Documentary Review: Remembering Police Preps for the Burning Summers of the 1960s — “Riotsville, USA”

The images are stark, often silent snippets of little-remembered American history. And they offer a fresh view of the burning summers of 1967 and ’68, when American cities erupted in civil rights protests that quickly crossed over into riots.

“Riotsville, USA” isn’t a recycling of the oft-repeated footage of Detroit, Newark, Watts and elsewhere in flames, of troops fanning out across littered streets in front of shattered and torched storefronts. This documentary is built entirely from archival news footage, U.S. government training films and long unseen programming from the pre-PBS Public Broadcast Laboratory related to the unrest and televised efforts to get at and discuss its root causes and possible solutions.

Who can forget the iconic and ugly images of the “police riot” that took place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago? What filmmaker Sierra Pettengill shows us instead is the tightly-controlled, sanitized and “disciplined Republican Convention in Miami that preceded it, and how compliant the media were in covering it the way the Republicans wanted.

“We’ve heard about Chicago, ” Charlene Modeste dispassionately narrates. “But we’ve been living through Miami Beach.”

“The Southern Strategy” and Republican race-baiting, a party whose 1968 state delegations were whitewashed, a party whose standard-bearer, Richard Nixon, would make “law & order” a cornerstone of his campaign, and who would cast Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running to appeal to “the George Wallace” vote, all were trotted out in authoritarian lockstep contrast to the soul searching, debate and hand-wringing over the unrest, riots and assassinations of the previous two years.

“Law and order,” NBC anchor David Brinkley would drawl. “Everyone is free to interpret that however he likes.”

The film shows NBC’s coverage of the convention discussing the rioting that went on in nearby Liberty City, but never once cutting away to show disaffected American Americans protesting a convention that refused to meet or even acknowledge them miles away because the GOP had parked their fete on an island only accessible by drawbridges.

“Riotsville” takes its title from two U.S. Army Bases in Va. and Ga. which built fake city streets to train soldiers, National Guard and police forces in how to regain control of riot-torn streets, places to test tactics, weapons, and train helicopter pilots to make low sweeps spewing tear gas, all while Army and civilian brass took in the action — soldiers played the “professional agitator” rioters — from covered observation bleachers.

It’s a dry yet fascinating film that covers a lot of ground between the riots, the creation of the Riotsvilles and the convention where its training was unleashed on first Miami and Miami Beach, and later on Chicago.

There’s flattering TV coverage of the gadgets called “New Weapons Against Crime,” but were mainly modified military gear intended for use against civilians.

We remember the Johnson Administration’s Kerner Commission, a conclave of mostly white elected officials — “the least radical men in America” — who investigated the root causes of the unrest and came to what have been accepted ever since as the right conclusions. America might be splitting into two societies, that a police-backed “Apartheid state” was very much a danger, and that no good would come from suburbia plunging itself into gun culture thanks to the agitated state of a long-oppressed minority.

And most interesting to me, we see a lengthy PBL nationwide televised event that brought police chiefs and civil rights activists, social theorists and others together for a big discussion and debate on what back then was an accepted cause of the riots — “police brutality” — which no police chief or sheriff present would admit even existed.

The larger mission of this film — which is quiet and measured in its presentation, to a fault (“dry”) — is to remind us that over half a century has passed and a lot of those root issues are still open wounds.

One unintentional subtext is to show that despite the racism and myopia of the media of the day — Huntley and Brinkley chuckling off camera as the “demands” of Miami agitators — there’s a shocking maturity to many attempts to grapple with the problem in a televised public forum.

The PBL footage is surprising because it is both well-intentioned, air-clearing and potentially helpful. And we haven’t seen this footage since it was initially broadcast. Whatever their myriad issues with diversity and being tin-eared on the subject of race because they only employed middle aged white them, the limited TV news options at the time took their public service and society-building roles seriously.

Quite the contrast to today, when news organizations are so ratings-and-profits obsessed that they see more value in broadcasting the unnewsworthy ceremonial speech of a British monarch than in carrying an American president’s dire warning against fascist efforts to end American democracy at home.

I dare say the new hopeless tact-to-the-right of CNN means that “Riotsville, USA” won’t turn up there when it hits TV.

Rating: violence

Cast: Narrated by Charlene Modeste.

Credits: Directed by Sierra Pettengill, scripted by Tobi Haslett. A Magnolia release.

Running time:1:31

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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