Pulse Doc Society Genesis


Sierra Pettengill


Development support


RIOTSVILLE, USA is an archival documentary about the US Army’s response to the protests of the late 1960s: take a military base, build a mock city set, have soldiers play rioters, burn the place down, and film it all.

In 1968, following a devastating summer of civil unrest, President Johnson called upon the U.S. Army to set up a training program for the FBI, local police departments, and other branches of the Army, in order to begin to formulate the state’s response to the protests in Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

One solution they came up with was a theatrical one, dubbed ‘Riotsville, USA.’ On a handful of military bases across the country, a Hollywood-style set of a community was constructed - replete with a television and appliance shop, a sporting good store selling guns, a liquor store, and a drugstore. The Military Police (MPs) were split into two groups: half playing the riot control squad, the other half a swatch of activists – approximated versions of peaceniks, Black Panthers, Yippies, and assorted seditionaries – bearing signs entreating everything from “Better Housing” to “Make Love Not War;” from “Burn the Jails” to “Send the Boys Home.” During the day-long exercise, sniper fire hampers citizens, stores are looted, and troops quell every disturbance, be it political or criminal. But here the only damage is done by fake bricks, red smoke grenades, and talcum powder, a breathless play-by-play is narrated over a loudspeaker, and the bleachers are filled with spectators signing The Star-Spangled Banner.

Told through this archival imagery, RIOTSVILLE, USA will explore the dark intertwining of performance and state violence - the very grim spectacle of military force turning citizens against themselves.