The Watts Riot at Fifty

One of my earliest childhood memories of growing up in the San Gabriel Valley just east of downtown Los Angeles was seeing the Watts riots on television, and then looking out the front window where I could see smoke from the fires rising in the distance. This week there have been several retrospectives of the Watts riot of 1965, and its anniversary gives me an excuse to excerpt here my account of it from volume 1 of The Age of Reagan. You will easily see how it prefigures the racial politics of our present moment:

In an anonymous interview in National Review in 1966, a Los Angeles policeman described the most delicate aspect of patrol work in low income minority neighborhoods: “If you have to use your siren to pull someone over, by the time you get out of your car there are people around you that are spectators. If the situation isn’t handled properly it can be an explosive situation.” This is exactly what happened in the early evening of August 11, 1965 in Watts, a community located about five miles from downtown Los Angeles. Shortly after 7 p.m., California Highway Patrolman Lee Minikus turned on his motorcycle siren to get the attention of a grey 1955 Buick that he had observed driving erratically down Avalon Boulevard. He suspected the driver was drunk. (Minikus had initially been alerted to look for a potential reckless driver by a black motorist on 122nd Street.) The Buick finally pulled over four blocks later. The siren had attracted attention in the neighborhood, so within moments officer Minikus and the driver, 21 year old Marquette Frye, were surrounded by a small crowd of about 25 or 30 people. The sobriety check went smoothly enough; Frye even joked with Minikus. Police backups started arriving, as did Frye’s mother, who lived only two blocks away. She initially berated her son for his drinking.

Watts 2 copyAs the crowd continued to grow to more than 250, suddenly events took a wrong turn. Frye turned hostile to the police and tried to run away into the crowd. Mrs. Frye jumped on an officer’s back and tore his shirt. Another officer hit Marquette Frye with his night stick while subduing him. Soon all three members of the Frye family (Marquette Frye’s younger brother was a passenger in the Buick) were under arrest in the back seat of a squad car. As police units were beginning to withdraw from the tense scene, a new provocation occurred. A woman in the crowd spat on a policeman. She was promptly arrested. The woman, a hairdresser, was wearing a barber’s smock, and because of her appearance the rumor spread that the police had arrested a pregnant woman. As the police completed their withdrawal, the still-growing crowd started throwing rocks.

Watts 3 copyThus began four days of intense rioting that required nearly 14,000 National Guard troops making shoulder-to-shoulder, street-by-street sweeps to quell. By the time it was over, 34 were killed, over 1,000 injured, and 3,952 arrested. (Only 14 of the rioters arrested, however, were given jail sentences of longer than 7 months; only 730 received any jail sentence at all.) Property damage from the more than 600 buildings that were set afire topped $40 million. The riot stunned America. President Johnson took it personally, to the point of being distraught. White House aides had trouble reaching Johnson on the phone; the usually prompt Johnson ignored repeated phone calls, and he refused to look at the cables from Los Angeles. “How is it possible, after all we’ve accomplished?” he asked, doubtless thinking of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Most shocking was the credo the rioting crowd shouted during their rampage—“burn, baby, burn.” (The phrase apparently originated with “Magnificent Montague,” the most popular black DJ on KGFJ radio in Los Angeles, who made “burn, baby, burn” his signature phrase to tout up-tempo tracks he cued up for listeners. He stopped using the phrase after the riots.) The pattern of looting looked purposeful; pawn shops were a special target for the firearms they held (over 19,000 firearms were looted during the riots; less than 1,000 were recovered). The commission appointed by California Governor Pat Brown to investigate the riot (Los Angeles lawyer Warren Christopher was vice chairman of the commission) concluded that only about 2 percent of people in the Watts area participated in the riot (no more than 10,000), but social scientists who swarmed to Watts estimated the proportion much higher, perhaps as many as 10 to 15 percent, or well over 30,000. While no one would suggest that conditions in Watts were good, the severity of the riot came as a surprise in the city that the National Urban League had rated as one of the best for blacks in America. A survey of over 1,000 arrestees added to the seeming anomaly of the riot: 73 percent of this sample had full-time jobs; half earned between $200 to $400 a month—a near middle class wage at that time. And the New York Times reported a 1966 poll of blacks in Watts that found they were more concerned about “police protection” than “police brutality.”

More shocking and consequential than the riot itself was the reaction to the riot. Though riots have been a feature of urban life since the dawn of civilization and had not been rare in America’s history, the Watts riot took on an unprecedented political character. Black voices began referring to the riot as a “rebellion,” “insurrection,” or even “manifesto.” A poll of blacks in Watts found 27 percent held a favorable view of the riot, 38 percent thought it helped the Negro cause, and 58 percent expected a favorable outcome. The pollsters concluded that “a riot ‘ideology’ is developing in the Negro community, an ideology in which riots assume the position of a legitimate and justifiable form of protest.” “Riot ideology,” urban affairs critic Fred Siegel later observed, became “a racial version of collective bargaining.” Burn your neighborhood; get a federal grant. (Indeed, the federal government rushed $18 million to Watts in the first six months after the riot; the Hispanic community in Los Angeles promptly complained that they weren’t getting their fare share.) The right to riot was born. It would not be long after Watts that the civil rights movement endorsed a $100 billion “Marshall Plan” for American cities. Mainstream reform liberals failed to see how their own words had paved the way for the legitimization of the right to riot. Even President Kennedy had remarked in 1963 that “In too many parts of the country, wrongs are inflicted on Negro citizens for which there are no remedies at law. Unless the Congress Acts, their only remedy is in the streets.” Bobby Kennedy went further: “There is no point in telling Negroes to obey the law. To many Negroes the law is the enemy.”

As had been foreshadowed in the Harlem riot the year previously, the riot widened the fissure within the civil rights movement between moderate leaders such as Martin Luther King, who urged non-violent protest as a means of generating change through the democratic process, and more militant radicals who embraced a violent racial overlay to garden-variety class struggle ideology. Martin Luther King was very coolly received in Watts when he visited a few days after the riot ended. One meeting of more than 500 people jeered him. “All over America,” King exhorted, “the Negroes must join hands.” “And burn!” yelled a heckler. His plea that the crowd treat Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty and Police Chief William Parker “with courtesy” brought a roar of laughter. King and other civil rights leaders who flocked to the scene were stunned at the triumphalism that was evident among many rioters. “We won,” a young unemployed black man told Bayard Rustin. How?, Rustin asked. Homes and businesses have been destroyed, and people were killed. “We won because we made the whole world pay attention to us,” the youth replied. (Two years later, a survey found that 92 percent of the small businesses burned during the riot had not reopened.)

Watts 4 copyAt the same time that black opinion was facing the pressure of radicalization, liberal guilt among whites began to kick in. Thus began a polarization among white liberals that was nearly as severe as the polarization among blacks. Mayor Yorty, a Democrat, blamed the unrest on the Great Society rhetoric that he thought was unreasonably raising expectations. (Yorty had been one of the prime movers behind the U.S. Conference of Mayors draft resolution attacking Community Action as “class struggle.”) “It’s politicians running around making promises to the people in the ghettoes they can’t keep that have created an intolerable situation for the police,” Yorty said a year later in a heated exchange with Bobby Kennedy. Even the official commission that investigated the riot suggested that a major contributing cause was the failure of the war on poverty “to live up to press notices.” Police Chief Parker was more direct, blaming the violence on liberals who “keep telling people they are unfairly treated.” President Johnson, who spoke cautiously in the days after the riot, let slip a few days later that more rioting might be expected anywhere “people feel they don’t get a fair shake . . . that justice is not open to them.” It was just the first in a long line of expressions of liberal sympathy for rioters, the worst being Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s incautious comment that if he had been born in a ghetto, he might riot too. Conservatives were appalled.

It didn’t take long for intellectuals to pick up the cue and begin assigning metaphysical meaning to riots. The approval of the ideology of riot-as-legitimate-protest would eventually start to meld with the growing protest against the Vietnam War, and both were reducible to the razor of “The System.” The “System” that made the Vietnam War possible was also the “system” responsible for poverty and racism. (The apotheosis of this sentiment was the infamous cover of the New York Review of Books in 1967 featuring a diagram of how to make a Molotov cocktail.)

In the near term, however, it was the Moynihan report that received the brunt of the fury Watts unleashed. The Watts riot occurred at the very moment that press coverage of the Moynihan report was reaching a crescendo. A Newsweek article about the report appeared the same week as Watts. A Roland Evans and Robert Novak column a week later hyped the story with sensational prose about the “much-suppressed, much leaked” report that was becoming “a political atom bomb.” The media spin on the Moynihan report was that it was the government’s explanation of Watts. This infuriated the Left, which saw any attempt to shift the focus from society’s injustice as “blaming the victim.” The Nation magazine, in a widely reprinted article by William Ryan that grossly distorted the report, attacked the Moynihan report as a “smug document” filled with “irresponsible nonsense.”

What might have been a manageable debate about a chicken-and-egg style misunderstanding spun out of control. Was black family instability the cause of poverty or the effect of poverty and racism? The Left emphatically thought the later, and though Moynihan did not fundamentally disagree (the report had declared, “white America must accept responsibility; it [black poverty and family decay] flows from centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man”), the differing emphasis of the two sides in the volatile atmosphere after Watts made calm debate impossible. The irony of the reaction to the Moynihan report is that Moynihan was trying to discredit “color-blind” policy, and hoped to establish policy directed specifically to the problems of black Americans—exactly what his leftist critics would soon demand themselves. But the Left’s moral fervor for the wholesale transformation of society (“justice now!”) trumps calm discussion of real policies for real problems.