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Lessons From the Ruins

The young National Guard soldier raised his service rifle, looked me over and said, “Nigger, I said get inside!” It was a warm summer evening, and I was trying to enjoy the nearly nonexistent breeze on the porch of my tiny rented South L.A. home. The riots had been raging within blocks of my house for several days, and an 8 p.m. curfew had been imposed on what was described as “black Los Angeles.” However, after having lived all of my life in the predominantly black neighborhoods of South L.A., I had never been called that name by anybody — of any race. These were, after all, the days before the use of the N word was made popular by the gangsta culture of urban America. I was incensed by the young Guard’s order and went inside seething with anger. The embers of the arsonists’ fires had barely begun to cool when I hit the streets looking for some political activity. It wasn’t hard to find. As a young working-class person, I had not been very politically involved. I graduated from Jefferson High School, did a stint in the military and began working some mind-numbing job at the gas company. It was a “nine-to-five” which helped pay the bills for the family life I had started only a year before the riots erupted. I was aware of the civil rights struggles, but they seemed to have occurred a million miles from my South L.A. existence. By August of 1965 the full extent of my political involvement had been to attend a meeting of the Nation of Islam, where the featured speaker was Malcolm X. But bean pies and bow ties didn’t have much appeal at the time, and I made no strides toward the growing militancy that was overwhelming the old-guard civil rights organizations. That all changed after my brief interaction with the young, white National Guardsman.

More LA Weekly coverage of 40 years after the Watts Riots: Smoke Got in Their Eyes by Steven Mikulan and The Dirt We Stand On by Erin Aubry Kaplan

Truth be told, this kid was most likely scared to death by the circumstances he found himself in — on the streets of a strange city, trying to bring about order in the midst of chaos. I wonder how many times he’d been called “cracker” by angry black folks as he patrolled the streets. But at that point, I was in no mood to cut him any slack. Within months of the riots, I developed a relationship with Maulana Karenga’s US Organization, a cultural nationalist group that was virulently anti-white and claimed to take its cues from Africa and African “culture.” Karenga’s group had ties to the Black Congress, an umbrella grouping of Black Power organizations Walter Bremond tried to oversee — which must have been akin to herding cats. The Congress building on south Broadway became ground zero for black political organizing of all sorts.In that building, the formation of the L.A. chapter of the Black Panther Party was announced. Angela Davis, under the sway of the New Leftist guru Herbert Marcuse, dropped in from time to time, and a young Stanley Crouch, even then, was articulate and thoughtful. The Congress was also the site of constant bickering and internecine battles — as the Panthers and US, along with their various allies, squared off in disagreements that turned ugly and ultimately deadly.By the time L.A. exploded in August 1965, the thrust of anti-racist politics had already begun to change. The mood in many northern cities, and certainly in Los Angeles, was that time and events had eclipsed the traditional civil rights organizations. Some felt that the largely integrationist aims of these groups were outmoded, with little to counter the romanticized call for Black Power . . . by any means necessary. This may have been the time frame when the black struggle for equality and justice, which had gloriously seized the American moral high ground, dissolved into a movement with aims and goals that were questionable when they surfaced — and are even more questionable today. It is tempting to say that the riots that left 34 dead, 4,000 jailed, 1,000 or more injured, and caused an estimated $200 million in property damage in Los Angeles alone — not to mention the scope of death and destruction in other cities like Detroit, Newark and others during America’s so-called “long hot summers” of the mid- to late 1960s — accomplished nothing. Sure, we saw construction of the King/Drew medical complex in Watts/Willowbrook (now trying to bounce back after the hospital had its own near-death experience); gradual reforms within the LAPD; and the questionable spending of endless amounts of tax dollars on poverty programs that functioned more like jobs programs. But nothing else was accomplished, that is, other than the destruction of businesses, both small and large, which once provided badly needed jobs and services for the people who lived in Watts. South L.A. continues to struggle to attract businesses and investments, as it was when the second shoe dropped — the 1992 riots. Community scars from ’65 and ’92 still exist in the form of empty lots or abandoned buildings where business once operated. In 1965 the burning and looting concentrated on Jewish-owned businesses, then in 1992 the nihilism focused on Asian-owned shops and stores — primarily those owned or operated by Korean-Americans. Forty years after Watts, many things have changed — while others have not. The demographics of the area contained within Alameda Street on the east, Crenshaw Boulevard on the west, Rosecrans Avenue to the south and Washington Boulevard to the north have changed dramatically in the intervening years. Watts/Willowbrook was 80 percent black in 1980 but today is about 60 percent Latino. The LAPD, mostly white in 1965, is today more than 50 percent minority and women officers, and has had two black police chiefs since the 1990s. Reform has taken root in the department, and many of the odious procedures — like making suspects lie prone in the streets and using deadly chokeholds — have been discarded. Since the Rodney King beating, policies regarding the use of the police baton have been rewritten, as have use-of-force policies. Housing discrimination is largely a thing of the past — except for the sticky problem of Latino landlords in inner-city communities who prefer renting to other Latinos, as well as some black landlords who also practice this “selective” renting policy. Employment opportunities for L.A.’s black and brown job seekers, once restricted by racist hiring policies, is now limited more by low skill levels than anything else — a byproduct of the inability of the city’s public schools to prepare students for the world of work. There has also been a curious effort on the part of political activists to define the 1965 riots as a “revolt,” a “disturbance,” an “uprising” or even a “revolution” of some sorts. Let’s get real: The Watts Riots was . . . a riot. Webster defines a riot as “a public disorder, tumult or disorder . . . a violent public disorder: a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent.” But in keeping with the spirit of the day, as well as later when the 1992 riots occurred, activists placed a veneer of intentional politics over simple “hooliganism.” In the meantime, the 1965 ethos of violence — enshrined in the pantheon of political activism — has generated a legacy that the residents of Watts and other poor communities struggle with to this very day. Even while the general homicide levels dropped across L.A. in 2003 by an impressive 23 percent, the fact remains that 39 percent of the city’s 506 homicides that year were black, and 36 percent of the murder suspects were black, although L.A.’s black population is only 11 percent. Of the LAPD’s 18 divisions, those reporting the highest levels of homicide were the Southeast, 77th Street, Southwest and Newton, divisions that service L.A.’s predominantly black and brown areas. For five straight years nearly 40 percent of the city’s homicides have been black. Nonetheless, all too many of today’s activists and civil rights figures — along with high-profile black elected officials — continue to point fingers at forces outside of South L.A. as the primary cause of the communities’ woes. Any remembrances of the 1965 Watts Riots must include sober discussion of why, 40 years later, large parts of this city continue to labor under the weight of poverty, low educational skills, and rampant gangs and violence, as well as a less than vibrant business life. Some would say that this is because the “system” still conspires to exploit, suppress and oppress black and brown people. I say it’s because some continue to look in the rear-view mirror, focused on yesterday’s realities, and serving up excuses and disempowering theories of victimization rather than exploring realistic answers to troubling problems. Joe R. Hicks is the vice president of Community Advocates. He formerly directed the activities of the L.A. City Human Relations Commission and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.


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