Militarization of Police

'Riotsville, U.S.A.' Explores the Origins of Police Militarization

Sierra Pettengill's documentary focuses on the fake towns, built by the Army in the 1960s, to train law enforcement.


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Riotsville, U.S.A., a new documentary by filmmaker Sierra Pettengill, is a surrealist look at the dawn of police militarization in America.

"Riotsville was a series of fake towns that look like low-budget film sets constructed on military bases in the late '60s for training in civil disturbance control," Pettengill explained to Reason. "People ranging from FBI agents, governors, rank and file police officers, and police chiefs were all brought in for this course. Riotsville was a sort of day-long stage reenactment."

Following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Americans become increasingly aware of the growing use of military tools and tactics by law enforcement. But, as Pettengill's film makes clear, the practice began decades earlier—in the 1960s—after protests erupted in cities across the country.

In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to study what had caused the series of urban riots that led to deadly clashes between protesters and police. The commission's report recommended an ambitious set of initiatives to combat racism in America, and a minor measure calling for increased funding and training for police. It was that minor recommendation that President Johnson latched on to.

"It is largely the first time that the federal government is funding local police departments directly," says Pettengill.

Pettengill sat down with Reason to talk about her film, the lasting impact of the Army's creation of Riotsville, and the parallels she draws between the 1960s and today.

Produced and edited by Meredith Bragg.

Photos: Keystone Press Agency/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Tony Spina/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Everett Collection/Newscom; UPPA/Photoshot/Newscom; James Cooper/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Jim Vondruska / Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; David Carson/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Shen Ting / Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; Timothy Tai/ZUMA Press/Newscom