The Watts uprising was a harbinger of things to come.
Ignited 50 years ago on August 11, 1965, the Watts rebellion still challenges whether the US has made the progress that has been easily symbolised but rarely realised in the movement for equal justice under the law. With Ferguson, Missouri, locked down in its second state of emergency on the anniversary of a white police officer killing Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, the possibility of progress over a half-century arc remains in doubt.
Serious reflection on the rebellion, the biggest US black uprising since the era of slavery, should rightly disrupt the joyous commemorations of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other Great Society advances, because it forces the US to wrestle with continuing civil rights problems and examine the terrible legacy of police brutality in black communities.
The systemic concentrated poverty and police oppression that triggered the rebellion still marks the US — from Ferguson to Baltimore, Maryland.
Revisiting the Watts uprising also expands the accepted geography of the civil-rights movement. Nostalgia often limits commemorations to the South, almost exclusively east of the Mississippi River. Yet the West Coast was where some of the most radical elements took shape.
Consider the Black Panthers, US Organisation, the origins of Kwanzaa, the emergence of gangsta rap and the LA Rebellion film movement — a groundbreaking group of powerful black moviemakers including Charles Burnett — just to name a few.
The Watts uprising, like so many of the racial incidents today, started with a minor traffic stop. On August 11, 1965, a white cop in Watts pulled over a 21-year-old black man, Marquett Frye for suspected drunk-driving. It was near Frye’s house so a neighbour went to get his mother, who walked over to see what was happening. It all escalated from there.
In a sense, as Tim Watkins, president of the Watts Labour Community Action Committee, recently explained, it looks pre-ordained. Prior to this traffic stop, folks in Watts had already had enough of police mistreatment and brutality.
So when police arrested Frye, his mother, Rena Price, took issue with how officers were handling it, members of the surrounding community were ready to take issue with how the officers were handling Price. Six days, 34 deaths, 1,000 injuries, and nearly 4,000 arrests later, “calm” was restored to Los Angeles.
Whenever a community feels under siege by those sworn to protect and serve it, the possibility for civil resistance arises. But when being under siege is just another symptom of being under-served; when the full set of basic civic services — access to healthcare, building grocery stores rather than liquor stores, public transportation — when these needs are not being met, then you have a cauldron for revolutionary actions.
Watts is a relatively small neighbourhood, slightly more than 2sq miles in South-Central Los Angeles. Its slight physical geography, however, will never match its cultural and conceptual hold on the national imagination. The Watts uprising is America’s permanent and prescient reminder of what happens when the nation socially and civically ignores entire communities.
Its enduring legacy encompasses African-Americans’ black revolutionary history and also today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Watts is a touchstone — a municipal “canary in the mine” — foretelling the current unrest in American cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, and North Charleston, South Carolina.
When police stops turn violent, the black community does now what it did in response to police brutality 50 years ago — they protest. And protest ain’t always pretty. But one way or another, people who feel oppressed will fight the state powers and this can lead to confrontations that too often end in unarmed young black men lying dead in the street.
A return to black progressives’ radical roots in the West is welcome. But there are also substantive payoffs in commemorating the 1965 Watts uprising along with other major civil rights advances. Doing so effectively highlights the work yet to be done.
In addition, it helps in revealing the sustained efforts to erode the gains of these significant civil-right achievements.
America celebrated 60 years of the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling Brown vs. Board of Education in 2014 — even as some US school districts are more racially segregated than they were 40 years ago. This summer, the US is celebrating 50 years of the Voting Rights Act. But, just two years ago, the US Supreme Court altered the legislation, removing the federal oversight formulas that successfully held state and local discriminatory disenfranchisement practices at bay for decades. These historical and commemorative ironies abound, but our reflections on Watts may escape this conundrum.
The Watts uprising clearly foreshadowed things to come. In the summer of 1967, Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, erupted. Other cities followed a similar course of events. National and civic leaders were increasingly confused and afraid.
President Lyndon B Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to find out what was happening in America’s cities and why. The commission, chaired by then-Illinois governor Otto Kerner, was a who’s who of contemporary politics. The panel’s mandate was essentially to figure out how to ensure that similar outbreaks of violence would not occur again.
The commission’s report, released February 29, 1968, suggested that blacks in America lived in a kind of apartheid state, their lives constricted by law enforcement — sometimes brutally so.
This, in some ways and in some places, remains true today. The Kerner report also argued that the US was moving toward a segregated nation. There is plenty of evidence today that this is still the case.
Revisiting Watts with these historic benchmarks in mind should force Americans to confront these facts. And maybe demand a new Kerner Commission.
Less than two years on from the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Kerner Commission and one year out from the Ferguson uprising, not enough has changed.
This commemorative moment, however, is more historical present than historical past. Fifty years ago, the Watts rebellion demonstrated that eventually people will violently reject the brutality produced by state- sanctioned violence. This sadly remains all too familiar in many American communities today.