A couple of friends and I stood transfixed with hundreds of others on the corner several blocks from my house in South L.A. watching what seemed like a horrid page out of “Dante’s Inferno.” But this wasn’t the classic writer’s epic poem. This was real life.
Liquor stores, a laundromat, and two cleaners blazed away. There was an ear-splitting din from the crowd’s shouts, curses and jeers at the police cars that sped by crammed with cops in full battle gear, shotguns flailing out of their cars. There was an almost carnival air of euphoria among the roving throngs as packs of young and not-so-young persons darted into the stores, snatching and grabbing anything that wasn’t nailed down.
Their arms bulged with liquor bottles and cigarette cartons. I was 18, and there was almost a kid’s mix of awe and fascination watching this. For a brief moment there was even the temptation to make my own dash into one of the burning stores. But that quickly passed.
One of my friends kept repeating with his face contorted with anger: “Maybe now they’ll see how rotten they treat us.” By the “they” he meant “the white man.” My friend’s words were angry and bitter. The words were bitter and in that bitter moment he said what countless other blacks felt as the flames and the smoke swirled around me.
Yet, underneath his angry words, there was a subtext of hope that the mass orgy of death and destruction that engulfed our neighborhood during the harrowing five days and nights of the Watts riots in August 1965 might improve things for blacks. Over the years, when I returned to the block I lived on during the riots, I often thought of that day on that embattled corner.
The events of those days and his words still remain burned in my memory on the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots this August. I still think of the streets that we were shooed down by the police and the National Guard during those hellish days. They’re impossible to forget for another reason.
A half-century later, some of those streets look as if time has stood still. They are dotted with the same fast food restaurants, beauty shops, liquor stores and mom-and-pop grocery stores. The main street near the block I lived on then is just as unkempt, pothole-ridden and trash littered.
All the homes and stores in the area are all hermetically sealed with iron bars, security gates and burglar alarms. In those August days in 1965, many of us were poor and trapped in a segregated neighborhood. And we knew it. But we also knew, trusted and looked out for our neighbors. We could walk the streets at night and feel secure in our homes. That day is long past.
On the 25th and 40th anniversary of the Watts riots, I hosted and participated in symposiums in Watts on the meaning and significance of the riots to Los Angeles and the nation. The participants were from community groups that worked in Watts, its residents and elected officials. They were virtually unanimous that conditions were frozen in time, and that the state and the federal government and businesses had failed miserably to keep their promises to remake Watts.
The riots were largely a reaction to racial injustices suffered by black Americans in Los Angeles, including those related to jobs and discrimination. In the decades after the riots, Watts and other neighborhoods like Watts across America were written off as vast wastelands of violence and despair.
Many banks and corporations, as well as government officials, reneged on their promises to fund and build top-notch stores, make more home and business loans, and provide massive funding for jobs and social service programs in poor black, inner-city areas.
Business leaders still have horrific visions of their banks and stores going up in smoke or being hopelessly plagued by criminal violence.
The National Urban League, in its annual State of Black America reports, has, like clockwork every year for the last two decades, grimly noted that blacks have lost ground in income, education, health care and their treatment in the criminal justice system compared to whites. They are more likely than any other group in America to be victimized by crime and violence.
A decade ago, on the 40th anniversary of the Watts riots, the L.A. chapter of the National Urban League and the United Way issued an unprecedented report on the State of Black L.A. The report called the conditions in Watts and South L.A. dismal.
Blacks have higher school dropout rates, greater homelessness, die younger and in greater numbers, are more likely to be jailed and serve longer sentences and are far and away more likely to be victims of racial hate crimes than any other group in L.A. County. The report has not been updated, but even the most cursory drive through the area shows little has changed.
The only significant social change in Watts is the ethnic demographic shift. Fifty years ago, the area was predominantly black; it is now predominantly Latino, with growing numbers of Cambodian, Vietnamese and Filipino residents.
The fast-changing demographics have at times imploded in inter-ethnic battles between blacks and Latinos over jobs, housing and schools. There also have been deadly clashes within the L.A. County jails. Black flight has also drastically diminished black political strength in Los Angeles and statewide, gentrification is now the watchword.
The great fear among some blacks in the shrinking space blacks have in Watts and South L.A. is that blacks could lose one, possibly two, of all three of their L.A. City Council seats in the next few years.
Watts is no longer the national and world symbol of American urban racial destruction, neglect and despair. Fifty years later, it’s worth taking a harder look, not at what I saw in Watts 50 years ago, but what I see in America’s Watts today. I take that hard look next week in Part 2.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM Radio 1460 AM, Fridays at 9 a.m. and KPFK Radio 90.7 FM, Saturdays at 9 a.m.