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New documentary 'Riotsville' digs into police militarization in America

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

At the start of the new archival documentary "Riotsville U.S.A.," soldiers march in lockstep down a colorful American city street - past a liquor store, a pawn shop, an appliance center. And a helicopter buzzes overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "RIOTSVILLE U.S.A.")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to Riotsville. This is a simulated riot in a simulated city. But as another summer approaches, it might be anywhere U.S.A.

RASCOE: Riotsville U.S.A. was the name given to fake towns built on army bases that were used to train law enforcement after the unrest in the late 1960s over racial inequality. Director Sierra Pettengill joins us now from Brooklyn to talk about it. Thank you so much for being with us.

SIERRA PETTENGILL: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So start off by telling us about these places. And how were they used?

PETTENGILL: Starting in 1967 and then really ramping up in in 1968, the military built these sort of fake towns on bases, and they would put on full-day re-creations, basically, of situations of rebellion and unrest in American cities. And it was part of a sort of massive increase of federal funding available to a newly declared war on crime.

RASCOE: What I found so interesting is that you have these depictions of, like, even the start of a riot, like a police officer arresting a person. And then you'll have these other, quote, unquote, "civilians" start yelling about this person fake being arrested, and then it goes from there. Is that how they were actually doing the learning?

PETTENGILL: Yeah, I mean, that's ridiculous, right? And it does what you just described - points out sort of a major and not accidental, you know, flaw in this program, which is that it was found pretty readily that the majority of moments of unrest in American cities in 1967 came from violence by the police. And they themselves are re-enacting that same sort of inciting incident within Riotsville. You know, it's a very disturbing way of kind of predicting and writing and imprinting future behavior based on fictional scenarios.

RASCOE: Looking at "Riotsville," that's a jumping off point for the documentary to talk about the the larger political moment that was going on in the late 1960s. Here's a clip from the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "RIOTSVILLE U.S.A.")

CHARLENE MODESTE: What are we looking at? Riotsville is a chessboard - a stage set. Everything and nothing about the 1960s - fake names and non-places marched past by soldiers doing what they can to move the play to its next act. Maybe it's a dream. After all, this is where the state assembles its fears - its cruel delusions.

PETTENGILL: The incredible narration in the film is written by the writer and critic Tobi Haslett. And the role of that narration is to try to ask these questions - what does it mean to look at this footage? What does it mean to look at this footage in 2022? What can we see in this moment in 1967 and 1968 of a developing and massively funded carceral state that we're still living through now? You know, part of this film and its importance to me is to show that none of this is an inevitability.

RASCOE: You know, the film looks at Lyndon B. Johnson. He convened after riots what became known as the Kerner Commission to look at the causes. You know, the Kerner Commission basically says the problem is racism and discrimination, and you almost have two Americas. But then you also have, as you said, a lot of money flowing to police departments.

PETTENGILL: Yeah, absolutely. And the sort of sad thing about the current commission is it says these very powerful, very obvious truths that the cause of the unrest in the United States is white racism. And then LBJ has commissioned this report, and he is not happy with the results. He largely ignores it. And then the only thing that comes with a financial price tag that comes out of the commission's report is a massive amount of federal funding that goes to the police. The Kerner Commission, you know, its conclusions - as a way of combating white racism and the inequality that results from it is to pour a lot of money into social programs, into combating unemployment and homelessness and, you know, discriminatory housing policies. And there's this idea that that money doesn't exist for those social welfare programs. And yet what is, I think, like, 2 billion in today's dollars ends up in the hands of local police departments. And again, that is the same conversation we're having now.

RASCOE: You know, a lot of this film deals with reaction to the unrest, but you don't show the violence from the actual events. Why is that?

PETTENGILL: In part, that was because we wanted to be very careful to not repeat the harms that that footage has done traditionally. You know, of - footage of people in the streets was often used to reinforce ideas of the violence of a Black community. And in the film, when we do arrive at a protest on the street, is at the very end of the film. And that protest is edited in the way it is to make it clear that this protest is a response to the repression you've seen throughout the film rather than the other way around.

RASCOE: Sierra Pettengill's new film "Riotsville U.S.A." is out September 16. Thank you so much for joining us.

PETTENGILL: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.