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Riotsville, U.S.A.


It’s a quirky documentary film, utilising footage from the 1960s that was either already broadcast and/or is in the public domain because it was filmed by the US military, and films and footage created for and produced by the US Government are not subject to the usual copyright laws. At its core are fictional towns created by the US Army, each called ‘Riotsville’. The towns’ main purpose was to stage and simulate re-enactments of civil disorder. These were located on military bases, or otherwise on Government land, and police officers would be bussed in by the hundreds to attend the re-enactments, for training purposes.


These fictional towns, or rather town centres (they didn’t, it appears to me, bother too much with recreating fake quiet suburbs) were largely forgotten about over time, which seems to be the film’s point in using coverage from ABC and other broadcasters, including a channel called National Educational Television, founded in 1952 and dissolved in 1970 after the Ford Foundation withdrew its funding. NET was succeeded by the Public Broadcasting Service. There wasn’t, to put it another way, any state suppression of these fake towns, or the tactics used therein to attempt to train troops and police officers.


Narrated by Charlene Modeste, through the prism of hindsight, the film provides details of the Kerner Commission, set up by the Johnson Administration in 1967 to get to the bottom of why civil unrest was taking place across America, and what could be done to address the issues being raised. The commission was comprised entirely of ‘moderates’, or more precisely, people whom President Johnson considered to be moderates, and immediate concerns that there was a lack of representation from the black community were, perhaps predictably, batted away.


The commission’s recommendations were published in 1968, in the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. In a nutshell, it said America was a racist country and it was going to cost billions of dollars to put things right, in order to provide black people with similar employment opportunities and housing that white people enjoyed. There was stuff about improvements to local community services, though the only thing the government latched on to and properly funded was a recommendation that police forces be properly staffed. Not only was there funding for more officers, but pretty much whatever ammunition and weapons that forces wanted.


That, it hardly takes a genius to work out, is (sort of) how America got where it is today. What I particularly appreciated about this film was that the audience is permitted to work that out for itself, without making unnecessary comparisons to what’s going on in this day and age. Then again, it doesn’t need to, because too little has changed in the intervening decades.


While not politically neutral by any stretch of the imagination, the film provides a comprehensive picture of the socio-political climate of the era. In one scene, a grandmother is amongst several dozen women queued up to participate in target practice, effectively preparing for the day when they would encounter a black person for the first time in their sheltered lives, and would therefore be in a position to shoot to kill on sight.


More chilling than that was the rather flippant coverage given to some actual rioting that took place at the time of the 1968 Republican National Convention, with news items riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations. But here’s an advertisement from NBC’s principal sponsor at the time, Gulf, who manufactured, amongst other things, the very tear gas that was being deployed on the streets. Gripping and revelatory, there are some valuable lessons from modern history in this brilliantly researched movie.


Four stars

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