Remembering Watts: Part III
FOR SOME, 1992 RIOTS WERE UNFINISHED BU.S.INESS
by Ron Kenner
American Reporter Correspondent
Los Angeles, Calif.
LOS ANGELES -- Two decades after that first riot in Watts, the population had jumped from 30,000 to 42,000, but the growth was almost entirely in Hispanic population. Not much else had changed.
In 1985 unemployment was reported at 20 percent, some three times the national average, and about one-third of Watts families remained below the poverty line. Firestone, Ford, General Motors, Sears - the big companies that once provided some employment for the area - were mostly long gone, and the only succesful product on its commercial streets was drugs.
Yet there had been no other riots, and, according to writer Frank Tippett in Time, one Baptist minister had observed, "The militants are all high. You can't be angry and high at the same time." Meanwhile, Ted Watkins, founder-chairman of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, noted that the "disenfranchised and disgusted" lacked the ability to mobilize.
So, with no more large-scale riots over the next two decades, the feeling among many in 1985 was that the riot as a form of political protest in post-Olympics Los Angeles had run its course - but you couldn't count it out.
By late evening of the second great Los Angeles riot in 1992, the looting and burning had exploded full force in minutes and spread citywide until it eventually wreaked some $200 million dollars worth of horrifying, demoralizing damage. In its aftermath, it was awesome to see the full extent of burned and looted businesses up and down the major business streets like Vermont, Western Ave. and Santa Monica Blvd.
There had been no rioting for years, but this time it looked as if the city was going to make up for it; it made you wonder where things were heading for our cities over the long run.
If nothing else, it had become abundantly clear that the kind of rage that first popped up in Watts in 1965 was not going to go away. And, it turned out, if no one else could mobilize effectively then the gangs would mobilize, though mostly for looting.
The Watts Riot of 1965 clearly spurred on the Black Power movement. There was little or no mention of it, but Los Angeles' next big riot and citywide loot-fest would apparently serve to provide the gangs with enough income for bigger and better drug purchases and more extensive distribution inside and outside of Los Angeles.
My wife, Mary, working in the bacteriology lab at Childrens Hospital at Vermont and Sunset, had volunteered to go in that evening as the rioting got underway and, before long, had spread for miles. Every minute, it was creeping further north up Vermont, and from her south-facing window she could see the flames shooting up from burning buildings at Santa Monica Blvd., just a few blocks away.
For anyone with brains, it was at the least a little scary, and so long as Mary and I were indoors I was happy for it, though I knew that eventually she'd have to go home and I'd have to pick her up.
Meanwhile, like everyone else I was watching the news on television and the scope of the riot, it turned out, was awesome. After Mary called I went out in the late night after curfew hours to pick her up. As it turned out, I had to drive a good deal further than usual; maneuvering around the wooden horses and occasionally, when stopped, telling the cops politely that I was en route to pick up my wife at work.
I didn't even have a press pass on me and, looking back, one wonders how we ever got along without cell phones. But I got a first hand look at that 1992 riot, especially driving around in the aftermath, and, like the first one, it wasn't pretty. Once again there no shortage of rage, over the Rodney King verdict exonerating the cops charged with police abuse, but also over long simmering frustrations and complaints.
This time, there was highly professional looting by black and Hispanic gangs. There was clearly a certain amount of planning, and very efficient divvying up of the loot, transporting and storing of it; and more often than usual, there seemed to be a surprising degree of cooperation among the gangs. You know - you take the tennis shoes and I'll take the televisions.
Fortunately, I was able to pick up Mary and return home safely, driving in a circuitous route around the wooden sawhorses after explaining to the cops, "Yes, officer, we're on the way home. I just picked her up at work."
In the days to come, and not least near Mary's work in that area along Vermont south of Santa Monica, it was amazing how many people were walking around with new tennis shoes, trying to keep them sparkling white as they sidestepped the ashes, the shattered storefronts and the burned-out property that was suddenly everywhere.
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.