Remembering Watts: Part I
40 YEARS AGO, WATTS RIOT TOOK URBAN VIOLENCE TO NEW LEVEL
by Ron Kenner
American Reporter Correspondent
Los Angeles, Calif.
LOS ANGELES -- Forty years ago this week, the fiery "Watts Riot" in South and South Central Los Angeles reached, as Time magazine would remember it 20 years later, a "stunning new level for civil violence... - 34 dead, 1,032 injured, 3,952 arrested, some 600 buildings ravaged, property loss about $40 million."
"If no single cause was found," Time's Frank Tippett noted in 1965 that "the nation got a picture of a community ripe to blow up; a place of acutely high joblessness, pervasive poverty, crowded housing and a sense of being abused by the police."
Los Angeles has added the "Blue Line" light rail so that today the people of Watts can get in and out and take jobs that were out of reach earlier. Old buildings burned to the ground in Watts and elsewhere have been replaced with new "fortress" architecture, including some additional low-cost housing.
At 103rd and Compton, where the riot started, gained an impressive, gate-enclosed shopping center with a rooftop security command post and a large complement of guards - 17 at one point. A badly-needed health care center was built, and a high-security post office replaced the one that was burned to the ground. During the week of rioting, on that site several local black leaders told me they probably had the highest number of Ph.D. mail carriers of any American post office. Their black mail carriers got around plenty well on foot, but apparently couldn't find jobs elsewhere. No doubt, there are fewer, if any, Ph.D. mailmen working in Watts or South Los Angeles now.
And apparently more blacks have moved into the middle class nationwide. Yet today, more among the poor and poorly educated are worse off, more isolated than ever and that's already proven itself a key pools for rioters; a source of frustration and rage near-completely ignored in Watts in '65, near completely ignored with urban riots nationwide by '68, near completely ignored with the second major riot in Los Angeles in '92, and near completely ignored now.
Remarkably, as a Times reporter during that period of the Watts Riot, I was introduced to and held a brief chat with a white Los Angeles Superior Court judge. "I'm really surprised," the judge told me, referring to the riot. "I thought we had good relations with Negroes in Los Angeles. I'd go into a restaurant and maybe sit down next to or nearby a Negro and I'd ask him, catching his attention 'How do you think Willy Mays will do in the ballgame?' And we'd talk about it, maybe kid around with each other... ."
Was he serious? Was that his idea of "good relations? Yet in fairness to that judge, he was partly right. Race relations were not all that bad, among blacks and whites who worked together in the downtown post office or the central city. But left out of the equation was the harsh reality that for the people of Watts the problem wasn't one of good relations or bad relations but of no relations.
Except for those blacks who had escaped the ghetto - and got along fairly well with their white neighbors at least until those neighbors moved out to the suburbs - about the only black man the middle class whites in Los Angeles ever saw, let alone talked to, were those with jobs. This middle class individual, and middle class blacks, too, rarely if ever saw or spent any time with that unemployed guy sitting for hours on end on a stoop in Watts with a can of beer when he could get one.
Some of the black leaders in Watts pointed out that few working blacks in Watts or South Central Los Angeles had much contact with this disillusioned individual, long ripe for a riot.
One could add that this jobless, poorly educated individual is commonly ignored by working society just as many of us largely ignore places like Darfur and many of the problems of the Third World. We talk about globalism as if it were something universal and under control. Yet billions on the planet live short, impoverished lives and have no idea what globalism is, just as most of us have little or no understanding of Third World citizens; and not least, thanks to the Bush administration, we're growing increasingly isolated from other citizens worldwide, including the once-friendly populations of our closest allies, such as England.
What's really new in Los Angeles and in the U.S., one might suggest, is that now whites as well as blacks are dying in Iraq; and now many whites, even highly educated ones, are losing their jobs not only to automation, merging and downsizing but almost poetic justice to people of color in places like India and China. Meanwhile, most Americans now suspect they've been sold a bill of goods regarding our invasion of Iraq and yet, remarkably, there's seemingly been little comparable expression of outrage. Maybe - except for occasional high school shootouts to get even with perceived bullies and the like - that mild reaction is in itself a good sign that at least whites won't be rioting for awhile.
Over the years, the demographics in Southern California have moved in sync with the changing technology of television, from the simplicities of black and white to the complexities and perplexities of color. The 30th anniversary of the Watts Riot came only three years after the second Los Angeles riot in 1992. Less spontaneous and more orchestrated by gangs for highly professional looting, it was a massive, vastly more costly "equal opportunity" citywide riot - this time joining blacks and Latinos furious not only at the "powers that be" but - perhaps like modern Iraq - among themselves.
Hardly surprising, the second Los Angeles riot, too, got under way initially with the drunk-driving arrest of a black man and alleged police abuse - this one videotaped for all the world to see and brought to a final boil with the Rodney King verdict in nearby Simi Valley, a city as plainly white and financially well-off Watts and South Central Los Angeles in August 1965 had been all black and very poor.
In 1965, the devastation cut a wide swath over the poorer black areas of the "laid back" city of Los Angeles, starting first at ground zero on 103rd Street and Compton Avenue a place soon to be known as Charcoal Alley and quickly spread to the main business streets. White-owned buildings crumbled to the ground as the flames shot upward, the dark smoke rising higher yet and then slowly spread until a fair portion of the Los Angeles sky - usually known for its beautiful sunsets - grew dark, and the air itself over much of the city grew darker, more depressing, and not a little scary as the five successive evenings of the riot wore on.
From a distance it looked like a war zone, and the ashes spattering much of the city served as a reminder that seemingly no one was safe. Yet after spending three days in the field then as a staff writer for the Metro section of the Los Angeles Times - where I'd been sent by the city editor to gather background info for a "color story" - I'm reminded that calling the area a "war zone" was confusing.
One of the national magazines reaching many millions of readers, Time or Newsweek, perhaps, though my best recollection is that it was Life, ran full-size on its cover a highly dramatic photo of a house on fire. But the cover, of course, was entirely misleading. As we quickly became aware of out in the field, except for those individuals too wildly drunk from all the free booze from the burned-down liquor stores to have the faintest idea of what was happening, a fair amount of that nightmarish, seemingly chaotic scene was still carefully directed.
The first places to get burned down, as we observed from the smoldering ashes, were the loan offices, then the liquor stores, then the stores that had overcharged even for Watts where you already paid more for food in some instances than in the likes of Beverly Hills.
And of course the last place to get burned down, unless maybe you were looking for insurance money, would be someone's home in the residential area. It wouldn't have surprised me if that dramatic cover photo represented the only single-family home to burn in the whole fiery riot. The people in the black community were near universally infuriated at cops, especially, but not so out of control or suicidal that they were burning down their own homes.
The magazine cover did seem to me a good example of New York's NIH complex, where increasingly with the new technology the real photo work was done in the dark room. The photographers out in Watts and South and South-Central Los Angeles then, many remarkably capable professionals, seemed less and less to be using these capabilities. Sometimes, with little or no time to think, they were just shooting, even blindly, as fast as they could hit the button on the camera; with some of them sending in, I was told, two hundred, three hundred and more rolls of film in a single day. And then the "best photos," never mind how relevant, would be selected by editors in New York for their dramatic content.
Like the picture of that flaming house. Ridiculous! In the residential areas, where not a house was damaged, blacks watered their lawns, washed cars, played with babies and sat on their porches. Then, all of a sudden you would drive down a business street - and see a nightmare - and then through a quiet, peaceful neighborhood again.
Black novelist Walter Mosley talked about sitting on his porch one day during the riots when the National Guard came by, typically a machine gun mounted on a jeep, and one of them told him to go inside. But Mosely didn't sense any danger in the residential area and so just continued sitting there until the same guard passed by awhile later and told him, "Get inside, nigger!" That's how it went, at least for some of the guard.
Mostly I just rode around in the car with the photog, whoever it might be, and we called stuff in from the car. Much of the time I drove around with a guy I remember only as Murphy, a talented photographer and a nice guy whose first name I still can't remember. Who would ever think, in fast-paced L.A., where few could keep track of what was going on at the moment, that someday you'd be reaching back 40 years for a story? Especially since it seemed to me that the main function of the big-city editor was to keep news out of the newspaper, not because of any conspiracy but because - even without a riot - there was typically too much going on to find space for.
Often, the way an editor at the Times would decide what was newsworthy was simply to send someone to take a look in the morgue the paper's library. If there's already a clipping on the guy no matter what he's probably newsworthy; if not, then more likely than not it'd be viewed as just another story the paper could do without.
Yet despite the plethora of possibilities, the Los Angeles Times was still the "big time," unlike some publications I'd worked on, where you barely had time for lunch; and so, unless a deadline was pressing or we were following a lead from the office, typically it was no problem for us, even driving around in South Central Los Angeles, to just take our time, keep our eyes open for a good picture opportunity or an observation I might want to call in or write up when we got back to the office. Telephone reception was usually pretty good from the car.
In Los Angeles, the poor people - especially the blacks - invariably lived on the flatlands to the south. The Hispanics (in the '60s you saw mostly Mexicans) bordered downtown and spread out into East L.A.; the middle class lived further north, or maybe in the Valley, on the other side of the hills, while many among the more well-to-do residents settled in the hills with views or further west toward the ocean. Los Angeles itself, where the smog sometimes got trapped either by the first set of hills or then the mountains as you moved further inland, was like a couple of giant soup bowls.
The flatlanders had higher temperatures and some of the best phone communication possibilities, though of course those higher-income families further north or up in the hills or out west still had the major say; so much so that if there was a bad cop in one of these areas the more educated, articulate citizens would soon enough make their complaints heard until that cop might find himself transferred to one of the more garbage can areas, such as the 77th Street station in Watts. There were undoubtedly plenty of good cops even in Watts, yet the bad ones tended to accumulate in some of the poorer areas. You'd talk about such stuff while driving around, sometimes almost aimlessly, and so you never knew when you might learn something from your partner even when there was only so much you could make of a burned down building.
So I drove around with the photogs for three days, calling in observations or writing them up in the office and passing them on for background. In one area everything was smashed to the ground but a watermelon stand, symbol of the "blood brother." On the whole there was plenty of good stuff to call in, though of course it wasn't exactly "good" and more often was depressing. In the incredibly fire-gutted and scarred main business street of Watts, 103rd Street, Charcoal Alley, only an occasional structure silhouetted the charred and leveled businesses of "Whitey." An unbroken window pane in hell said, "We shall overcome." Other signs on undisturbed buildings said, "Let Me Eat, Brother." "Negro Owned," "Blood Brother" and the like.
Lying in the street, in front of a burned-out clothing store in the heart of black Watts was a white mannequin. One structure, on South Broadway, all that remained was part of a charred White Front sign that said, "Only at White Front . Free!... 2 Year Unconditional TV Guarantee!... on very black and white set."
Looking back all these years later, I'm reminded that many of the tragic fatalities were owing not so solely to LAPD with its coolly cultivated Dragnet cop image but to the National Guard. The guard was finally called in, many of us felt - including some of the black leaders in the community - too late and in insufficient numbers; and, my own sense, though hardly unique, all too often the guard gave the impression of being poorly prepared, ill directed, confused and panicky "weekend warriors."
Back safely in the office, one white reporter, who said he felt safer that night in Watts leaving the light on inside his car, jokingly quoted the guardsman "What are you getting so excited about? We shot over your heads, didn't we?"
Later, at police headquarters, at the 77th Street Station where I checked in with my photographer driver to "see if anything is new," policemen waiting to get out in the field slept on tables or sat and told jokes about "non-violent demonstrations."
One officer, learning that Gov. Pat Brown was due any moment at the police headquarters to survey the scene, commented, "Hey, it just occurred to me. Brown is neither black nor white. He's Brown." He was just trying to lighten the mood, and it brought a good laugh. But, of course, the whole episode wasn't all that funny.
Ron Kenner is a former metropolitan staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times, the author of a best-selling book on Charles Manson, and a longtime contributor to The American Reporter. He is now a freelance book editor who can be reached at email@example.com.