The film exposing decades of police brutality

The film exposing decades of police brutality

We talk to filmmaker Sierra Pettengill about her new documentary 'Riotsville, U.S.A', which explores the 1967 summer of uprisings, the devastating aftermath, and the decisions that set the country on the path it’s on today.

It’s mid-July in Newark, New Jersey and a black man named John William Smith is driving a cab. Though the sun set on the scorching hot day about an hour ago, the sky still has a little light in it. It’s 9:40 pm and the air has finally started to cool. As Smith approaches a double parked police car, he indicates and manoeuvres past it. After successfully completing the move, Smith carries on driving before noticing the lights of the police car in his rear view mirror. What comes next is a well worn story of police brutality and community uproar.

Smith is pursued by the police before being stopped, dragged from his car, arrested and beaten. He is taken to the local station and charged with assaulting an officer and making intimidating remarks. His injuries are so severe that he is later moved to a local hospital, while the streets swirl with rumours that he has been beaten to death. Six days of local civil unrest follow, leaving 16 civilians, 8 suspects, a police officer and a firefighter dead. A further 353 civilians, 214 suspects, 67 police officers, 55 firefighters and 38 military personnel are injured, and property damage exceeds $10 million.

The Newark Riots were just one in a series of over 150 instances of civil unrest in the ‘long, hot summer of 1967’. Unprecedented violence was also seen on the streets of New York, Plainfield, Milwaukee and Detroit – the latter marking one of the most deadly and destructive riots in US History, with 43 deaths, 1,189 injuries, over 7,200 arrests and more than 400 buildings destroyed over the course of five days. 

It’s against this backdrop that Riotsville, U.S.A is set. The new documentary by filmmaker Sierra Pettengill explores the summer of uprisings, the devastating aftermath, and the decisions made that set the country on the path it’s on today.

“After the uprising in Newark, there was a commission appointed to assess what happened,” Pettengill tells me over Zoom. “The conclusion of that commission was that law enforcement was the main source of violence in Newark. Obviously that’s not surprising, though it’s surprising it’s acknowledged. It also added that we now have two choices – one is to live in reality, the other is to continue down a path of illusion”.

Days after the Newark Riots, the unrest on the streets of Detroit began. Before the fires had been extinguished and the dust had settled, President Lyndon B. Johnson had launched the Kerner Commission to investigate the summer of unrest, which came only two years after uprisings in Los Angeles. The commission, its conclusions and missed opportunities, are central to Pettengill’s film.

Much like the commission in the aftermath of Newark, the Kerner Commission identified that the US was at a turning point. It warned that the country was moving towards “two societies, one black and one white – separate and unequal”, pointing to the racial inequality that was deeply embedded at every level. Pettegill’s documentary examines the commission’s findings, which became an instant bestseller when it was released in February 1968 and called for billions in housing investment, massive expansion of services and government programmes, as well as immediate reformation of police forces across the country.

“There was a moment in the post-war economy where these funds could actually have been made available,” Pettengill notes. “In the '60s we had a social welfare state that, while not perfect by any means, was still far ahead of what we have now. And so there is this moment where a door opens that, as the narrator of the film says, gets shut immediately.”

Instead, the Government diverted resources and attention into funding the militarisation of police forces across the country to crush descent. “In 1964, there were $0 in federal funds available for policing. By 1970 it was $300 million. That’s an insanely rapid build up,” Pettengill tells me.

Top to bottom: Photos of U.S. civil disturbance training (1967), as seen in 'Riotsville, USA', directed by Sierra Pettengill. Courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration.

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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