A new documentary examines how the U.S. military in the 1960s prepared police for unrest in cities by using a fictional town and soldiers as actors.
The big picture: “Riotsville, U.S.A.,” released Friday in selected theaters, shows the origins of the militarization of police amid demands by poor communities of color to end police brutality — demands that continue today.
- The film only uses archive footage from the military, newscasts, and police from the era.
- Filmmakers used those to piece together a story of how police departments in the U.S. came to use military tactics, mainly against Black and Latino residents, for decades — immediately after the civil rights movement.
Details: In the late 1960s, the U.S. Army built fake towns, known as “riotsvilles,” on its bases to stage and film the military response to riots.
- Soldiers posed as white rioters instigated by Black agitators (also played by plain-clothes soldiers) as the military and police used tear gas and ferocious force to quell the staged unrest.
- The Amy filmed the performances for training and for officials to analyze strategies.
What they’re saying: “At some points, it seems like a joke. And then in other points, there’s real violence. There are people being arrested and shoved into a tank,” film director Sierra Pettengill told Axios.
- Pettengill said she was stuck that the footage appeared to show trainees really beating up Black soldiers, who were acting out a part.
- Then news footage of actual riots showed how that training became a reality.
Between the lines: Just two years ago the killing of George Floyd, the nation still is grappling over policing, systemic racism, and poverty.
- Pettengill says the film reminds us that these issues have not been resolved.
- “I felt like I’m in Alice in Wonderland. We’re hearing the same thing over and over again.”
- “I also find that I hope that by showing how a system gets built…we can start to imagine how to unbuild it.”