Part of this funding went to the creation of ‘riotsvilles’ across the country, from which Pettengill's film draws its name. These fake towns, built on old military bases, were created for police and military forces to develop tactics to deal with civil disorder situations. Made up entirely of archive footage, Riotsville, USA shows scenarios in which US soldiers are drafted in to pretend to be protestors. Police officers and military personnel then arrive to deal with the “unrest” in a set of drills designed to mimic those seen on the streets of cities like Newark and Detroit.
Mainly sourced from official army documentation at the time – though interspersed with news reports – the footage is, at points, entirely farcical. G.I.’s are given (bad) wigs to hide their buzzcuts and carry placards with generic slogans as they’re ‘arrested’ and ‘detained’ by other soldiers and officers, all observed by stands full of police chiefs from across the country.
“I think half a million police officers passed through this programme,” Pettengill tells me of the riotsville towns, which saw expansion and additional sites opened up to match demand. “In making the film, I spoke to a man who ran the trainings and he said ‘we basically hit a blank cheque’, which is a very rare thing. It became part of a conference circuit. Police officers from local departments were awarded the chance to go train at riotsville, and bring their ideas and learnings back.”
The Potemkin towns were, in many ways, performance art: an elaborate theatrical spectacle designed to give the illusion of doing something. But beyond the farce, there lies a more sinister truth. This was one of many programmes that saw a phantom town receiving unlimited government money to train police forces to deal with people protesting against inequality, racism and war in real towns with no investment. From the choice to create and fund riotsville towns, to the scenarios run inside them (often focusing on the myth of bad actors inciting violence or the widespread risk of sniper attack that simply did not exist), they offer an insight into the way the US state views much of its citizenry.
The racial and economic dynamics of the '60s – from the increasing influence of private interest, to white hysteria about the perceived threat of black Americans – are explored through archive footage alongside the race to militarise the police in Pettengill’s searing fever dream of a documentary. The film, which was “a real collective authorship” that Pettengill states she was lucky to be able to make with “intelligent and thoughtful artists and thinkers”, masterfully joins the dots.
In many ways, it's a uniquely depressing watch. Footage of community leaders demanding funding, inflammatory news reporting and brazen corporate influence in politics could all be lifted from contemporary programming. The demands for investment, dignity and respect, to be able to live a life free from the tyranny of police brutality, and to see funds directed to programmes that benefit people rather than on bloody imperialist wars echo through the decades.
“This film was my way of working through the world that we’re all living in and trying to understand how it came to be,” Pettengill tells me as our wide ranging conversation draws to a conclusion. We talk at length about the similarities between much of what’s happened on the streets of towns and cities in the US and how that’s reflected around the world. We talk of the legislative onslaught in the UK and the crackdown on activists in the States, particularly in places like Atlanta, where a young activist was shot defending woodland against the development of an 85 acre police and firefighter training facility known as ‘cop city.'
“It does feel bleak. Like, oh, man, how are we repeating this again? How has this been going on for so long? I find if you just flip that it's quite the opposite. Generations of people have outlined for us how to undo this. We're part of a larger intellectual and organising inheritance that we should be able to pull from and feel empowered by the fact that people were already calling it like it was so much earlier on.” Pettengill concludes.
“I find hope in being part of a multi-generational conversation on how to make this change happen.”
Riotsville, U.S.A is out now through Dogwoof.
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