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. My friend’s words were angry and bitter.
Yet, underneath, there was a subtext of hope that the mass orgy of death and destruction that engulfed our neighborhood during the harrowing five days and nights of the Watts riots in August 1965 might improve things for blacks. Over the years, when I returned to the block I lived on during the riots, I often thought of his bitter yet hopeful words.
Forty-five years after the riots, those words remain just that: hopeful. The streets that my friend and I were shooed down by the police and the National Guard 45 years ago look as if time has stood still. They are dotted with the same fast food restaurants, beauty shops, liquor stores, and mom-and-pop grocery stores. The main street near the block I lived on then 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-five 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.
On the 25th and 40th anniversary of the Watts riots, I hosted and participated in symposiums in Watts on the meaning and significance of the riots to Los Angeles and the nation. The participants were from community groups that worked in Watts, its residents, and elected officials. They were virtually unanimous that conditions were frozen in time, and that the government and businesses had failed miserably to keep their promises to remake Watts.
The riots were largely a reaction to racial injustices suffered by black Americans in Los Angeles, including those related to jobs and discrimination. But Tommy Jacquette, executive director of the Watts Summer Festival, asserted that Watts was still the same Watts that he grew up in. Jacquette, until his death in 2009, each year commemorated the deaths of those killed by police during the riots. He called them martyrs.
Since the riots, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee has operated an array of job, education and housing programs in Watts. But its executive director Tim Watkins has been frustrated by chronic funding shortfalls, city and state budget cutbacks, and the refusal of major industry and retail businesses to commit to development in the area.
In the decades after the riots, the L.A. Watts and the many Wattses of America were written off as vast wastelands of violence and despair. 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 such poor black, inner city areas.
Business leaders still have horrific visions of their banks and stores going up in smoke or being hopelessly plagued by criminal violence.
The National Urban League in its annual State of Black America reports grimly note that blacks have lost ground in income, education, healthcare, and their treatment in the criminal justice system compared to whites. They are more likely than any other group in America to be victimized by crime and violence.
Five years ago, 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. The report has not been updated, but even the most cursory drive through the area shows nothing has changed.
The only significant social change in Watts is the ethnic demographic shift. Forty-five 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 and schools. There have also been deadly clashes within the L.A. county jails. Black flight has also drastically diminished black political strength in Los Angeles and statewide.
In the past decade, the number of blacks in the California legislature has shrunk, 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.