After Watts

Violence in the City—An End or a Beginning?

by A Report by the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots
101 pp., no price

The Disaster and then, after a period of mourning or shock, the Report. Thus we try to exorcise our fears, to put into some sort of neutrality everything that menaces our peace. The Reports look out upon the inexplicable in private action and the unmanageable in community explosion; they investigate, they study, they interview, and at last, they recommend. Society is calmed, and not so much by what is found in the study as by the display of official energy, the activity underwritten. For we well know that little will be done, nothing new uncovered—at least not in this manner; instead a recitation of common assumptions will prevail, as it must, for these works are rituals, communal rites. To expect more, to anticipate anguish or social imagination, leads to disappointment and anger. The Reports now begin to have their formal structure. Always on the sacred agenda is the search for “outside influence,” for it appears that our dreams are never free of conspiracies. “We find,” one of the Report goes, “no evidence that the Free Speech Movement was organized by the Communist Party, or the Progressive Labor Movement, or any other outside group.” Good, we say, safe once more, protected from the ultimate.

It is also part of the structure of a Report that it should scold us, but scold in an encouraging, constructive way, as a mother is advised to reprimand her child. For, after all, are we to blame? To blame for riots, assassinations, disorderly students? The Reports say, yes, we are to blame, and then again we aren’t. Oswald, friendless, and Watts, ignored. Well, we should indeed have done better—and they should have done better, too.

WATTS—A STRIP of plastic and clapboard, decorated by skimpy palms. It has about it that depressed feeling of a shimmering, timeless afternoon in the Caribbean: there, just standing about, the melancholy bodies of young black boys—and way off, in the distance, the looming towers of a Hilton. Pale stucco, shacky stores, housing projects, laid out nicely, not tall, like rows of tomato vines. Equable climate, ennui, nothingness. Here? Why here? we demand to know. Are they perhaps, although so recently from little towns and rural counties of the south, somehow longing for the sweet squalor of the Hotel Theresa, the battered seats of the Apollo Theatre? This long, sunny nothingness, born yesterday. It turns out to be an exile, a stop-over from which there is no escape. In January there was a strange quiet. You tour the streets as if they were a battlefield, our absolutely contemporary Gettysburg. Here, the hallowed rubble of the Lucky Store, there once stood a clothing shop, and yonder, the ruins of a super market. The standing survivors told the eye what the fallen monuments had looked like, the frame, modest structures of small, small business, itself more or less fallen away from all but the most reduced hopes. In the evening the owners lock and bolt and gate and bar …

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