Designed to train cops to quell civil unrest, the city was a reflection of our national ideals, and an impetus for internal state violence

Riotsville, U.S.A. begins in the streets. A twee Middle American town rims an asphalt road scorching in the sun—no one is out yet, the shops are all closed. No one, that is, except for the sniper in army fatigues poised atop a roof, waiting. He will be joined by rows of fellow soldiers marching in sync behind a Jeep, spanning the entirety of the public space as if this town belongs to them, which it does.

This is not a real street, but one designed and built in Fort Belvoir, Virginia—a former plantation that is now among the largest military bases in the United States, and which today employs more than twice as many people as the Pentagon. The year is 1967, and these soldiers are being trained to anticipate and quell domestic dissent within a fictional city, where military and police leaders reenact left-wing riots currently spreading across the country, from Chicago to Newark to Detroit. A voice-over poignantly recites, “A door swung open in the late ’60s”—that is, a door with a view to a more egalitarian world. The state would do anything to close it, and keep it resoundingly shut. The fictional town that they built in Virginia was called “Riotsville,” and it became home to countless anti-activist training activities, teaching both the military and local police forces from across the country how to handle what they called ‘civil disorder.’ In a new documentary, director Sierra Pettengill tells the story of Riotsville entirely through archival footage, using this moment in history as a crucible for what would come later—the death of revolutionary movements, increased state and police power, and a decided turn away from social support and programming for the most vulnerable.

The archival footage is haunting—not only because Riotsville looks like a town for paper dolls with machine guns and militarized helicopters, but also because of how easily the stagecraft slips into step with images from ‘real’ life. Pettengill shows footage of reporters at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami, who are covering protests staged by Black activists in nearby Liberty City. Before long, the National Guard is deployed and they cut to commercial break, which Pettengill keeps in her film. We see a mosquito buzz around the screen, which is targeted by a disembodied hand holding bug spray. Its owner celebrates the ease with which it destroys and roots out that annoying pest—the rhetoric is not unlike the voice of a cop or lawmaker bringing down the hammer on unwanted ‘troublemakers.’ The connection is even more disturbing when the newsfeed returns, with images of trucks designed to spray bug repellant now making their way through Liberty City, ejecting tear gas on protestors. Pettengill does not need expert analysis from historians or journalists to supplement the footage itself—the imagery speaks volumes.

“An ethics of mutuality or shared consideration would be regarded as constraint—the right to dominate others, without being mindful of the costs, is thus constitutive of American ideals of freedom.”

We might argue that what these images expose is an undeniable chink in the US’s self-proclaimed status as leader of the free world. But are these shows of hyper-militarization and strong-arm politics actually contradictions of American values, or expressions of them? In her new book Ugly Freedoms (2022), American Studies scholar Elisabeth R. Anker argues that instances of state-sanctioned violence in US history are not simply ‘misapplications’ of freedom, but central to how it has been defined in the nation’s history.

Since American claims to self-definition and sovereignty were enabled by chattel slavery and the violent conquest of Indigenous land, freedom for some has always come at the expense of others—that is, freedom takes its shape through exercising the right to not be responsible for, or limited by, the needs of others. This means that an ethics of mutuality or shared consideration would be regarded as constraint—the right to dominate others, without being mindful of the costs, is thus constitutive of American ideals of freedom. This same logic allows Riotsville’s existence to be read by patriots not as a sign of undemocratic values or an overfed military budget, but as a defense of their right to not be disturbed by the demands of poor and racialized activists. Pettengill even runs a TV interview with the president of the world’s leading tear gas company, who defends the use of his product both domestically and in Vietnam, because they “consider it a public service.” This corrosive, dangerous weapon is not seen as the antithesis of democracy, but as one of its tools.

Militarization is one of two government responses that Pettengill tracks in her documentary, the other being a (failed) attempt to address the problem at its root. (Radical, one might note, comes from the late Latin radicalis, meaning “at the root.”) In July 1967, President Johnson ordered a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, later known as the Kerner Report, to investigate the cause of widespread riots and protests, which he believed to be the work of “outside agitators.” No such agitators were discovered, however, and after seven months of research, the report concluded that the growth in civil unrest was caused by systemic racism, unemployment, police brutality, biased media reporting, and failed government assistance programs. The report recommended wealth redistribution, housing equality, and new jobs for racialized communities—that is, systems designed to create better material conditions for everyday people. But instead, an injection of new funding for local police forces was authorized by the newly-formed Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.

“Everyday people willingly became limbs for the machine of state-sanctioned violence, embodying what the philosopher Michel Foucault famously argued: that power does not act on us, so much as through us.”

The punitive turn to increased funding for police and prisons demonstrates a failure of imagination and an unwillingness to strive for a better world. As abolitionists have shown us time and time again, police participate in violence, they do not prevent it; housing, education, food, and healthcare are the most effective ways to keep people safe. But in watching the footage taken at Riotstville, the government’s willingness to fund expensive and elaborate military and police training instead of social services becomes painfully apparent. This approach suggests that the disenfranchised should suffer through their dissatisfaction with the state instead of doing something to make it better, and clears the government of its obligation to make life more livable. From Anker’s view, we could also say that it upholds an American aversion to responsibility, resulting in the kind of mental gymnastics that are required to see social services as anti-freedom, and militarized cops as pro-freedom.

On top of the US’s failure to address primary causes of unrest, its turn to counterinsurgency training exacerbated divisions, creating more opportunities for the police to clash with protestors, and for civilians to be seriously harmed and even killed. The turn towards state-sanctioned violence fanned out from the military and police, as weapons ended up in the hands of the ruling and upper-middle classes. Pettengill presents footage of middle-aged white women in suburban Detroit, gathered for a workshop on gun use, in which they giggle about where the most “vital point” on a human target might be, and compare their scores when it’s their turn to practice. The film then cuts to another suburb, where a Black family expresses their anxieties about armed white vigilanties and racial genocide; with both the police and their neighbours now armed to the teeth, it does not seem as though the state is actually interested in alleviating unrest—at least the kind that puts racialized communities at risk.

Pettengill’s film maps out how the response towards civil disobedience curdled into punishment and militarism, beginning in the confines of Riotsville and inevitably spreading into real towns and cities across the country. From the white suburban arms workshops to the recruitment of a thousand volunteer guards for the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, everyday people willingly became limbs for the machine of state-sanctioned violence, embodying what the philosopher Michel Foucault famously argued: that power does not act on us, so much as through us. Though Pettengill does not bring her film into the present day, she clearly gestures towards how habituated we have become to hyper-surveillance and over-policing, especially when it is exerted upon racialized and low-income communities. In a similar vein, recent calls for police and prison abolition in the wake of 2020’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations—among the largest grassroots protests in history—have likewise been twisted by governments across North America into an excuse to ramp up police funding and support more militarized technologies, to be used both domestically and abroad.

“The punitive turn to increased funding for police and prisons demonstrates a failure of imagination and an unwillingness to strive for a better world.”

Perhaps there is some hope to be found in the film’s closing chapter. Pettengill draws our attention to another fictional city—one never built but imagined by the poet June Jordan, who collaborated on the idea with architect Buckminster Fuller in 1964. After witnessing six days of intense protests in Harlem that summer, involving ample police violence, Jordan took to dreaming about what a reparative vision of the neighborhood might look like. She imagined housing for 500,000 people in conical towers that would pierce the sky, with views toward horizons yet unknown—room to finally breathe, and parks, highways, and sidewalks that would keep communities connected and mobile. When Jordan’s piece was published by Esquire, they credited the design to Fuller alone and changed her headline to “Instant Slum Clearance.” Her vision, they implied, was simply too utopian and idealistic.

By bringing Jordan’s Skyrise for Harlem into view at the end of her documentary, Pettengill bookends the film with two fictional cities: one erected on an army base in Virginia, designed to scare and intimidate, and the other left behind as drawings and outlines, designed to heal and transform. We are left to wonder, why is it the first of the two that’s allowed to exist? Despite the sobering comparison, there is a glimmering note of possibility: At least the blueprints for something better already exist.