WHAT WE remember about Watts and its environs that hot summer is not nearly as important as what we forget. Many of us remember a young man arrested for a crime he may or may not have committed, and the way the streets of Los Angeles became a war zone. Whole blocks went up in flames. Dozens died. The National Guard was called out. Five days of violence blazed and the whole nation, the whole world, took notice.
What we don’t remember, what many of us never really considered, was that this was a mass political action that had no leaders, no apologists, no internal critics. The Watts riot was a spontaneous act of a people who had been oppressed, emasculated and impoverished for too long. It didn’t matter if the man being arrested was guilty or not. It didn’t matter if the police stood out in the street and said to go home. Who cared what they said or what their laws said? Who cared about property that would never be ours?
The riot was a rebellion, a naturally formed revolution, an unconscious expression of a people who had lived entire lives, many generations, in a state of enforced unconsciousness. It was about people who were poor and undereducated, people who had no motherland or mother tongue or even a history as far as most of them knew.
I was 12 years old that summer. My parents had moved west by then, over near Fairfax and Pico. But on the third night of the riot, I found myself being driven through parts of town that were rife with burning, looting and violence. One might think that this would provide me with an interesting memory of that time. But I don’t find it particularly enlightening. Violence is merely a symptom of a deeper malady.
The citizens of Watts understood that if a black son was arrested, he was likely to get brutalized, railroaded, blindsided, humiliated. And that it didn’t have much to do with whether he was innocent or guilty.
And so young people (and some old) poured gasoline into beer bottles, added a rag and flicker and made a statement that had lain fallow in their hearts for more years than they had been living, a statement that had been whispered by ancestors so far back that its first utterance had been the murmur of slaves.
The Watts riot was unity without direction, agreement without understanding.
This was not the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This was not the NAACP. This was not Paul Robeson or Jesse Owens or any other identifiable group, movement or personality.
The Watts riot was a deep-seated anger at injustice that had gone on unchallenged, that was intended to go on forever. There would be no true power for black people. They did not deserve a history or a worldview or even a place at most tables. The Watts riot was the product of an intelligence that was unaware of itself. It was an action that was artless, unstructured and unplanned.
So, what’s so important about this? What lesson could we possibly learn today from that 40-year-old expression of unrest?
Maybe some people reading these words already have an answer. Maybe they know about the million black men and women languishing in prison -- overcrowded, bored and hopeless; they know about the millions more who are soon to return to the penal system with its punitive rules and representatives. They know about the gangs that form in the vacuum of hope. They know about the innocents and soldiers hung out to dry on foreign soil. They know about the shrinking pot and the empty promises and the intentions of those in power to keep the status quo.
The immediate and mostly unconscious result of the Watts riot was that some people got a sense of bitter satisfaction while others learned to fear. But this is not knowledge, not learning. The lesson, for black and white, was taught but not learned.
People all over the world -- in Darfur and Cleveland, Paris and Jakarta -- are suffering. They’re angry and disaffected, lost and staring at TV screens or podiums dominated by religious zealots. There’s a thought somewhere in their unconsciousness, a word waiting to be spoken.
This is what I am remembering when I think about that hot summer. I am remembering a future that will be forgotten before we know it has happened.