Documentary “Riotsville, USA” by Sierra Pettingail

“Plumber” is written on one facade, and “Liquor Store” on the other. They are brightly painted, standing next to each other, at first glance as if they were on a street in a small town, at second as if they were on an old-fashioned movie set. The engine of a helicopter can be heard, then some protesters are running in the street, red mist is flying in the air. In the end, the soldiers jumped out of the jeeps, approached the protesters and arrested some of them. Swing to the ranks that seem to be on the edge of a racetrack: decorated with flags, fully occupied. In the audience most of them are in uniform: they laugh and applaud.

“What do we see here, what do these pictures tell us today?” asks a female voice from outside. The scenes are from Sierra Bittengel’s “Riotsville, USA,” which premiered at the Sundance Festival and has now found international distribution with Magnolia Pictures. Riot City is the name of the fictitious cities built by the US military in the 1960s. Fighting against insurgents was trained in the cities – against opponents of the war, African Americans and the poor. The decade was marked by political violence: during “Ole Miss Riot” in 1962, whites in Mississippi protested the merger of universities, two people died and three hundred were injured. In Los Angeles, the 1965 Black Watts riots claimed 34 lives. As in California, police violence, racism, and a lack of prospects in poorer neighborhoods were the causes of hundreds of other riots across the country—in 1967 alone there were about 160 such riots. Even after Martin Luther King was assassinated the following year, violent protests erupted in more than a hundred cities, and the police and National Guard reacted brutally to them.

impoverishment and lack of prospects

While searching in the archives, director Pettengill watched videos of training sessions, laughing actors and generals hit the stands. “The visuals were too incredible to ignore,” she recalls at the film’s release in New York. The government did not keep the recordings secret at the time. “Everything was public, and short scenes were shown on TV. We knew that as a society, there was no need to be covered up,” says Pettingel. The militarization of the state’s war against protests was not only accepted after all – it was also desired by many white citizens in particular and remains so today. The US armed forces have long been recycling combat materials with local police forces, which are an important customer of the domestic military industry. Critics often compare the police budget, which was about $118 billion in 2019, to that of other countries’ military spending.

Accordingly, Petengael’s film wants not only to tell a historical story, but also to show how the militarization of the police apparatus arrived and reinterpret the resistance into the present. But the film also reminds us that counter-violence was not the only possible reaction, and like the state itself, it was looking for alternatives. At the time, the government-appointed Kerner Commission of Inquiry came to the conclusion that the violence was primarily for social causes. President Lyndon Johnson created a body of politicians, unionists, and police representatives in 1967, which was chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. The report became a bestseller. The authors found that poverty and a lack of prospects reached such a level that many people participated in the uprisings out of desperation. The “ghetto” from which violence comes is a white creation: “White institutions create them, white institutions maintain them, and white society sustains them,” the commission ruled. White privileged social, educational, and housing policies maintain deep divisions in society. Accordingly, the proposed solutions failed. Clearly it was also notable from today’s perspective, the commission recommended starting with social policy if one wanted to pacify the inner cities. Blacks needed the jobs, housing, and expectations that whites had.

Leave a Comment