Watts: Forty Years After The Flames

The young National Guard officer curtly and sternly ordered my high school buddies and me to keep moving down the street. He waved his bayoneted rifle menacingly at us as he barked out his orders. Behind him, a small army of white helmeted LAPD officers and battle fatigue-dressed National Guardsman stood tensely with their rifles poised. I kept a wary eye on them as we nervously passed the three-deep barricades that ringed the streets around my house.

My friends and I were on our way home from summer school classes that hot August day 40 years ago. The smoke from burning stores a few blocks away choked our eyes, and seared our lungs. In the distance we could hear the crackle of gunfire. The streets were strewn with empty liquor and cigarette cartons that had been hastily discarded by the horde of looters that for nearly four days roamed the streets near my house.

As a resident of the Watts curfew area that fateful summer, I remember not only the fires and the gunfire, but also the blind rage and desperation that drove the rioters as they pillaged stores and shouted, "burn baby burn" (taken from a slogan made popular by a local black DJ). Many considered this a "payback" for the century of racism and violence against blacks. When Dr. Martin Luther King visited Watts in an effort to stop the violence, young toughs shouted him down.

The orgy of violence and destruction marked the end of an era for the non-violent civil rights struggle. To many poor blacks, non-violent marches and demonstrations seemed a worthless antidote to the cycle of poverty, violence and neglect. In the next few years Detroit, Newark, Washington D.C. and dozens of other cities erupted into violence and destruction. Many blacks embraced the call by black militants Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims for black power, armed confrontation and separatism.

The violence in Watts also made many whites recognize that America's ghettoes were powder kegs that could explode at any moment. The suburbs suddenly seemed less safe and secure. White fears forced politicians to scramble to find solutions to the racial crisis. The McCone Commission appointed by Governor Edmund Brown called for modest police reform and increased spending on jobs and social programs. That established an all to familiar pattern. When cities erupted in racial violence, hand-wringing city officials would quickly appoint a commission, or blue-ribbon panel, issue a voluminous report on the causes of the riots, cobble together a few job programs, and toss out a few more dollars for social service programs.

To many Americans that sounded like a reward for criminal behavior, and they were having none of it. They blamed the violence on liberal permissiveness, and outside agitators and demanded more police, heavy weaponry, and tougher prison sentences. With the exception of the Martin Luther King Hospital, which was the one tangible thing that came out of the riots, the McCone Commission's recommendations were mostly ignored. The few piecemeal, badly mismanaged poverty programs, slapped together to cool out the ghetto, did little to relieve the misery of the black poor.

Watts and other black ghettoes were written off as vast wastelands of violence and despair. That became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many banks, corporations, as well as government officials reneged on their promises to fund and build top-notch stores, make more home and business loans, and provide massive funding for job and social service programs in ghettoes such as Watts. Business leaders had horrific visions of their banks and stores going up in smoke or being hopelessly plagued by criminal violence.

The street, for instance, that my friends and I were shooed down by the police and the guardsman 40 years ago looks no different today. There are fast food restaurants, beauty shops, and liquor stores, mom and pop grocery stores. The street is just as unkempt, pothole-ridden, and trash-littered.

In July, the local chapters of the National Urban League and the United Way issued an unprecedented report on the State of Black LA. The report called the conditions in Watts and South Los Angeles dismal. Blacks have higher dropout and homeless rates, die earlier and in greater numbers, are more likely to be jailed and serve longer sentences, and are far and away more likely to be victims of racial hate crimes than any other group in Los Angeles County. King hospital, once a shining symbol of change and progress, is mired in bitter controversy over mismanagement, medical incompetence and patient neglect. The threat of closure hangs perennially over the hospital.

Watts is no longer the national and world symbol of American urban racial destruction, neglect and despair. But the poverty, violence and neglect that made it that symbol is still very much there. Forty years later that hasn't changed.

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