What Nobody Dares To Say

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On August 11, 1965, the Watts riot began. South Central Los Angeles went up in flames for five days – preceded by a night of rock throwing.

Five days earlier, Lyndon Johnson had signed into law the Voting Rights Act, which set up Federal procedures to enable blacks to vote in the South, where state laws had made this difficult for all but the most dedicated and strong-willed blacks to do since 1877.

The South was changed politically forever by this law and its updates. White politicians who had said "never" counted noses – black noses – and said, "soon." Within five years, the political issue was settled.

The issues in Watts have not been settled.

I remember Watts. I lived in Southern California. In 1959, I sometimes drove to Watts to photograph a track meet or watch a high school sporting event. It seemed safe.

Today, I would not drive into Watts. Some resident would have to drive me. Watch Grand Canyon for a taste of what can go wrong. The ghetto today is far wider than Watts was in 1965. I went to kindergarten through the third grade in what is now referred to as "the hood."

It all blew up in August 1965. That was one year after the Civil Rights Act was passed. That was a landmark piece of Federal legislation, which only a President from the South (Texas) with enormous clout could have rammed through. Johnson said at the time that it would forever cost the Democrats the South’s votes. So far, he was right.

The Civil Rights Act became law on July 2, 1964. New York City was hit by a race riot two weeks later. Here is an account posted on the site of the University Systems of Georgia, in a section devoted to the civil rights movement.

The New York Race Riots of 1964 were the first in a series of devastating race-related riots that ripped through American cities between 1964 and 1965. The riots began in Harlem, New York following the shooting of fifteen year-old James Powell by a white off-duty police officer on July 18, 1964. Charging that the incident was an act of police brutality, an estimated eight thousand Harlem residents took to streets and launched a large-scale riot, breaking widows, setting fires and looting local businesses. The eruption of violence soon spread to the nearby neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant and continued for six days, resulting in the death of one resident, over one hundred injuries, and more than 450 arrests. As the civil unrest in New York City began to cool, another riot broke out upstate, in Rochester, New York. Like the Harlem Riot, the Rochester Riot stemmed from an alleged act of police brutality. For three days, violent protesters overturned automobiles, burned buildings, and looted stores causing over one million dollars worth of damages. Following Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s mobilization of the state’s National Guard, public order was restored to Rochester on July 26. The New York Race Riots of 1964 highlighted the racial injustice and growing civil unrest existing in northern cities and served as a powerful indicator of the urgent need for social and economic reforms for African American communities outside of the South.

That final sentence is typical: "The New York Race Riots of 1964 highlighted the racial injustice and growing civil unrest existing in northern cities and served as a powerful indicator of the urgent need for social and economic reforms for African American communities outside of the South." The riots occurred only after the Voting Rights Act became law. There was a pattern here: liberal national racial rights legislation ====> local race riot.

There was a great need for reforms, but that did not justify a riot. The leaders of the civil rights movement deplored the violence. These rioters were not rioting to protest. They were rioting for the hell of it. That’s what rioters do.

The Watts riot began the following August when a policeman arrested a drunk driver. The man’s brother wanted to drive the car home. That was a reasonable request. The policeman had the car impounded – a dumb move, but not life-threatening. A crowd formed around him and the arrested man. One thing led to another, which is to say, nobody really remembered the exact sequence of events after the riot ended. But this is clear: the riot began the next night, after a public hearing that afternoon. The arrested man’s mother called for peace. This did no good. The rioting lasted for five days. Over 1,000 buildings were burned, some to the ground. This was inside the ghetto. The rioters looted and burned their own race’s residents. The phrase "burn, baby, burn" came out of that event.

What made it unique in the history of riots was that a local TV station, KTLA, had a traffic helicopter. It was the only one in the city. The station broadcast the riot, 24×7. The whole region watched. People watched nothing else. It was spellbinding. We watched from on high as groups of people went into stores and then carried out TV sets and other goods. The telephoto lens showed it all.

[The station had been purchased a year earlier by cowboy B-movie actor Gene Autry. The riots made KTLA the dominant non-network TV station in the region. He became fabulously wealthy as a result. He was merely a multimillionaire before. On August 11, 2010, 45 years to the day after the first incident launching the riot began, on his 87th birthday, the principal narrator of the riot, KTLA’s Stan Chambers, announced his retirement. He was at the time the longest-employed broadcaster in television anywhere on earth. He began in 1947. I wrote an article about him in 2005.]

This video is a newsreel. There was no videotape in 1965. They still ran newsreels in movie theaters. This is how most Americans were introduced to the visuals of the riot.

Note: $200 million then was about $1.5 billion today. Later estimates were much lower: closer to $40 million.

It stunned southern Californians. Why? Because L.A. was not Birmingham, Alabama. There were no attack dogs. There were no fire hoses turned on black teenagers in white dress shirts. For years, black-white race relations had been peaceful, as far as whites knew. Why did Watts blow?

There was anger, but the victims were not whites. Anger does not explain it.

Two words do: jealousy and envy.

Envy is not jealously. Jealousy is where a person says, "You’ve got something I want. I can’t afford to buy it. I’ll steal it from you. Or I’ll force you to negotiate with me for some of it." Envy is different. "You’ve got something I want. I can never have it. I resent it. I’ll destroy it, so that you cannot have it." Jealousy can be bought off. Envy cannot be.

Jealous people steal. Envious people burn – in every sense.

Envy does not operate between people of widely different social statuses or incomes. The average Joe is not envious of the money earned by some local athlete, just so long as he stays local. (Think "LeBron James.") The same man may be intensely envious of his boss. He sees his boss daily. He knows his boss’s weaknesses. He asks, "Who does he think he is? He’s not so much."

The rioters targeted local businesses. They did not target whitey. (The term "whitey" appeared sometime in the next three years, as the black power movement began to take shape – black social separatists who did not seek integration.)

That was 1965. This is 2011.

Here is a synopsis.

In some areas, rioters moving quickly and nimbly on foot and by bicycle seemed so emboldened that they began looting in broad daylight, while in others they raided small shops and large stores free of any restraint by the police. Newspapers on Tuesday showed images of hooded and masked looters swarming over shelves of cigarettes or making off with flat-screen televisions.

On Tuesday, the violence seemed to be having a ripple effect beyond its immediate focal points: News reports spoke of a dramatic upsurge in household burglaries; sports authorities said two major soccer matches in London – including an international match between England and Holland – were likely to be postponed because the police could not spare officers to guarantee crowd safety.

Here is what is different from Harlem in 1964, Watts in 1965, and a hundred Northern American cities 1967-68. The violence has moved uptown. The violence has moved upscale. The violence is coordinated.

They are targeting businesses. There is continuity with the riots of the 1960s.

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Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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