American Police Have Always Been Militarized

The new documentary film Riotsville, USA enriches our understanding of technologically enhanced police militarism in the United States. But militarization itself is not a 20th-century evolution in policing — it’s been there all along.

Still from footage in Riotsville USA.

In June 1882, a Boston lawyer noticed a man named John Burns leaning against a lamppost in Beacon Hill. Burns was drunk, but seemingly harmless, when a Boston police officer approached him from behind and knocked him “prostrate into the street” with a club to the head. The particulars of the case were quickly lost in a tangle of competing narratives. Was Burns disorderly and resisting arrest, or were these fabrications to cover up yet another instance of indiscriminate police clubbing?

News stories like these were standard fare in the late nineteenth century, but this particular instance prompted one writer at the Boston Globe to reflect on the material culture of the police. Alongside new vice laws, the Boston Police in 1882 acquired “handsome helmets” and “increased efficiency . . . by the introduction of stripes upon the coat sleeves.” The very notion of uniformed police in the nineteenth century often invited comparison to a standing army, which people from a broad cross section of American society commonly perceived as an affront to their democratic sentiments. At least in northern cities, police power in the 1880s was as contested as it was presumed, although the rhetoric of law and order would prevail in the coming decades.

This Boston Globe columnist continued that the police had been attending regular drills “in club exercise, superintended by the military member, familiarizing the men with the use of their weapons.” We know that military drills were common in this period, as in New York City where Commissioner Abram Duryée was “something of a fanatic with regard to the military nature of police work . . . fond of drilling the force to the point of exhaustion.” The militarism of early American policing was even clearer in the case of eighteenth-century slave patrols and urban city guards — the latter of which, Frederick Law Olmstead observed when visiting Charleston in 1860, deployed “police machinery as you never find in towns under free governments.”

In the wake of high-profile police killings and subsequent protests in the last decade, more Americans than ever before are asking when and how our police became so militarized. The prevailing narratives are unsatisfactory, usually identifying some recent turning point and obscuring the long arc of police militarism in the United States. To the extent that “the militarization of the police” indicates a fundamental change to the institution over time, the term is a misnomer. Sure enough, stripes on coat sleeves are not armored vehicles, but when we place the training, and equipment of police in their historical context, the persistent militarized nature of American policing comes into focus. It’s not a twentieth-century evolution in policing — it was there from the start.

Riot Act

Sierra Pettengill’s new film Riotsville, USA, which premiered at Sundance last weekend, enriches our understanding of police militarism in the United States. The documentary is made up entirely of archival footage, supplemented by onscreen text and narration written by Tobi Haslett and voiced by Charlene Modeste. Riotsville centers on two fake towns constructed in 1967 on military bases in Virginia and Georgia, the purpose of which was to train military and police in riot response tactics and technologies. As told by the film, these sites were both material and symbolic indicators of the intensifying militarization of American policing in response to black rebellion in the 1960s.

Riotsville, USA is an impressive feat of archival recovery. Six years in the making, Pettengill and her team developed the film alongside the mainstreaming and expansion of the Movement for Black Lives. Their production collapses the 1960s into the 2010s, even as Pettengill maintains her historical focus, emphasizing both our failure to respond to the demands of those 1960s rebellions as well at the importance of revisiting archival material to understand why we failed.

Pettengill refrains from interrupting the archival material with excessive cutting, allowing footage — presumably recorded for training and posterity by the military — to run for extended periods, immersing the viewer in the social conflicts of the 1960s. The opening scene is an extended cut of fake protesters marching through the street of a fake town. Some critics have taken issue with the film’s lack of contextualization, but Riotsville’s power owes precisely to the strange and unsettling quality of the archive laid bare.

One need not be an expert in the history of this decade to appreciate the dystopian nature of fake riots tearing through fake towns, overseen from grandstands by military and law enforcement leaders. There’s something unnervingly comedic about soldiers playing protesters, dressed in hippie costumes and wigs, chanting antiwar slogans — both disturbing and amusing. One wonders what’s going through the soldier-actors’ heads. At one point, a black soldier yells out the side of a bus after being fake-arrested, seeming to carry on the scene a bit too long as the voyeurs in the grandstands applaud. Is there something authentic in his performance of black rebellion?

Throughout the film, archival media footage and narration remind us that the dramatizations enacted at Riotsville were technocratic responses to real protests. In reconstructing this moment, Pettengill is precise in her framing and language. The decision to term the 1960s uprisings as rebellions throughout the film is significant. Elizabeth Hinton writes that “riot” is a misnomer for understanding this period, robbing activists and common citizens of their political agency.

On the other hand, to refer to the hundreds of black rebellions that occurred in the 1960s as “civil disturbances” or “unrest” reflects a liberal squeamishness for direct action. These uprisings involved violence and destruction, as have the uprisings of the 2010s. Eliding that fact does not bring us closer to justice and equality, it merely makes the political consciousness of the rebellions more palatable.

The Long Arc of Militarization

The narrative put forth by Riotsville hinges on the Kerner Commission, an eleven-person committee appointed by President Johnson in 1967 and tasked with explaining what had happened, why it had happened, and what the government could do to prevent future uprisings. The commission is probably most famous for its conclusion that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” That prediction was no revelation for many Americans, but to have it stated so candidly by a presidential commission was still remarkable.

The decision of the Kerner Commission to comment on racial inequality so explicitly was not, however, unanimous. In an interview with Jelani Cobb last year, the only surviving member of the commission recalled that half of its members wanted to cite “intolerance or discrimination” instead of explicit racism as the root cause of racial inequality and the 1960s black rebellions. That faction lost in a narrow 6-5 vote.

Riotsville’s narrator tells us that “A door swung open in the late ‘60s. And someone, something sprang up and slammed it shut.” True enough. The opportunity for dramatic change as recommended by the Kerner Commission certainly existed, an opportunity which promised a refocus on root causes and solutions to poverty and inequality rather than the so-called punitive turn that followed. If we widen the historical scope, however, it is clear that someone, something has always sprung up to prevent substantive change.

To truly understand what happened in the 1960s, we need to look further back, to Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Wickersham Commission and, further yet, the New York State Lexow Committee in 1894. While neither of these commissions considered race in a meaningful way, both concluded with scathing indictments of police abuse — and nevertheless, both yielded ballooning police budgets for training and technocratic solutions instead of improved police accountability or solutions to poverty. Commissions such as these have consistently served to fortify police power through expanded training, reform, and professionalization. Whether or not this has occurred by design is another question, but we cannot escape the fact that police have always been further militarized in the process.

Riotsville’s emphasis on the Kerner Commission inadvertently reinforces the idea that police militarization occurred in the aftermath of the black rebellions, when in fact it is woven into the DNA of American policing and has been steadily fortified since the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the film succeeds in telling the story of Kerner Commission’s ultimate legacy.

Some of its members pressed for increased funding for police, resulting in the only tangible outcome of the commission: the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). Via the LEAA, the government opened a firehose of federal dollars to local police, which had actually begun earlier via the often conflated, but smaller scale, Law Enforcement Assistance Act in 1965. This marks an important moment that some historians refer to as the “punitive turn,” when the Lyndon Johnson administration turned more definitively away from solving poverty to waging a war on crime.

One of the key tools in this pivot, highlighted in Riotsville, was tear gas. While some considered the emphasis on tear gas a point of digression in the film, the technology is an essential moment for understanding the militarism of police in this period. As Stuart Schrader makes clear in Badges Without Borders, tear gas captures the technocratic approach to American policing that drew on imperial interventionism in order to address domestic challenges. In other words, it brought together militarism abroad and policing at home.

Pettengill demonstrates the point well, using military footage, scenes from Riotsville itself, and the unrestricted use of tear gas to pacify American neighborhoods. In some of the film’s most convincing and unsettling moments, we see tear gas streaming from helicopters or from the end of an officer’s cannon walking down an empty street, blanketing the front porches of suburban communities.

The More Things Change

The key to understanding the trajectory of American policing is to avoid relying on the idea of turning points, even if the so-called “punitive turn” was an important historical moment.

Riotsville is a valuable and meaningful contribution to our understanding of policing in response to the 1960s rebellions, when the militarization of the police definitively expanded and took on new form. Still, abrupt turning points belie the fundamental nature of policing. Would policing be better today if not for the LEAA and the “punitive turn?” Probably, but policing reform has never meant to fundamentally change the police, and more often it has expanded budgets or given them fancier tools.

Slave Patrols in the eighteenth century operated as militia forces, and their urban equivalents in Charleston roamed in companies of thirty mounted men, “headed by fife and drum.” Police in Boston and New York used military rankings to organize their departments from the outset. Just after the Civil War, the New Orleans Metropolitan Police deployed Gatling guns and canons against protesters (granted they did so in the name of Reconstruction). During WWI, the New York Police Department donned military uniforms and marched with mounted machine guns down Fifth Avenue.

When we consider the long history of policing the United States, it would be wise to heed the reflection of historian Mark Haller, who wrote that “In more than a century from the Civil War to the present, city police have undergone little change in organization or function. Those changes that have occurred have resulted primarily from technology.” It is easy to claim that police have become more militarized, but the reality is that they have always been militaristic in their tools and internal structure. The changes we see reflect evolution in the technology and tactics of force more than evolution of the police.

Likewise, American resistance to policing has always existed, despite the widespread impression that we’ve recently abandoned a tradition of praising law enforcement. We are rightly disturbed by Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) and full body armor in 2022 — just as Americans were disturbed by stripes on blue uniforms in 1882. Police technology constantly changes, but the tendency toward militarization and the public’s discontent have stayed much the same.