My friend and I watched looters gleefully make mad dashes into the corner grocery store; their arms bulged with liquor bottles and cigarette cartons. Suddenly, my friend shouted out as if he was speaking to an audience, “Maybe now they’ll see how rotten they treat us.” The “they” was the white man. His words were, angry, and bitter. Yet underneath there was a subtext of hope that the mass orgy of death and destruction that engulfed the block we lived on and the surrounding blocks during the harrowing five days and nights of the Watts riot in August 1965 might improve things for blacks. Over the years, as I returned to the block we lived on during the riot, I often thought of his bitter yet hopeful words.
Forty years after the riots, his hope remains a hope still unfulfilled. The streets that my friend and I were shooed down by the police and the National Guard forty years ago looks as if time has literally stood still. They are dotted with fast food restaurants, beauty shops, and liquor stores, and mom and pop grocery stores. The main street near my block 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. Forty years ago, many of us were poor and trapped in a segregated neighborhood, but we knew, trusted, and looked out for our neighbors. We could walk the streets at night, and felt secure in our homes. That day is long past.
In the decades after the Watts riots, Watts and other inner city neighborhoods were written off as vast wastelands of violence and despair. That became a self-fulfilling prophecy. 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 job and social service programs in ghettoes such as Watts. Business leaders had horrific visions of their banks and stores going up in smoke or being hopelessly plagued by criminal violence.
Meanwhile, L.A.’s politicians naively buried their head in the sand and pretended that all was well in the city. That was glaringly and embarrassingly evident in the rash prediction that then Mayor Tom Bradley made on the 25th anniversary of the 1965-Watts riots in 1990. When Bradley was asked whether L.A. could be racked by another riot, he confidently said that it couldn’t happen again. A scant two years later, L.A. was torn by nightmarish urban violence following the acquittal in the Simi Valley trial of the four LAPD officers that beat black motorist Rodney King. When the smoke cleared the death toll and property damage far exceeded the damage and destruction of the Watts riots.
That should have been yet another wake-up call that things were still bad, and could get worse. Since then they have. Last April, the National Urban League in its annual state of Black America report grimly noted that blacks have lost ground in income education, health care, and their treatment in the criminal justice system in relation to whites. They are more likely than any other group in America to be victimized by crime and violence. In L.A., things are worse still. In July, 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 drop out 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. King hospital, once the shining symbol of change and progress in the area, is mired in bitter controversy over mismanagement, medical incompetence, and patient neglect. The threat of closure perennially hangs over the hospital.
The only significant social change in Watts is the ethnic demographic shift. Forty 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, schools, and deadly clashes within the L.A. county jails. Black flight has also drastically diminished black political strength in L.A. and statewide. In the past decade, the number of blacks in the California legislature has shrunk to half the number, and there is the real possibility that blacks could lose one, possibly two, of their three 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. But the poverty, violence and neglect that made it that symbol is still very much there. Forty years later that hasn’t changed.