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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 and then drive away to their own neighborhoods, a good many of those also infested with disappointments unmitigated by the year-round cook-out. Everything is small, but with no hint of neighborliness.

The promise of Los Angeles, this beckoning openness, newness, freedom. But what is it? It is neither a great city nor a small town. Sheer impossibility of definition, of knowing what you are experiencing exhausts the mind. The intensity and diversity of small-town Main Streets have been stretched and pulled and thinned out so that not even a Kresge, a redecorated Walgreen’s, or the old gray stone of the public library, the spitoons and insolence of the Court House stand to keep the memory intact. The past resides in old cars, five years old, if anywhere. The Watts riots were a way to enter history, to create a past, to give form by destruction. Being shown the debris by serious, intelligent men of the district was like being on one of those cultural tours in an underdeveloped region. Their pride, their memories were of the first importance. It is hard to find another act in American history of such peculiarity—elation in the destruction of the lowly symbols of capitalism.

And now, how long ago it all seems. How odd it is to go back over the old newspapers, the astonishing photographs in Life magazine, the flaming buildings, the girls in hair curlers and shorts, the loaded shopping carts, “Get Whitey,” and “Burn, baby, burn,” and the National Guard, the crisis, the curfew, and Police chief Parker’s curtain line, “We’re on top and they are on the bottom.” In the summer of 1965 “as many as 10,000 Negroes took to the streets in marauding bands.” Property damage was forty million; nearly four thousand persons were arrested; thirty-four were killed. A commission headed by John A. McCone produced a report called, “Violence in the City—an end or a beginning?” (Imagine the conferences about the title!) It is somewhat dramatic, but not unnerving since its cadence whispers immediately in our ear of the second-rate, the Sunday Supplement, the Reader’s Digest.

THE WATTS REPORT is a distressing effort. It is one of those bureaucratic documents, written in an ambivalent bureaucratic prose, and it yields little of interest on the surface and a great deal of hostility below the surface. (Bayard Rustin in Commentary shows brilliantly how the defects of Negro life are made to carry the blame for Negro behavior in a way that exonerates the conditions that produced the defects.) In our time, moral torpor and evangelical rhetoric have number our senses. The humble meters of the McCone Report are an extreme example of the distance a debased rhetoric puts between word and deed. A certain squeamishness calls the poor Negroes of Watts the “disadvantaged” and designates the police as “Caucasians.” “A dull, devastating spiral of failure” is their way of calling to mind the days and nights of the Watts community.

The drama of the disadvantaged and the Caucasians opens on a warm night and a drunken driver. Anyone who has been in Watts will know the beauty and power of the automobile. It is the lifeline, and during the burning and looting, car lots and gasoline stations were exempt from revenge. Watts indeed is an island; even though by car it is not far from downtown Los Angeles, it has been estimated that it costs about $1.50 and one-and-a-half to two hours to get out of Watts to possible employment. One might wonder, as he reads the opening scene, why the police were going to tow the drunken driver’s car away, rather than release it to his mother and brother who were trying to claim it? For this is a deprivation and frustration not to be borne in the freeway inferno. Without a car you are not truly alive; every sort of crippling, disabling imprisonment of body and mind attends this lack. The sight of the “Caucasians” and the hot night and the hatred and deprivation burst into a revolutionary ecstasy and before it was over it extended far beyond Watts, which is only the name for a small part of the community, into a much larger area of Negro residence.

And what is to be done, what does it mean? Was it gray, tired meat and shoes with composition soles at prices a little starlet might gasp at? Of course we know what the report will say, what we all say; all that is true and has nevertheless become words, rhetoric. It’s jobs and headstarts and housing and the mother at the head of the family and reading levels and drop-outs. The Report mentions some particular aggravations: the incredible bungling of the poverty program in Los Angeles; the insult of the repeal of the Rumford Fair Housing Act; the Civil Rights program of protest. The last cause is a deduction from the Byzantine prose of the report which reads: “Throughout the nation, unpunished violence and disobedience to law were widely reported, and almost daily there were exhortations, here and elsewhere, to take extreme and even illegal remedies to right a wide variety of wrongs, real and supposed.” Real and supposed; in another passage the locution “many Negroes felt and were encouraged to feel,” occurs. These niceties fascinate the student of language. They tell of unseen enemies, real and supposed, and strange encouragements, of what nature we are not told.

Still, the Watts Report is a mirror: the distance its bureaucratic language puts between us and the Negro is the reflection of reality. The demands of those days and nights on the streets, the smoke and the flames, are simply not to be taken in. The most radical re-organization of our lives could hardly satisfy them, and there seems to be neither the wish nor the will to make the effort. The words swell as purpose shrinks. Alabama and California are separated by more than miles of painted desert. The Civil Rights movement is fellowship and Watts is alienation, separation.

What can violence bring you when the white people have the police and the power? What can it bring you except death?”

Well, we are dying a little bit every day.”

THE FINAL WORDS of the Report seem to struggle for some faint upbeat and resolution but they are bewildered and fatigued. “As we have said earlier in this report, there is no immediate remedy for the problems of the Negro and other disadvantaged in our community. The problems are deep and the remedies are costly and will take time. However, through the implementation of the programs we propose, with the dedication we discuss, and with the leadership we call for from all, our Commission states without dissent, that the tragic violence that occurred during the six days of August will not be repeated.”

How hard it is to keep the attention of the American people. Perhaps that is what “communications” are for: to excite and divert with one thing after another. And we are a nation preeminent in communications. The Negro has been pushed out of our thoughts by the Vietnam war. Helicopters in Southeast Asia turned out to be far easier to provide than the respect the Negro asked for.

The army? What about the army?”

It’s the last chance for a Negro to be a man…and yet it’s another prison, too.”

The months have gone by. And did the explosion in Watts really do what they thought afterward? Did it give dignity and definition? Did it mean anything in the long run? We know that only the severest concentration will keep the claims of the Negro alive in America, because he represents all the imponderables of life itself. Anxiety and uncertainty push us on to something else—to words which seem to soothe, and to more words. As for Watts itself: the oddity of its simplicity can scarcely be grasped. Its defiant lack of outline haunts the imagination. Lying low under the sun, shadowed by overpasses, it would seem to offer every possibility, every hope. In the newness of the residents, of the buildings, of the TV sets, there is a strange stillness, as of something formless, unaccountable. The gaps in the streets are hardly missed, where there is so much missing. Of course it is jobs and schools and segregation, yes, yes. But beyond that something that has nothing to do with Negroes was trying to be destroyed that summer. Some part of new America itself—that “dull, devastating spiral of failure” the McCone Commission imagines to belong only to the “disadvantaged” standing friendless in their capsule on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles.

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