The US government reacted to urban riots in the 1960s by increasing the militarization of domestic policing. The documentary Riotsville USA tells the story of how calls for increased equality and freedom were crushed with weaponry and propaganda. Directed by Sierra Pettengill. Written by Tobi Haslett. Narrated by Charlene Modeste,
Riotsville USA tells a story about a point in the 1960s when riots were effectively forcing the state to address the grievances of oppressed communities. Unfortunately, despite promises to undo social injustice, it was inevitable that the state would enact its top down reforms in the interests of the capitalist class. They came in the form further militarization of the police combined with racial scapegoating of non-whites and demonization of the poor and working class in an array of counter-insurgency methods. This theme of pragmatic labor control and white supremacy cancelling out social reform or revolution runs through the film.
The film examines the ruling class reaction to the riots in largely Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods stifled and degraded by racialized capitalist policies in the mid 1960s. President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to find realistic solutions to easing social unrest. When the Committee, made up of centrists largely hand picked by Johnson, pronounced that the only way to lessen tension and violence was by radically increasing funding for education, housing, and social services as well as creating jobs programs in underserved and isolated neighborhoods, its directives were mostly ignored.
Instead, the administration predictably opted to listen to a set of military researchers who had been studying counter-insurgency methods in a fake town they had constructed and named “Riotsville USA.” This was very much like a Hollywood set in which soldiers took on the role of the rioters and various scenarios could be gamed through as training for future counter-insurgency ready troops.
The footage of the embarrassingly vague protests escalating into staged riots and then put down is more chilling when the bleachers filled with military brass come into frame. The officers chuckle and applaud in unison as the unruly riot actors are thrown into armored vehicles or busses, still screaming and in character. The 100% whiteness of the all-male officers is contrasted to many of the soldier actors being Black and or women. The Kerner Commission had stated “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” In the pantomime riots of Riotsville USA, with its all white officer class looking on, it was visually obvious that they saw Blacks as especially volatile “outside agitators.”
Throughout this film, the white supremacist underpinnings of the system of “law and order” as well as the broader capitalist order are glaring. The bases where Riotsville exercises were carried out were fittingly named after slave plantations or Confederate Generals. And yet, I had to wonder how many of the soldier actors in the “Hell no we won’t go!” anti-war scenario, both Black and white, would later become very real members of the extensive GI Resistance. That resistance played an important role in grinding the Vietnam War to a halt.
The liberal media gets a mixed scorecard here in their efforts to examine the urban unrest of the 1960s. On the one hand, news shows and reporters often appear to approach the issue of racism with a “both sides” style. Some people say it’s a problem, others less so. On the other hand, Black Church leaders and congregations as well as Black intellectuals and Civil Rights leaders were given broadcast time to cut through the BS. We see footage from the “National Educational Television” network (which we are told was successfully defunded by the Republicans for being too liberal--you can almost hear Elon Musk and Glenn Greenwald clapping). A Black preacher tells a largely white panel in a distant studio, which includes a stereotypical white police chief, how ridiculous it is to frame the issue as if one had to determine whether or not police brutality existed in the US. The chief asks what is meant by “police brutality” appealing to the usual framing of cops as the last line of defense against the collapse of society. In another talk show, Bayard Rustin and two other Black leaders wonder whether white society will decide to do what is necessary to bring about equality or simply attack Blacks, perhaps even send them back to Africa. One guest posits that white elites might simply cordon off and control Blacks in a containment policy, which seems the closest to what the capitalist class ultimately attempted.
Another important contrast presented here is the difference between the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the Miami Republican Convention of the same year. Most of us have probably heard more about the former, the Daley machine’s brutal crackdown on the anti-war Left opposition to the Democratic Party, than we have about the Republican crackdown and police murder of Black protesters in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. Many of those police, we are told, had trained at a Riotsville.
The film was made from 2015-2021, beginning a year after the Ferguson Riots, another people’s uprising demanding social change, including calls to abolish the police. Very few radicals were surprised that the capitalist class used the riots both to deploy and develop more severe counter-insurgency tactics. Ferguson represented a new “terrain” for US riots: the suburbs. If the decisions are left to the capitalist class, we can expect more development of suburban counter-insurgency tactics sooner than we see the calls for increased dignity, equality, and social infrastructure addressed. The DOJ studies in the aftermath of the Ferguson police murdering Mike Brown showed that racial economic policies drove an intentionally white supremacist system, echoing what the Kerner Commission had found in 1967 (see Phil Neel’s description of the “Ferguson Model” in Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict).
The thesis that the state intentionally avoids the calls for reform and equality in favor of ever increasing militarized repression is succinctly and poetically stated in the conclusion:
“Between possibility and repression. Closure and rupture. Parody and dream. That’s where all of this has taken place. Between two competing pictures of an impossible city. Utopia, that is, nowhere. Riotsville, Anywhere USA.”