Opinion

Viewing the Watts riots through different eyes

The curious thing about riots is that they tend to erupt around a chance moment -- a perceived threat, a lone miscarriage of justice, one arrest too many, or a single act of violence freighted with history.

Which means a riot can symbolize many different and sometimes contradictory things, depending on the prism through which one regards it.

The convulsion of violence 50 years ago this week that became known as the Watts riots is no different. I spent a few hours sifting through news articles and public pronouncements from those tumultuous days to find some of those prisms. Interestingly, many of the analyses from then could be applied to current times, a signal that despite statistical evidence that fewer African Americans live in poverty compared with 50 years ago (though still at a higher ratio than whites), many of the same issues remain unresolved -- particularly the frictions between local police departments and African Americans.

Also interesting to note: Gallup surveys from the mid- to late 1960s, an era defined as much by riots and assassinations -- John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy -- as by the escalating war in Vietnam, found race relations the top concern on American minds.

In one survey shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, about three in four respondents said they thought that blacks should "stop their demonstrations now that they have made their point even though some of their demands have not been met." Fewer than one in five said they believed that blacks "have to continue demonstrating in order to achieve better jobs, better housing, and better schooling."

Current polling shows that race relations remains low on the list of top issues for Americans, but the idea that the protesters have made their point and should stop has currency today against the backdrop of unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore (an argument you won't find me making; protests should continue as long as people have something to protest about).

Below are some quotes from people caught in the riots, drawn from Times news coverage, as well as longer responses from some notable figures who spoke in the immediate aftermath. Some people distinguished between the nonviolent civil rights protests in the South and the daily black life in the urban North, in which they seem to have included Los Angeles. Links are provided for most of the quotes, but in a few cases -- such as the contemporary news coverage and Robert F. Kennedy's protracted comments -- single online sources aren't available.

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Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker, Aug. 13: "People have lost all respect for the law. An outgrowth of civil disobedience has been built up." He cited the warm weather -- 90s during the day, 72 degrees overnight - as a cause of the unrest. "I'd be out of sorts now if I didn't have air conditioning."

Mrs. Overlmar Bradley, South Los Angeles resident, to a Times reporter, Aug. 13: "I have lived in this city for 17 years and consider myself a responsible person. But I have never heard policemen talk like they did last night. I have never seen anything like this happen here." She described 25 to 30 police cars roaring into a neighborhood off Avalon Boulevard, sirens blaring. "If the police hadn't come in like that, people wouldn't all have come running out of their houses to see what was going on. My husband and I saw 10 cops beating one man. My husband told the officers, 'You've got him handcuffed.' One of the officers answered, 'Get out of here, nigger. Get out of here, all you niggers.'"

Times reporter Phillip Fradkin, Aug. 13: "No officer I talked to, overheard or questioned referred to residents of the area as 'niggers,' or made derogatory comments. All were tense. Some were afraid. Police tactics seemed confused at times. I talked to residents of the area and three ministers who asked, 'Are you going to write our side of the story?' They charged police with brutality, and said officers refused their offers to help.

Robert F. Williams, a pro-violence black activist and -- while in self-imposed exile in Cuba -- host of the "Radio Free Dixie" program, beamed to the U.S. from Havana, August [date missing]: "We are witnessing the beginning of a ferocious and devastating firestorm. We are living in an age of great upheaval. We are living in an age of violence and revolution. We are living in an age where the angry cry of 'Freedom!' rises from every quarter, as the slave rises to challenge the enslaver. Yes, we see mighty racist America quiver from the impact of a terrifying shock wave of freedom. Yes, Los Angeles, Los Angeles is a warning to oppressor racist beasts that they can no longer enjoy immunity from retribution for their brutal crimes of violence and oppression of our people. Let them be apprised of the fight. That we are going to have justice or set the torch to racist America. The masses of our people want relief from their misery. They want freedom and justice and they want it now. Unemployment is greater than before. The Afro-American is still the last to be hired and the first to be fired. The Afro-American’s head is still the number one target of the brutal thug cop’s billy club. The Afro-American is still the number one victim of racist kangaroo court frame-ups. Our homes and churches are still being bombed and burned to the ground. We must protect ourselves. We must defend ourselves. We must meet violence with violence. Racist and imperialist America has extended herself too much on the world front. She cannot fight imperialist wars throughout the world and put down a colonial war at home simultaneously."

Ralph J. Bunche, Los Angeles native and undersecretary of the United Nations, Aug. 17: "It is all so deplorable and senseless. It is also very frightening in its implications. The arsonists, the snipers and the looters -- there were far too many of them -- are detestable enemies of society who cannot be tolerated in any community and they should be brought firmly and quickly to justice. The large-scale looting has been an especially dismaying spectacle. Nor can it be anything but horrifying when great numbers of people in a community suddenly, without leadership or reason, except, perhaps, unseasonal heat, become spontaneously maddened and blinded by bitterness, frustration and color-hate and then set about to destroy their own community: to steal, destroy, maim and kill. It was insane, wicked and suicidal."

President Lyndon B. Johnson, August [date missing]: "A rioter with a Molotov cocktail in his hands is not fighting for civil rights any more than a Klansman with a sheet on his back and a mask on his face. They are both more or less what the law declares them: lawbreakers, destroyers of constitutional rights and liberties, and ultimately destroyers of a free America. They must be exposed and they must be dealt with.

"It is our duty -- and it is our desire -- to open our hearts to humanity's cry for help. It is our obligation to seek to understand what could lie beneath the flames that scarred that great city. So let us equip the poor and the oppressed -- let us equip them for the long march to dignity and to well-being. But let us never confuse the need for decent work and fair treatment with an excuse to destroy and to uproot. ... 

"Yet beneath the discord we hear another theme. That theme speaks of a day when Americans of every color, and every creed, and every religion, and every region, and every sex can be trained for decent employment, can find it, can secure it, can have it preserved, and can support their families in an enriching and a rewarding environment."

Robert F. Kennedy, Aug. 17: "Too many Negroes who have succeeded in climbing the ladder of education and well-being have failed to extend their hand and help their fellows on the rungs below. [While the Southern civil rights movement had strong leadership] unfortunately, and dangerously, Northern problems are the problems of everyday living in jobs and housing and education. They affect too many people too directly for involvement to be restricted to those with the patience, the discipline and the inclination to practice nonviolence. The army of the resentful and the desperate is larger in the North than in the South -- but it is an army without generals, without captains, almost without sergeants. ...

"Civil rights leaders cannot, with sit-ins, change the fact that adults are illiterate. Marches do not create jobs for their children. So demagogues have often usurped the positions of leadership."  

Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 20: "I think that what has gone on here in Los Angeles these past days is of national significance. What we are witnessing here is the beginning of a stirring of those people in our society who have been by passed by the progress of the past decade. For this reason, I would minimize the racial significance and point to the fact that these were the rumblings of discontent from the 'have nots' within the midst of an affluent society. 

"After visiting the area of the recent riots and talking with hundreds of people of all walks of life, it is my opinion that these riots grew out of the depths of despair which afflict a people who see no way out of their economic dilemma. There are serious doubts that the white community is in any way concerned or willing to accommodate their needs. There is also a growing disillusionment and resentment toward the Negro middle class and the leadership which it has produced. This ever-widening breach is a serious factor which leads to the feeling that they are alone in their struggle and must resort to any method to gain attention to their plight. The nonviolent movement of the South has meant little to them since we have been fighting for rights which theoretically are already theirs."

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle

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