Feb. 27, 2023
It's a story we've seen and heard over the years, distilled down from headlines, heartbreak, and lived experience to become the foundational lore of our post-war planning world.
Emerging from a legacy of racism, inequality, and nonviolent organizing in the late 1950s, the American civil rights movement burst from schools, vigils, and lunch counters in the 1960s. From Newark to Los Angeles and everywhere in between, intense outbursts of civil unrest shook the nation — whether labelled "riots," "rebellions," or "revolutions" — in over 100 cities between 1965 and 1967.
In the decades that followed, documentaries from the award-winning PBS series Eyes on the Prize to the gut-wrenching Revolution '67 have explored this turbulent era as a lens for understanding the civil rights movement and the urban planning reforms that grew out of it. More recently, films like The Many Saints of Newark and Judas and the Black Messiah have reckoned with it, with the period used as a dramatic backdrop. In addition to archival images of police in riot gear, stores being looted, and city blocks on fire, most depictions and discussions include the legacy of racism and dreams deferred; the findings of the Kerner Commission; and (of special relevance to planners) eventual reforms through legislation like the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act.
But one fascinating and upsetting part of this story has rarely been told — an oversight corrected by Riotsville, U.S.A., an innovative new documentary directed by Sierra Pettengill (director of 2017's celebrated archival film, The Reagan Show) and produced by Sara Archambault (Truth or Consequences) and Jamila Wignot (The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross). As more and more cities were witnessing intense unrest, and as planners and academics conducted studies and drafted policy reforms, the U.S. Army was busy pursuing a different course of action.
Starting with an unused scrap of land in Virginia and later expanding to a similar site in Georgia, troops constructed temporary simulated "downtowns" to stage mock demonstrations and conduct training exercises in urban policing. Drawing heavily on the army's own silent archival films — with an eerie, almost kitschy home-movie quality — the documentary recounts the development of increasingly militarized police tactics, practiced in these so-called "Riotsvilles," then promoted in urban areas across the country.
In addition to weaving in enough context and history concerning discrimination, segregation, urban renewal, and the roots of "the urban problem," Pettengill connects these militarized strategies to the growing war in Vietnam, from the development of "anti-riot" assault vehicles (i.e., tanks) to the widespread use of tear gas — once condemned and banned as inhumane even in wartime — to control urban crowds. Equally noteworthy is the film's attention to another weapon in the arsenal of control, the computer, foreshadowing today's controversial practicing of surveillance, racial profiling, and algorithm-oriented policing.
At times, the film is perhaps too eager to stretch out the story — too enamored of every bit of archival footage and news coverage they've uncovered, including a great deal of outtakes and "B-roll" material that's fun but overused. There's a beautiful sideline discussing the collaboration between the poet June Jordan and the futurist Buckminster Fuller to design a "Skyrise for Harlem" housing development, and some extremely moving video of Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick and Jimmy Collier singing "Burn, Baby, Burn" in the days following King's assassination.
A tighter narrative could focus the story without losing much, especially for use in educational settings. Equally important would be a contrast of the military's "Riotsvilles" with federal approaches advocated by urban planners at the time, such as Lyndon B. Johnson's Model Cities Program. While the "law and order" camp practiced control-oriented policing in fake cities, partnerships between local government, antipoverty organizations, and resident coalitions worked on the ground to support and rebuild real ones.
But regardless of these shortcomings, the film offers an important contribution to expanding our understanding of this pivotal moment in urban history. Actually seeing these simulated "downtowns" — more façade than fact, created by policing institutions drifting increasingly out of touch with the realities of urban America — viewers are encouraged to reflect on the cultural, economic, and even moral aspects of the growing divide between inner-city and outer-suburb, a fragmentation that continues to shape our metropolitan regions, policies, and politics today.
Riotsville, U.S.A., was an official selection at Sundance in 2022 and is available on Hulu and can be purchased or rented on other streaming platforms. Readers interested in additional background and context may want to read "Magic Actions: Looking back on the George Floyd rebellion," by Riotsville writer Tobi Haslett.