Minneapolis, MN – A new documentary film shines light on the history of the militarization of American police in an era defined by civil unrest, drawing sharp parallels to today.
Without mentioning recent events in the entire film, Sierra Pettengill’s new documentary “Riotsville, USA” still invokes striking parallels between the late 1960s and the George Floyd protest uprisings in 2020. The film was produced during 2015-2021, premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2022 and was widely released in September by Magnolia Films; it’s attracted more coverage in lists of top documentaries for the year. [See our editor’s note below for more Unicorn Riot original reporting on domestic military and police training programs.]
Crowd Control & Military Anti-Riot Training in the 1960s
In 1967, the U.S. Army built a makeshift town on a military base in Virginia (later replicated at Fort Gordon, Georgia). A mock urban center sporting fake liquor stores, pawn shops, and turned-over cars, it was made to simulate a real “ghetto” and the riots that raged in city streets that summer. Resembling a movie set with storefront facades, it was created to train officers in responding to civilian uprisings. They named it “Riotsville.” The filmmakers craft an intimate view of this training program, weaved through long-lost and now recovered archival footage.
The uprisings throughout 1967, like most of the unrest throughout that period, have their roots in police violence against African Americans. Uprisings in Detroit and Newark saw the most violence that year, which were both triggered by instances of police brutality against Black people.
Minneapolis experienced three consecutive nights of unrest in July 1967, the second year in a row where cases of police brutality against Black residents led to “rioting” along Plymouth Avenue in the historically Black Near North neighborhood.
“Riotsville, USA” shows us how Vietnam-era law enforcement was obsessed with maintaining “law and order” at all costs.
One officer speaking on a televised forum on police/community relations parroted a line that every social justice activist from 1967 until today has heard: “And I say to you, it’s only one thin line between crime and society, and that’s us policemen.”
The broken-record repetition of the same script today, 55 years later, begs the question – just how much has America changed since the 1960s? And is change being prevented by design?
Back at Riotsville, as police attempt to replicate parts of the 1965 Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, a squad car blaring its sirens pulls over two men driving a 1960s model sedan. Four officers exit the police car and immediately throw the driver and his passenger up against their vehicle as they manhandle and search the two men. A large crowd of apparently outraged bystanders quickly forms, outnumbering the officers.
Soldiers in street clothes, costumed as hippies, played the rioters. Military actors demonstrated their version of the beginning of the 1965 Watts Rebellion in front of a live audience of generals and politicians, as if it were a government-produced Broadway play. The spectators seated in bleachers are shown smiling, clapping and laughing as servicemen carried out simulated violence against simulated dissidents.
“Cop City” & Modern Day ‘Riotsville’
Mock towns are still used today for riot simulations in law enforcement training. One official term for these installations are “tactical scenario villages.” (Two similar facilities are in northern California and Cuyahoga County, Ohio.)
Sarah Saarela, a former Minneapolis cop turned police abolitionist, told Unicorn Riot that the film reminded her of riot training at Minnesota’s Fort Snelling before becoming a cop, and another location in the east Twin Cities metro area after becoming a sworn officer.
“They had makeshift store fronts that we had to go into, and random targets would pop up that said either ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy,’ and we had to decide within like a millisecond whether to shoot or not. That’s how they train paranoia.”Sarah Saarela, former Minneapolis cop
Over two decades ago, Saarela and fellow Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) officer Bill Palmer were in an officer-involved shooting. Saarela and Palmer shot and killed Barbara Schneider after responding to a disturbance. Schneider was inside her Uptown apartment having a mental health crisis when officers claimed she ran towards them with a knife.
The Barbara Schneider Foundation, a nonprofit that was formed after her killing, has partnered with the police to develop and implement crisis intervention training (CIT) for cops, supposedly to prevent these types of killings. This partnership resulted in the creation of a police nonprofit called the Minnesota Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). Barbara Schneider’s killing and CIT were the catalysts that led to MPD carrying less-lethal taser weapons and the development of the Safety and Mental Health Alternative Response Training Center (SMART Center), where MN CIT is headquartered.
The SMART Center is a law enforcement training facility in Inver Grove Heights, MN, that recently opened up. Although the SMART Center was built for training law enforcement in responding to mental health crises, Saarela believes it will inevitably be the one-stop shop where cops undergo active shooter drills, riot and crowd control training, and more. She thinks the SMART Center is nothing but a police “grift” that trains cops how to legally get away with murder. “Take police out of the mental health community,” Saarela said in an interview shortly after Floyd was murdered.
The cities of Woodbury and Cottage Grove, in partnerships with Washington County and the State of Minnesota, recently built the HERO Center, a “state of the art immersive training center” for police and first responders which includes a “tactical scenario village.” This facility cost taxpayers more than $20.5 million and boasts of having over 700 “scenarios” to choose from.
A couple hours’ drive from Fort Gordon, where the second Riotsville was built five decades ago, lies the new proposed site just south of Atlanta, Georgia, where the Atlanta Police Foundation plans to destroy a massive forest to build a more than $90 million 85-acre law enforcement training center. Atlanta residents and activists have been organizing to shut down the proposed site, nicknamed “Cop City.”
Officially named The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, the widely opposed project is slated to include a mock village with a gas station, bank, bar, nightclub, school, residential homes, apartments, park, and splash pad. It would also feature a warehouse for training in crowd control tactics.
Recently, a SWAT team carried out a violent raid on activists occupying the Atlanta forest, who now face a range of severe charges including domestic terrorism. [Watch Unicorn Riot’s short documentary about the struggle in Atlanta to shut down the proposed “Cop City,” here.]
The idea of “tactical scenario villages” was a direct result of the uprisings that swept through cities across the U.S. in 1967.
Kerner Commission: Key Recommendations Ignored
President Lyndon Johnson formed the Kerner Commission which investigated the 1967 rebellions and submitted a report on March 1, 1968 identifying the reasons for the unrest and its recommended remedies. The commission was named for its head, then-Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, to investigate the root causes of fiery unrest that swept through cities like Newark and Detroit in ’67.
Johnson blamed the riots on “outside agitators,” a theory ultimately dismissed in the report. The commission looked for a lot of things including nefarious agitator conspiracies behind the unrest. Instead, the committee frankly concluded that the unrest was a predictable, understandable response to systemic racism and inequality.
The film features the commission’s famous prognosis, in which it proclaimed: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white. Separate but unequal.”
An unidentified newscaster featured in the film summarized the committee’s findings as painting “an image that is more like the other side of the ‘Iron Curtain’ or the garrison states of Latin America than our image of the United States.”
The commission called for nothing short of a massive redistribution of wealth, including large increased federal investments in schools, public housing, jobs programs, and a guaranteed minimum income.
“The commission proposed a program of unprecedented vastness. A call to raise taxes, spread the wealth, lighten the burden on the burning ghettos.”Riotsville, USA
However, the only recommendations from the Kerner Report Congress followed through with was massive federal funding to militarize police departments across the country.
“At the end of the Kerner Commission’s report, there was an addendum titled ‘Supplement on the Control of Disorder.’ Its recommendations were one of the only parts of the report that Congress would ever implement. It called for extensive new federal funding for police.”Riotsville, USA
Similarly, after George Floyd’s murder and the 2020 uprising, the Minneapolis Police Department’s budget increased by $3 million, even though MPD failed to spend their entire budget the previous fiscal year.
“A door swung open in the late ‘60s. And someone, something, sprang up and slammed it shut,” the narrator said in the opening lines of the film, referring to the garrison state that was crystalized by lawmakers in the years and decades following the post-civil rights era uprisings.
Mo’ State Sanctioned Violence, Mo’ Unrest
When the Kerner report was released on March 1, 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee were on strike. The demonstrations, which faced violence from sanitation bosses and the police, demanded better working conditions and wages after two African American sanitation workers were crushed to death in a garbage compactor while seeking refuge from the rain.
Many still remember these as the famous marches where demonstrators carried “I am a man” protest signs. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the night before he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.
“Riotsville, USA” captures outrageous audio of late U.S. Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), a former Ku Klux Klansman, using inflammatory rhetoric against protestors and protest leaders on the U.S. Senate floor. Byrd claimed Dr. King started a riot in Memphis, rhetoric that likely set the stage for King’s killing.
“…Massive rioting erupted during a march which was led by Martin Luther King. It was a shameful and totally uncalled for outburst of lawlessness. Undoubtedly encouraged by his words and actions and his presence. When the predictable rioting erupted Martin Luther King fled the scene leaving it to others to cope with the destructive forces he had helped to unleash. I hope that well meaning negro leaders will now take a new look at this man who gets other people into trouble and then takes off like a scared rabbit. If anybody is to be hurt or killed in the disorder which follows in the wake of his highly publicized marches and demonstrations, he apparently is going to be sure that it will be someone other than Martin Luther King.”U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV)
Pettengill played Byrd’s speech over vintage videos of actors performing acts of rioting, turning over cars and causing destruction in a residential area of a military base. Six days after that speech, Dr. King returned to Memphis where he was gunned down.
King’s murder was a flashpoint and the major source of the civil disturbances in 1968. For two nights after Dr. King was killed, race rebellions ravaged several cities across America, less than one year after the so-called “race riots” analyzed by the Kerner Commission rocked the nation.
Although police responded in their predictable brutal fashion, the 1968 tumult seemed different, with more deliberate organized repression from the authorities. To this day, many people believe Dr. King was assassinated by the government because of his increasing opposition to the War in Vietnam and U.S. imperialism, and in 1999 a Memphis jury declared his murder was indeed the result of a government conspiracy.
A scenario where the predominantly white anti-war movement and Black struggle converge was an underlying concern that the Riotsville simulations were preparing for.
“Both Riotsvilles centered on a scenario of concern to law enforcement: that anti-war protesters would be incited by Black ‘agitators.’”Riotsville, USA
A Chicago police chief is featured in the film visiting Riotsville as a reporter asks him about preparedness for the upcoming 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC) and political demonstrations. He told the reporter that he’ll take what he learned from Riotsville and integrate it into his department.
The film also features archival footage of the Chicago law enforcement buildup and recruitment process in preparation for the DNC demonstrations. It’s reminiscent of how the 1969 film Medium Cool (Dir: Haskell Wexler) also focused on similar exercises before the fateful convention.
Pettengill noted that the massive anti-war street protests that overshadowed the Democrats’ convention inside Chicago’s International Amphitheatre was a test-run for law enforcement who had been training at Riotsville.
For many viewers who experienced the recent unrest in 2020 after George Floyd was murdered by officer Derek Chauvin, the parallels are striking.
During Chauvin’s murder trial, less than a year after what some have said were the largest demonstrations in world history, an officer a few miles from where Floyd was murdered “mistakenly” used her gun instead of her taser and killed a fleeing suspect.
On April 11, 2021, Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter shot and killed unarmed Daunte Wright, once again inciting mayhem across the Twin Cities. Protests and looting broke out across the metro that night, resulting in two more murders under suspicious circumstances.
The Justice for Daunte Wright protests were the perfect opportunity for Minnesota law enforcement to roll out the unaccountable multi-agency Mobile Field Force (MFF) deployment branded as ‘Operation Safety Net.’ (OSN)
Gaslighting in Miami and Minneapolis
The 1968 Chicago anti-war protests were led by white student activists who wanted to expose police brutality to the world. But the film emphasized the unrest in Miami where just a few weeks earlier a more brutal Riotsville test-run happened during the Republican National Convention (RNC), which received little publicity at the time and has been largely forgotten.
The film showed video of Miami-Dade law enforcement dressed in riot gear, preparing for “the big one.” Up to that point, Miami had never experienced large-scale unrest in its history.
On the second day of the ’68 Republican convention, Black people demonstrated peacefully in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood against police brutality and for community control. The city sent five police units to respond after a white reporter was ejected from a rally.
Filmmakers made it clear that it was the Miami police who initiated the violence and incited the riot after they murdered two Black people and wounded four others. However, reports by mainstream media during the RNC were chock full of lies.
Cops initially alleged that they were under sniper attack from community members and in turn killed two people, a lie which was repeated across national television.
This narrative relied on an already debunked lie that police across the country regularly repeated to justify violence. In its investigation, the Kerner Commission concluded that nearly every credible instance of sniper attacks on police during the 1967 rebellion were from fellow officers. And that it was actually law enforcement who had shot and killed three unarmed women through their apartment windows during the ‘67 upheaval, and blinded one child, presumably all Black.
Despite this, the film notes, “there was a sniper scenario in every Riotsville.”
“They still claim there’s going to be a bogeyman on the rooftop with a gun,” Saarela, the former Minneapolis cop, told Unicorn Riot. “One time [during training] a sniper shot me in the leg with a paintball,” she said, recalling how Minneapolis police (MPD) riot simulations would always have a cop who would hide on the rooftop and pretend to be a “rogue sniper.”
Saarela said the “rogue sniper” trope was crafted by cops so they can continue to kill with impunity.
“The boogeyman sniper on the rooftop has always been a cop. That’s who assassinated Tekle Sundberg,” she said, referring to the 20 year-old Minneapolis man who was shot and killed by MPD snipers on July 14, after experiencing a mental health crisis and having a long standoff with cops.
Saarela and Palmer killed Barbara Schneider 22 years before Sundberg was shot and killed by MPD snipers Aaron Pearson and Zachary Seraphine.
Following the dramatic archival footage of the 1968 uprising in Miami, the segment concluded with a white news reporter describing Liberty City as a war zone. With sinister music playing in the background, Pettengill noted that, “Police Leadership in Miami trained at Riotsville.”
Going Deeper Down the Rabbit Hole
A decade ago, a military training manual from the U.S. Army Military Police School at Fort McClellan, Alabama was leaked to the public describing an emergency declaration and the government’s coordinated response to massive civil disturbances in the event of a financial collapse and breakdown of society. The manual mentioned the word sniper 82 times. It was published in 2006, two years before the actual global financial crisis and recession.
This became newsworthy within “alternative media” due to its emphasis on using the military against Americans to quell domestic disturbances, and an attention grabbing line under the section regarding “Use of Deadly Force” which reads “warning shot will not be fired.”
On page 27, the army manual lays out the military’s consideration for confiscating firearms from stores in case of an emergency declaration – a strategy also demonstrated in the film at the Riotsville simulation.
Today, when racist authoritarianism in the U.S. is comfortable enough to unmask itself and blend in with the mainstream, “Riotsville, USA” is like a trail of breadcrumbs taking viewers back towards the start. With this film, people today get to see the genuine intentions and thoughts behind policing and race relations in America, two generations ago.
Saarela, the former cop, said, “‘Riotsville, USA’ makes a ninety minute long argument for abolishing the police.”
The film’s pointed commentary was written by the essayist Tobi Haslett and read by Charlene Modeste. By the end of the film, the footage of the fake rioting is almost indistinguishable from the footage of the very real Miami rebellion. “Riotsville, USA” can easily leave viewers who lived through the recent unrest feeling gaslit.
During a recent Q & A at the Film at Lincoln Center, Pettengill said that audiences described the gaslighting, telling her that it’s really helpful to see this all compiled together. “‘This is what we suspected was happening and it’s really helpful to feel like we’re not crazy.’ ‘Cause this country can really make you feel like you’re crazy,” she added.
Haslett said it’s important that the film showed what law enforcement was up to behind the scenes. “It’s just as important to show… [that] the events preceding and succeeding a riot are all being planned for.”
In another interview, Pettengill pointed out how historically most riots in the U.S. have been caused by white vigilantes, not by Black people, but quite often against Black people. She said that the unrest of the 1960s provoked a very different response from law enforcement and she used the film to demonstrate that this was not by coincidence.
“To be able to show the military recreating and rehearsing something and then see it play out in real time shifts the narrative: instead of the police and military responding to an outbreak of violence, it’s presented as an attack on civilians by the police backed by a massive explosion of money and interest towards repressing Black rebellion.”Sierra Pettengill, Riotsville, USA director
Pettengill’s film confirms what Black people have been saying for generations. The online review and ratings website Rotten Tomatoes summed it up well:
“…RIOTSVILLE, USA…offers a compelling case that if the history of race in America rhymes, it is by design.”
Editor’s Note — ‘Civil Disturbance Operations’ Planning Updated
The U.S. military’s set of civil disturbance planning templates from the 1960s were called “GARDEN PLOT.” After 2002 the US Northern Command reorganized this into “NORTHCOM CONPLAN 3502”.
These little known planning frameworks are covered in Unicorn Riot reports about the 2016 Republican National Convention and National Special Security Events; Our Dec. 2021 report about the U.S. Capitol January 6 attack covers emergency military mobilizations; Our Nov. 2016 report covers “Field Force Operations,” a nationalized system for training local police including a full manual published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Our 2018 report, Icebreaker Pt. 5, includes a full ICE Homeland Security Investigations Undercover Operations manual, which specifies exactly how agents and informants are instructed to stage fake scenarios in stings and investigations.
Like a Rosetta stone for the development of “civil disturbance” doctrine, the documentary led us to uncover more historical evidence. A “Military Police Journal“ (5MB PDF) from October 1968 covers the original Riotsville “Civilian Disturbance Course,” also known as “SEADOC.” (Originally located here.) A box indexed at the Minnesota Military and Veteran’s Museum has more SEADOC materials. The 2014 research paper “Beyond Militarization and Repression: Liberal Social Control as Pacification” (PDF) by Markus Kienscherf at Freie Universität Berlin in Germany covers SEADOC and counterinsurgency tactics.
Cover image composition by Dan Feidt, based on media courtesy Magnolia Films & concept by Marjaan Sirdar. Dan Feidt contributed to this report for Unicorn Riot.