Remembering Watts: Part I

40 YEARS AGO, WATTS RIOT TOOK URBAN VIOLENCE TO NEW LEVEL

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."


Photo by Seymour Rosen

"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, the area 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 pool 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 Willie Mays will do in the ball game?' 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 in 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 or others 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 as Watts and South Central Los Angeles in August 1965 had been all black and very poor.

The Making of Charcoal Alley

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 spreading 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, the ashes spattering much of the city  serving  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 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.

Riots On Main Street, Peace In The Hood

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 Mosley 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 (uninterrupted by the hills), 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 the 77th Street Station (the temporary police headquarters) 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 ron@rkedit.com.

Vol. 11, No. 2,704 - The American Reporter - August 18, 2005

Remembering Watts: Part II

WATTS WAS THE TRIGGER FOR BLACK POWER

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 in ‘65, 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 bayonets 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 interest an unguarded structure, 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, 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 ron@rkedit.com.

 

Vol. 11, No. 2,704 - The American Reporter - August 18, 2005

Remembering Watts: Part III

FOR SOME, 1992 RIOTS WERE UNFINISHED BUSINESS

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 successful 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., 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 Children's 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 sawhorses 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 ron@rkedit.com.

Copyright 2005 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

Author retains rights after AR publication