Remembering Watts: Part II
WATTS WAS THE TRIGGER FOR BLACK POWER
by Ron Kenner
American Reporter Correspondent
Los Angeles, Calif.
LOS ANGELES -- By the fifth day of that incredible week - one of the more genuine "have not" protests against the "haves" The Watts Riots had reduced almost everything to simple black and white.
There were the charred, black ashes of the white man's stores in that all-"Negro" neighborhood, and the grinning white teeth of John Shabaaz, minister of Los Angeles Mosque 27 of the Black Muslims.
Down there in Watts, and later on South Broadway in front of the mosque on that quiet but tense Sunday afternoon, the quiet punctuated only by occasional sniper shots, I felt like a speck of white lint on a black suit.
The McCone Commission's report on the Watts Riot emphasized four months later that only a small percentage of the black community had participated in the riot. But the black community at large, at least the several dozens I spoke to in varied areas, although not generally supporting the means of protest by many rioters, had joined them in a near-unanimous verbal protest.
Nearby, buildings were still smoldering from the Friday fires of that almost indescribable holocaust, and most blacks had been afraid, and some were perhaps ashamed including many who stayed home and silently supported the avenging rioters to attend church that day.
But the Black Muslims, impeccably dressed the young black women in flowing white gowns, the men in neatly pressed suits and gleaming black shoes moved into the mosque in a quiet, continuous dark chain.
As I stood watching, and as some blacks stood watching me, I told myself that they must know what it's like to be a minority one, and so there couldn't be much danger.
But Muslim minister Shabaaz, speaking with an air of innocence and sounding slightly like a "sharp salesman" who knows or thinks he knows "the score," was telling me: "Segregation is the answer" and that "the Negro's time has come." The riot was, of course, one of the key triggers of black Power in American history; a big push that would gain further momentum after Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death in 1968, by which time, no doubt helped along by both the impetus of the Watts conflagration and the growing involvement in Vietnam, there would be riots nationwide.
It would not be feasible to integrate by moving thousands of people out of the black neighborhoods, and the need is for improved conditions there, some black leaders said, attempting to justify the seeming black nationalist position.
Later that same day, claiming that snipers in or near the mosque had shot at police, officers searching for weapons raided and destroyed nearly everything inside the mosque, even apparently breaking each stem on the separate flowered plants inside. Like several years earlier when officers reported shooting a man from the same mosque in self defense, no weapons were found. But somehow, on that Sunday of the last incident, the headlamps on the police squad car had been shot out.
Looking surprisingly cool and calm on that sweltering day, Shabaaz told me earlier, before his mosque was damaged, that he had been advising Muslims to stay home during the rioting.
He added with a smile then, however, "I wouldn't lift a finger to stop the violence, and any Negro leader who does is a traitor. Our time has come."
The minister was called away and I stopped a Muslim who had been passing out pamphlets about alleged police brutality to query him about "the meeting."
"This is no meeting, man, it's a religious service. We Muslims is a very religious people We pray five times a day," he said, slightly incredulous that I didn't already know that.
There was nothing more to say, or ask, and I joined our photographer in the radio car hidden around the corner. Surveying the area, we felt strangely alone. One could see a cluster of national guardsmen maybe every five or six blocks, or others riding in cars, the bayonees jutting from the windows.
But there was too much to observe.
How do you take notes on millions of dollars worth of destruction? How do you capture the pathos, amid the tragedy, of blacks putting out their garbage cans on a garbage-strewn, riot-smashed street where there could not possibly be any pick-up service?
How do you describe the casual sophistication of a black walking down the street with a transistor radio on his shoulder, now pressed to his ear - a common scene in "the American way of life?" Was the radio loot, or was he just out for a stroll like the black boy out with a supermarket shopping cart? Another reporter noted the row of used tv sets topping the garbage cans in the alley.
How do you capture the near-humor of a passerby viewing with intrerest an unguarded structure,m perhaps with an eye for loot, despite the fact that this crumbled catastrophe is so black and charred that you can't identify what kind of business it was.
How do you describe the young, nervous faces of the guardsmen as they pause during the lulls to joke and hide their fear from their buddies? How many of these guards yelled and then shot before you could answer, as reporters claimed?
Back at the 77th Street station set up as headquarters for the area, I saw no bruises on an estimated 100 policemen - four or five of them blacks - milling about the station (although some had been hospitalized or treated at the scene}.
Of the two black cops I spoke to there, both said they hadn't been in the riot area except maybe to survey the damage or the undisturbed residential areas.
But what do you do with a thousand statistics, on injuries, on deaths, on how many blacks in the force do you just keep accumulating facts and hearsay and never try to figure it out. Is it less painful or easier that way?
We parked again on that hot day nearby the mosque, waiting for the Muslims to come out following our city desk instructions to "see if there's any excitement over there."
There had been a police squad car, on the corner nearby us, but then it pulled away, maybe to a more "exciting area" where a sniper operated strangely alone without the moral support of the crowd.
A short while earlier we had driven past a building surrounded by police, at the sides and on the roof, looking for "a" man with a deadly rifle.
Unlike most businesses, the café across the street near the mosque was open and promised a cool drink while we waited. The photographer stayed in the radio car.
I sat down next to a frail, elderly black man who said he had nothing to say because "I'ze got a weak heart. I just keeps to myself."
Three stools away, a one-armed black man sat before a plate buried under gravy. He was eating and not talking. Trying to be unobtrusive, I took my notebook with me and he told me how he lost his arm in a World War II battle long ago, how Gen. Patton was in command then and how that battle finally went.
He was still too much with the last battle to have many opinions about the new one, but he spoke nervously about jobs and blacks, adding always, "You know what I mean."
The old man looked at me with a tired, maybe frightened expression. "Do you know any Negroes who have a business that can hire a 100 blacks. What are they going to do now?"
Efforts have been made toward improvement. In direct response to the Watts Riot, the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center was built in South Los Angeles, an area long inadequately served with poor or non-existent medical services. Of course, many of us here now know how King-Drew turned out.
The nightmarish hospital turned out to be horrible enough to earn the Los Angeles Times (after a full year of investigation) another Pulitzer, just as it did after reporting on the shocking events in Watts.
Ron Kenner is a former Metro 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.