Riotsville, USA: the shocking story of fake army towns that militarised police

“Welcome to Riotsville,” says a raincoat-clad ABC news correspondent with a noisy, placard-waving crowd and row of what appear to be shops behind him. “This is a simulated riot in a simulated city. But as another summer approaches, it might be Anywhere, USA.”

The news clip resurfaces in Riotsville, USA, a documentary about the stagecraft of state coercion. It tells how the army built fake towns, or “riotsvilles”, on its bases and used soldiers as actors to stage huge theatrical re-enactments of civil unrest. The military response was filmed to help with the training of law enforcement.

It sounds like a dark sequel to The Truman Show or the creepy, mannequin-filled mock towns used for nuclear tests in the 1950s. The riotsvilles were buried in obscurity for half a century until Sierra Pettengill, an archival researcher and film-maker, read about them in Nixonland, historian Rick Perlstein’s book about the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s.

“I immediately looked to see what I could find, which was very little, and then eventually found a record in the National Archives that sounded about right and got that film transferred and sent over,” the director of Riotsville, USA recalls via Zoom from Brooklyn, New York.

“I then began a long process of trying to contextualise what this meant – literally within a historical context, but also where this fits in a metaphorical sense in how America treats race and equality, what choices it makes for allocation of resources, and the eternal loop we seem to be on.”

There was not an official campaign to cover up the riotsvilles, a response to uprisings against racial injustice (“race riots” in the parlance of the time) and protests against the Vietnam war. They seem to have fallen into the shadows because of collective amnesia. They had been hiding in plain sight all this time.

Pettengill, 40, continues: “It was extremely far from a state secret. The New York Times covered it, all of these army publications covered it, a significant chunk of the footage you see in the documentary comes from ABC News and the BBC.

“That feels like a very important part of the story. A reason that we ended up focusing so heavily on broadcast media within the film is there’s something much more pernicious and telling to me about a public history that was forgotten rather than one that was covert or classified or oppressed.

With the help of screen grabs from the surviving footage, Pettengill also tracked down and spoke to some participants in the faux riots. “A lot of people were drafted in this time and so there’s not a consistent ideological approach in the military in the way that you might think. A lot of people found riotsville easier work. A lot of them sympathise with protesters.”

These interviews do not appear in a 91-minute documentary that uses exclusively archival footage from the government and media. Its narrative, written by Tobi Haslett and voiced by Charlene Modeste, has a wistful air about the 1960s, that era of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King when anything seemed possible.

It suggests that when two roads diverged in a yellow wood, America chose the one of fear rather than hope, of constraint rather than liberation. By the end of the decade, both Kennedy and King were dead and the militarisation of police departments’ approach to people of colour had been born.

The narration states: “A door swung open in the late 60s. Nothing that big or bright had ever happened and in so many American cities … And someone, something, sprang up and slammed it shut.”

One of those someones was Lyndon Johnson. The Democratic president is now lauded for his historic civil rights legislation. But it was Johnson who helped set the stage for his Republican successor Richard Nixon, who in 1968 would claim the mantle of “law and order” and declare: “As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night.”

Pettengill says:There’s a bunch of things happening at the same time. In 1965, a week after LBJ passed the Voting Rights Act, which we all remember him for, he also declared a war on crime and created the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which provided a lot of federal funding straight to local police departments, which was unprecedented. It went from zero in 1964.”

Then came the summer of 1967 that saw more than 150 uprisings, mostly spurred by police brutality in Detroit, Newark and cities across America. In response, Johnson convened the 11-member Kerner Commission, which pointed to root causes such as child poverty and school segregation and drew attention to police brutality. It concluded: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

The commission recommended spending billions of dollars to improve housing, education and employment prospects for African Americans. But Johnson balked at those expensive solutions while zealously adopting the commission’s suggestions for riot preparedness.

A still from Riotsville, USA
Photograph: Magnolia Pictures

Pettengill adds: “LBJ is not interested. He feels like he’s put plenty of money into the Great Society and they’re basically calling for more and saying that what’s happened so far is insufficient. He ignores it.

“There’s a little section in the back that makes recommendations for riot control and that is the section that, in conjunction with the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act in 1968, which gives more funding to police departments. And so that path is the one that’s followed.”

It is a path that leads all the way to the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, an African American man in Minneapolis, and to the present day.

“What you’re watching in Riotsville is what we would now couch under the idea of police reform, which is they are trying to correct for some of the abuses that happened by police in 1967 by undergoing this training and coordination among departments.

“That is also a very helpful illustration of the limits and falsity of the idea of police reform, because police reform often is just a way of increasing funding for police. ‘If we just train them better, then they’ll get better and, in order to train them, we have to funnel more money to them.’ Money just ends up in more arrests so Riotsville is helpful.

“In terms of resources, this is a moment where the idea of the federal government funding local police departments is largely purchased. There had been lots of white riots prior to the 1960s and the kind of financial will did not exist in the same way.”

Campaigns to defund the police surged after the death of Floyd but provoked an inevitable backlash and are now seen by many Democrats as politically toxic. Joe Biden has repeatedly distanced himself from the movement, insisting that the police must be funded, not defunded.

But Pettengill argues: “The film to me is a very good argument for defunding the police. We’re not in some particular policy pickle that we can just fund our way out of. It is deeply, darkly broken and by design. The film is illustrating that design. It is watching a system get constructed.”

The past is never dead. Pettengill notes that two “semi-riotsvilles” are now being built in Chicago and Atlanta, prompting fierce community opposition, with smaller versions being added all over the country.

“We are in a very bleak minority ruled state in this country right now and shying away from progressive policies that actually directly impact people’s lives, that kind of strategy and back-pedalling, just perpetuates a system that’s not functioning at all. There are people being killed and harmed every day in all of our cities and I don’t see much value in shying away from something that is the only solution.