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
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.
in Watts have not been settled.
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
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.
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.
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:
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, 24x7. 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.
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.]
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.
million then was about $1.5 billion today. Later estimates were
much lower: closer to $40 million.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.