to the Movement for Black Lives as well as abolitionist thinkers and organizers. In 2021, municipalities began to bolster their police budgets despite many promising to reallocate funds to social services to mitigate the disastrous effects of the pandemic.
In Liberty City, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Miami in 1968, activists outraged by the economic neglect and police brutality that plagued their communities organized and rioted in the streets for days, while a few miles away, the RNC nominated Richard Nixon as their presidential nominee. The Liberty City police force was deployed to contain the ensuing riot; the police arrested hundreds, and killed and injured many. They imposed a curfew and used so much tear gas on civilians that they couldn’t leave their homes. This was urban warfare––using an “effective and mobile military force” to occupy urban communities and contain the carnage of continued inequity and injustice. It is later revealed that the police leadership in Miami was trained at Riotsville.
Pettengill focuses on the footage captured at Riotsvilles on the army bases at Virginia’s Fort Belvoir and Georgia’s Fort Gordon, both named after white supremacists. Riotsville was a rehearsal space for the anchors of the state—police, US Army, corporate media, and politicians––to exercise their “fantasies of conquest and invasion” to keep the cog of the state running. Cops and soldiers performed reenactments of rebellions, they co-opted revolutionary language to practice riot prevention tactics, and, on film, they mimicked the pain and rage of protestors, simulating riot scenes in front of audiences of military personnel, police lieutenants, and rank-and-file officials.
By reworking the archival footage initially intended for broadcast television and US military training into a mockumentary of sorts, Pettengill emphasizes their absurdity. She takes the mock riot skits and demonstrations performed by the state and manages to show the humor in how they look and sound in their attempts to emulate the struggles and revolutionary spirit of Black and anti-war rebellion. Pettengill remixes fact and fiction to rewrite what the state and mainstream media peddle as the naked truth when citizens take to the street to disrupt the natural order of things.
The film blurs the lines between documentary and fiction film, a style of filmmaking often associated with leftist cinema. Take the Marxist and leftist films like Left Bank group’s documentary-essay film, Far From Vietnam (1967); Jean-Luc Godard’s composite film, Sympathy For the Devil (1968); Peter Watkins' mockumentary film, Punishment Park (1971); and the Black Audio Film Collective’s documentary film, Handsworth Songs (1986). These films protest the dystopian living conditions produced and sustained by the state, the lies told to uphold state-sanctioned violence at home and abroad, and the way direct action is used as a tool by insurgent social movements. The films challenge the state’s legitimacy through art to amplify everyday fascistic practices deployed to rein in their messes. The fictional elements embedded throughout these documentary films give emotional fervor to the political turmoil of their time and place. It is evident that this style of filmmaking so clearly influenced the making of Riotsville, U.S.A. Pettengill’s use of the archive to confront the state and turn its argument for increased police power on its head speaks to a lineage of revolutionary cinema that questioned the status quo and protested through film.
In the film's final act, Pettengill draws our attention to the poet June Jordan’s “Skyrise for Harlem” project—an alternative reimagining of Harlem that counteracts urban renewal or “negro removal,” according to Jordan. After the police murder of fifteen-year-old James Powell in 1964, Harlem descended into chaos. Esquire tapped Jordan to write about the protests. Instead, Jordan decided to create a piece of “architexture” that textually and visually mapped a vision of hope for Harlem residents facing simultaneous racialized spatial and police violence. The project was a revisioning of Harlem that proposed fifteen canonical communal towers, one hundred stories high, be built to provide housing for 500,000 Harlem residents. For Jordan, these towers made the oppressive enclosures of state-sanctioned violence impossible and lifted the neighborhood forward. Esquire published Jordan’s plan as “Instant Slum Clearance” and dubbed her vision “too utopian.”
In the end, Pettengill positions the two opposing cities, Riotsville and “Skyrise for Harlem” against one another. Both are fake, but one was built and the other forgotten. Riotsville, U.S.A. invokes both these opposing conceptualizations to call into question not only the mythologies around carceral expansion but also the lies told about abolitionist futures. Towards the end of the film, Pettengill invites the audience to think about how the archival images of Riotsville have become our present. The film serves as a mediation on our present-day realities as municipalities across the country pump more funding into increasing police power, modern-day Riotsvilles such as Cop City in Atlanta, and digital carceral technologies by using similar narratives that led to the creation of Riotsville in the first place.