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The Dirt We Stand On

Photo by Kevin Scanlon Tim Watkins is president and CEO of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. He grew up steeped in the legacy of the Watts Riots; his father was Ted Watkins, the respected union organizer and community activist who founded the WLCAC in 1965 a few months before the riots to improve the lives of Watts citizens. The WLCAC was a key agent for change after the riots and instrumental in the construction of Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in nearby Willowbrook. L.A. WEEKLY: For the 40th anniversary of the unrest, you’re not just observing the occasion — you’re helping to launch something called the Watts Renaissance Planning Initiative. What is this and how did it come about? TIM WATKINS: The initiative was an organic outgrowth of the frustration we have in this community of simply treating the symptoms of poverty, not poverty itself. Over the years, people on various committees and panels have all come to similar conclusions about poverty in Watts. We’re all on the same page about this, but now we have a burning desire in the community to express ourselves directly and to do away with self-appointed representatives and outsiders, even if they’re well-meaning. Several years ago, I issued letters to Congresswomen Juanita Millender McDonald and Maxine Waters to try and get them to work with me to develop a master plan for Watts. I went to [Council Member] Janice Hahn too. There was support for the concept, though there was a question of where the money to implement this was going to come from. I said, “Look, we don’t need a lot of money to do this. We can review past recommendations — from the McCone Commission, Kerner Commission, Rebuild L.A. — take what works, throw out what doesn’t, then fashion something that looks at sustainable community development and incorporates education, health, housing, employment, environment, culture. Let’s see if, in all these studies that have been done, we can come up with something new.”

More LA Weekly coverage of 40 years after the Watts Riots: Lessons From the Ruins by Joe R. Hicks and Smoke Got in Their Eyes by Steven Mikulan

The CRA [Community Redevelopment Agency] actually went ahead with a plan that didn’t have a community buy-in, and it kind of fizzled. But it occurred to me that we in the community might very well be able to define solutions to problems ourselves. That was kind of my big epiphany: Poor policy that aggravates poverty doesn’t mean poor people — we’re people who happen to live in a poor place. We don’t have to tolerate this broad identity of being poor not just financially, but in every other sense. It’s not true. The war on poverty was lost in the opening days of battle because it relegated soldiers — poor folk — to the outskirts of the fight. The solutions were generated from an external point of view. This new initiative asks: How do we define each other? What do we see when we look out of our windows? We need to develop our own set of policies that don’t need government to exist. But don’t you at some point need government to make change? Absolutely. But if people stay on a track of self-determination, then all the work that we do to get there will be the glue that binds us to government and makes us equal partners. Everybody — government, politicians, self-appointed leaders — will be at least obliged to recognize that the place that taught the world how to riot can now teach it something else. This is a community where black and brown folks didn’t just get here yesterday. There’s been long-standing neglect. But with sufficient resources, this place could become a national model for self-sufficiency, cooperation, and overcoming abject poverty without permission from anyone.I’m a member of the Watts Economic Development Advisory Council, appointed by Janice Hahn. As we approached the 40th anniversary, a debate started about who was going to represent Watts in a city event. Community members — from Grant AME Church, Watts Summer Festival and many others — started voicing their desire to be first-person participants, and we asked them to join us in a Watts-based commemoration. We became the Watts Renaissance Committee. So this is a 40th-anniversary event, but we all said, let’s not have it live and die with anniversary. Let’s extend it beyond that. You say the Watts Renaissance Committee will be out in the community gathering information for the initiative. What kinds of questions will it be asking that are different from those asked in other reports? What kinds of things are people in Watts willing to do? Will they be willing to stop spending hundreds of dollars on tennis shoes and stuff like that? This is not something you can make government policy, obviously, but it can be community policy. Let’s stop trying to celebrate a [gang] truce and implement a cease-fire, so that we can have something to celebrate a year from now. This initiative really is a self-determining move on our part. The committee is also different than ones before it in that there is no political infighting; we’ve been building consensus. One of the first things I said was that we should stop defining ourselves by the term “Watts Riots” — one reason being that the whole thing, the majority of death and destruction, happened beyond the borders of Watts. Even the police stop made at 116th and Avalon in 1965, that’s not Watts. So how long will the committee be around? Will it be permanent? As an adjunct of the Economic Development Advisory Council, the Renaissance Committee only goes through August 29, when the anniversary events are officially done. After that, it’ll continue independently, with no ties to any organization. We’re going to invite the community to a panel and discussion on the 27th, then we’ll announce findings on the 28th and start coming up with solutions. That’ll really be the beginning. It’s going to be a yearlong process that will culminate in the 40th anniversary of the Watts Summer Festival next year. This will be an exercise in bringing people together under a neutral arm. We’ve got to get folks to recognize that what we all have in common in Watts is the dirt we stand on. And you don’t have to shed your identity in any way to join.One thing we’re going to do is distribute those reports from 1945, 1965, 1967, 1992, and the recent State of Black Los Angeles report. Then Watts can begin to understand how it fueled unrest as a form of venting frustration over the injustice it was experiencing. The report from 1945, issued by the American Council on Race Relations, is really the most useful. It said back then that the solution was black and brown people entering into a spirited debate about what they could do together. It was an amazing revelation of what was already going on in middle-class communities and how they really wanted to distance themselves from Watts, how they wanted the NAACP to kind of take care of the problems. It really talks about how ethnic groups are pitted against each other for the benefit of a group that does the pitting. What about the Latino involvement? Not just in the initiative, but in general? I live on a block that’s predominantly Latino that used to be predominantly black. The guys who hang out on the block used to be all black, and that’s not the case anymore, but they still hang out. They’re civil to one another. This is the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had to truly focus our energies on sustainable development. It’s happening, it just isn’t being properly directed. So once you have a blueprint for change, what will you do with it? How will it be enacted? Before the committee even came together, I talked to a group of lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild, and representatives of several elected officials, and asked for their support in analyzing what things could work and how. The community will come to its own conclusions about that, but lawyers can draft language, and politicians can advance our plan into policy formulated by the people. That’s key. Then the people become the soldiers, the enforcers. And that’s who will hold politicians and others accountable. In the end, you can’t just treat poverty; the cost of treating it is huge, and never-ending. But the cost of solving or curing it is final.


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