Short article by Martin Glaberman focusing on the riots in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1965.
The Negro ghetto of Watts in Los Angeles does not look at all like Harlem. Instead of the massive congested tenements, there are wide streets, small homes, grassy lawns and palm trees. But 98 per cent of the residents are Negro and 30 per cent are unemployed. The leaders of the Los Angeles Negro community do not live in Watts and the white residents of Los Angeles do not even have to look at Watts: the network of expressways isolates Watts from the rest of the city. The Negroes of Watts have long been among the most sophisticated in the country. But the housing congestion is four times that of the city as a whole and a majority earn less than the federally established poverty level of 3,000 dollars a year.
Sociologists in the United States talk constantly of mobility, by which they mean the lonely ascent or descent of an individual between classes. Most of the commentators on Watts attributed the events of 12 August last to the immobility of the population there, but Watts represented not immobility, but mobility that is horizontal rather than vertical, social rater than personal. The events showed the instant mobilisation of a working-class community in a serious struggle against reactionary police, against the business community and against the war in Vietnam, a community acting in unison with the discipline of long association with common problems. Stores were carefully selected for destruction, the community informed by shop window signs, and the fires set within an hour. Snipers on surrounding roofs fired over the heads of firemen to keep them away until the building could no longer be saved, and then left to watch the ‘riot’ on television. Stores owned by Negroes (or by whites known not to be gougers) were left untouched. References to the Vietnam war were frequent and specific, both in Watts and among Negroes elsewhere – one Detroit Negro woman said: “I don’t know why our leaders ain’t saying nothing about tern sending colored boys to help them win the war when they can’t walk the streets for the police.”
Watts is a stage beyond the Harlem riots of last summer, as Bayard Rustin indicated: “In Harlem the youth and adults on the streets screamed at the police, ‘You want to kill a nigger? Kill me!’ But in Watts, the cry of the crowd was, ‘Burn, baby, burn!” Watts was not a defensive action born of despair but an offensive action, and “Burn, baby, burn!” became the slogan of the Negro ghettoes throughout America during Watts and after.
Of the 36 people killed, about a dozen were not Negroes. A population accustomed to using rifles and shotguns in hunting (as Watts is) could have produced very different statistics if killing had been the main aim. Barbarism was entirely on the side of the police.
The leaders of the established Negro organisations were horrified by the events. And well they might be. For Watts gave evidence that the Negro struggle could not be bought off by giving the middle-class minority clerical and civil service jobs. But despite the pious claims that nothing could be gained this way, the Johnson administration reacted immediately by pumping cash into Watts to plug the hole in the dyke.