25 Years After the Watts Riots : McCone Commission’s Recommendations Have Gone Unheeded
Twenty-five years ago, Marlen E. Neumann set out to heal a riot-torn city.
Alongside seven other members of a state commission appointed to investigate the causes of the 1965 Watts riots, Neumann spent more than three months walking the scorched earth of the district--interviewing residents, scrutinizing conditions, gauging the anger that for six days had rocked Los Angeles.
“That community needed answers,” said Neumann, the sole woman appointed to the riot commission. “And they also needed calming.”
From Aug. 11 to 16, blacks long frustrated by their lot and angered by a controversial police arrest wreaked havoc on their community. Stores were looted and burned. Whites driving through the riot zone were snatched out of their cars and pummeled, their autos torched. Rooftop snipers fired on police officers and firefighters.
When the riots finally ended, 34 people were dead, including a firefighter and a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, and 1,032 were injured. About $40 million worth of property was damaged or destroyed.
Eight days later, then-Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown assembled what became known as the McCone Commission, named after Chairman John A. McCone, an industrialist and former head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Charged with ensuring that such violence never again touched the city, the commission launched an inquiry into the riot and its causes, fashioning a 101-page white paper filled with ambitious remedies for many of Watts’ ills.
Now, a quarter-century later, members of the commission and its 70-person staff express sadness and frustration as they reflect on what became of their report and its proposed remedies.
The commission had offered up ambitious prescriptions: “emergency” literacy and preschool programs, improved police-community ties, increased low-income housing, more job-training projects, upgraded health-care services, more efficient public transportation, and many more.
While some of the recommendations were adopted and sustained, bringing with them a handful of substantive changes in Watts, most were not. Some were enacted and then, for a variety of reasons, were scaled back or allowed to die out altogether. Others were simply ignored.
“I guess I’m struck with a sense of futility,” said Ben S. Farber, a young prosecutor fresh out of the U.S. attorney’s office when the commission recruited him to work out of its headquarters in the Sierra Building.
“I feel the same futility as the people in Watts--although I guess I’m not as uncomfortable with it,” he said. “We (the commission) did all that I think we could do. How do you break the cycle of (problems), I don’t know.”
Such frustration, those who worked with the commission recalled in interviews, is a far cry from the sentiment that prevailed at the Sierra Building 25 years ago. Back then, optimism pervaded the place like sunlight. A sense of mission abounded.
“People felt some urgency,” said John A. Joannes, a staff member who helped draft the skeleton of the McCone Commission’s historic report. “Everyone saw this as something extremely important. That’s why it’s disappointing that things didn’t turn out well. There was real determination to do something.”
McCone was known for rising at 5 or 6 in the morning to begin the day’s toil. Vice Chairman Warren M. Christopher, an attorney, spent long hours battling back the stacks of reports, memos and other paper work that sprouted daily on his desk. Staff members often routinely worked 12- and 14-hour days, as did the other commissioners--who included the late insurance executive Asa V. Call, the Very Rev. Charles Cassasa, the Rev. James Edward Jones, former Superior Court Judge Earl C. Broady and Dr. Sherman M. Mellinkoff, UCLA Medical School dean.
There were 64 meetings during the 100-day inquiry. There also were regular visits to the three field offices in the riot zone and informal talks with residents. About 530 witnesses were interviewed formally, including Mayor Sam Yorty and Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker. And finally, there was the report writing.
“We didn’t want it to be just a scholarly work that no one would understand,” said Joannes. “We wanted to write something that people would be able to read.”
As taxing as the work became, the commissioners forced themselves to move with dispatch-- prodded by concern that the city’s racial climate would not permit a protracted investigation. Many blacks were still angry; many whites were still edgy. As a result, rumors of renewed violence swirled through the city like Santa Ana winds.
“I wish we could have had more time,” said Neumann. “One hundred days were not enough, but we had to do something. A lot of people thought the city would blow up. There was little time to waste.”
The commission encountered several obstacles. Time constraints and the lack of centralized information on Watts hampered data-gathering efforts. Blacks skeptical of the commission’s purpose were reluctant to grant interviews to investigators. Among the commission’s staff, rifts often developed along lines ideological and professional. Liberals froze out conservatives. Attorneys tended to fraternize with attorneys. The investigators, many of them hardened FBI veterans, often would keep company only with other bureau agents.
“There were various camps,” Farber recalled. “I got the sense that some people were suspicious of me because I was a conservative and had worked for Tom Sheridan (the executive director of the commission). I think some people thought I was a spy.”
But the commission managed to work through the differences, and on Dec. 2, 1965, delivered to Gov. Brown their document, which concluded with recommendations for what the commission saw as the leading problems facing Watts: poor education, unemployment, and inferior housing, transportation and health services.
Even though the rioting hadn’t been limited to Watts--indeed, the district hadn’t been touched by the violence until the third day--the commission focused on the tiny community. This was because it had sustained perhaps the heaviest damage and was believed to suffer the worst of the city’s social ills.
“I looked at it and thought it was a damn good report,” said Brown. “It was obvious that they had worked very hard on it. I thought all of the recommendations were good and would have worked.”
When the document was presented to the public four days later, it evoked mixed reactions. Some shared Brown’s view, but others condemned the report as a political placebo designed to appease the black community in Watts without providing real answers to its problems.
“Even a cursory examination of the report,” the Rev. H.H. Brookins complained days after the report was made public, “reveals that the commission does not present workable solutions to the problem of the racial ghetto itself, nor the basic problems of police malpractice, jobs, housing, economic exploitation, education and other factors.”
To many residents now living in Watts, the remarks ring prophetic. Evidence of Brookins’ contentions, they said in interviews, abounds throughout the district.
Some claimed that such evidence can be found at Century Boulevard and Grandee Avenue, where the Century Terrace East, a 12-unit low-income condominium complex designed to help ameliorate the housing conditions noted in the McCone Report, has sat boarded up since its completion two years ago.
Others said it lies near the Watts-Willowbrook border, where the Lockheed aeronautics concern left hundreds jobless in 1988 when it shut down the manufacturing plant built in response to the riots.
Still others pointed a few miles north to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, the facility built to provide quality indigent medical care that now finds itself grappling with charges of inferior health services and administrative negligence.
Such disappointments fuel a certain cynicism among some Watts residents about the McCone Commission. These residents pointed out bitterly that, while McCone commissioners today might feel frustration and disappointment about present-day Watts, most of them have not had to live in the community for the last 25 years, as program after program collapsed, as remedy after remedy failed.
“They just came down here and left, right?” said Ed Gaines, 33, who is unemployed. “To me, that shows that there wasn’t any real caring about what we have to deal with.”
Although many of the commissioners and their staff deny that they were not committed to their mission, some wonder if the panel fully understood the scope of the problems facing Watts. Others suggest that it never even tried.
“People told the commission what they needed, but I don’t think the McCone Commission helped them get anything they really needed,” said Broady, the former judge who was one of only two blacks on the eight-person commission. “It was a crisis, and Brown had to do something. So he put together a commission. Now, it all seems to have been forgotten. These things don’t make indelible impressions.”
After follow-up status reports on the commission’s recommendations in 1966 and 1967, the panel broke up. Many of the commissioners and their staffers returned to their professions. Others retired or switched jobs. Some left Southern California altogether.
“No, I didn’t follow up in a personal way what the outcome would be,” said Harold Horowitz, the commission’s deputy general counsel and now a vice chancellor at UCLA. “I have not gone back to Watts for 20 years. Like other people, I just went on to other things.
“I admit,” he volunteered, “that’s troubling.”
Just as the McCone participants scattered, attention on Watts was diverted, and gradually the civic sense of commitment to the district was siphoned off by other projects and issues. Eventually, the McCone Commission--its labors, its promise--was relegated to the dusty annals of Los Angeles history. Copies of the report are still available at the main Los Angeles library--but not on the shelves of the tiny public library on Central Avenue in Watts.
Some former commission members, while nagged by lingering regret and disappointment, concede the work’s legacy is well beyond their control.
“That was 25 years ago,” said former commissioner Neumann. “I remember it, but I don’t know if much has happened. I hear there have been some changes, but I really wouldn’t know because right after the commission disbanded, I left Los Angeles.
“I haven’t been back to Watts since.”