A small-town business district glides across the screen in grainy 1960s Technicolor. The shot shows a pawn shop, a drug store, and advertisements for cottage cheese and white potatoes. The town is passing itself off as Anywhere, USA, but something is amiss. The brightly colored façades are fabricated and flimsy. Atop the liquor store, a uniformed sniper crouches low. Two cars lie belly-up outside Joe’s Place. A voice-over asks, “What are we looking at?”
The place captured in this footage from Riotsville, USA—a mesmeric documentary by Sierra Pettengill, with narration written by Tobi Haslett—is no ordinary Main Street; it’s a staged battle scene. “Riotsville” was the name the Army gave to the training grounds it built, beginning in 1967, to school police departments and military personnel in the art of domestic counterinsurgency. As a crowd of top brass watched from the bleachers, police and military cadets would game out various scenarios of civil disorder within the two blocks of this diorama town.
Riotsville was constructed with a singular purpose: to hone politically acceptable forms of state repression. It came into being in the aftermath of the gratuitous response by the National Guard and local law enforcement to the uprisings in Watts, Newark, and scores of other cities. Thirty-three Black residents were killed during Detroit’s uprising alone. “If we see anyone move,” one guardsman told The New York Times,“we shoot and ask questions later.” State violence this excessive drew widespread censure—even the Times editorial board published an op-ed titled “Trigger-Happy Guard”—and by 1967, the domestic law enforcement apparatus had embraced formal riot-control training as its favored corrective. The Riotsville exercises, staged first at Virginia’s Fort Belvoir, then Georgia’s Fort Gordon (both Army bases named in tribute to slavery and the Confederacy), gave law enforcement a simulated arena in which to rehearse bulletless tactics for defusing Black rebellion and antiwar militancy.
In a supposed reenactment of the Watts rebellion, a large, multiracial posse of actors—cops and soldiers wearing street clothes and wigs—work themselves into a frenzy after witnessing an anodyne police traffic stop. Looting commences, the horde of bogus radicals pantomiming insurgency, and an antiriot regiment performs a nonlethal ambush. Once detained, a Black protester yells “I’ll get you!” at the white arresting officers. From the bleachers, the commanding officers chuckle.
Pettengill unearthed the footage from the National Archives, and in her hands it becomes the material for a sort of reverse mockumentary. The simulations, recorded by news broadcasters and the military itself, are steeped in unintended parody, caricature, and buffoonery; one scene features a Zamboni-like tank that squeals incessantly, drawing involuntary chortles from reporters. There’s an element of security-state slapstick here. But any humor is freighted with the recognition that we are witnessing a dress rehearsal for the rapid militarization of the police that took place over the next five decades. This isn’t just a fantasy of the state—it’s the prefiguration of a new mode of urban governance. From our vantage point in 2022, Riotsville can be found in every municipality of the United States.