By Gabriel Kilpatrick
“Someone threw a rock, and like monkeys in a zoo, they all started throwing rocks”. This remark was not made in the wake of the Michael Brown verdict. It was the account of Chief William Parker, spoken decades before and 1500 miles away, on the unrest of the 1965 Watts Riots. However, to those who have been attuned to the news in the past months, Parker’s remark is eerily similar to that of a Ferguson police officer who labeled the protesters as “f--king animals,” an appalling racial epithet.
Ten years prior to the Watts Riots, brave Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Yet blacks still dwelled in misery, the most indigent sector of society, humiliated frequently in their encounters with police. The California state government had recently expressed support for Proposition 14, an initiative which intended to gut the fair housing provisions of the recently passed federal Civil Rights Act. The situation had reached a breaking point for the oppressed. Thousands of youths responded in the only manner available to them: Riot.
The violence in the streets of Los Angeles provoked severe backlash in the halls of Washington and in the offices of America’s media conglomerates. President Johnson denounced the riots as an attack on the country. Even moderate Civil Rights leaders like NAACP general secretary Roy Wilkins called on police to “put down [the riot] with all necessary force”. Those in power, especially White America, could not comprehend the actions of young Negroes burning cars and attacking cops.
For milquetoast liberal whites concerned with respectability politics, these actions were viewed as counterproductive. Those audiences at home with a paternalistic attitude towards blacks were shocked at the transformation occurring before their eyes. They were used to the “good negro”, who marched peacefully and sat indignantly, withholding his anger and maintaining a moral righteousness in the face of brutality and violence. According to one view, these nonviolent methods were the manner in which blacks would be incorporated into the system; it was their ladder into the elite structures of American society, abound with wealth and opportunity. But the time for pacifist protest was drawing to a close.
After witnessing the brutality displayed against the “polite” Civil Rights activists in the South, after experiencing the dynamic, institutional racism in their ghettos, and after being forcibly compelled to serve a white dominated country in a war against other oppressed peoples across the globe, the “respectable” approach pioneered by Booker T. Washington no longer appeared appropriate to the youth of the 60s. They had new leaders like Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, H. Rap Brown, who were bold in their statements and fearless in their actions. They did not seek the approval of the political establishment nor did they consult the upper echelon of black elite. They acted. The creed of the Watts generation was summarized by brother Malcolm: “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you're a man, you take it”.
Radical activist Kwame Ture hints at the differences between the agrarian south and industrial north and the consequences of those differences for the civil rights movement in this quote:
“Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. The second type is less overt, far more subtle… [and] originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society”.
Though the Klan was tolerated, encouraged even, by southern governments, it was not legally an institution. Therefore, the terroristic violence meted out in the response to nonviolent protest was met with horror by Northern liberals. The strategy of nonviolent marches and demonstrations popularized in Selma and Birmingham were not suitable to the predicament that blacks faced in urban industrial areas. The racism that existed in areas like Watts was institutionalized. Economic inequality, poverty and economic barriers to public accommodations were systemic problems that did not involve the burning of a cross. The physical brutality of the Klan in the South was replicated “legally” by the batons of officers in uniform.
The Watts revolt happened in 1965. Yet the historical narrative is frighteningly similar to developments today. Over the past couple of months, protests have flared up across this country, some peaceful, some violent. Unfortunately the cliché saying of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” still applies. The scenes of burning cars and smashed windows in Ferguson, Missouri, reminiscent of those in Watts 50 years ago, incensed today’s establishment officials and icons. President Obama stated he had “no sympathy” for those causing violence--though of course he has sympathy for corporations and bankers eviscerating communities, across this country, both black and white. The concern for respectability politics is as central as ever.
When I was on the ground at protests over a month ago in Brooklyn, I witnessed the anger of oppressed peoples. We were out on the streets because the social contract was broken, because we had no opportunity, because we had no other way to be heard. We understood that as brother Kwame Ture said, “There is a higher law than the law of government”. We committed acts of civil disobedience, albeit not violence. We broke the law, because the law is unjust. There was visible anger on the streets that night. Anger which was released on the agents of the state.
An assortment of colorful vocabulary was directed towards the cops. Youths indignant about their circumstance in society, left with little options but to scream, did. And yet the same concern for respectability politics arose. I watched as representatives from Al Sharpton’s National Action Network scolded protesters for cursing at police. What does this accomplish? Being respectable did not stop brother Ramarley Graham from being murdered in his own home. Al Sharpton’s meetings with “our” President are accomplishing little in the way of solving the multitude of problems the black and brown community faces. The “hope and change” President has achieved little, despite his promises.
The United States was founded on the ideals of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”. Our founding fathers, those figures who the establishment so proclaims to revere, revolted when those ideals were denied to them. The Boston Tea Party is commemorated as a heroic event in our history. This act destroyed the property of the British East India Company, with estimates of $1 million dollars in present-day damage. Our brave “heroes” violated the sanctity of private property because they believed that the Lockean principles of the social contract were violated by the British Empire. What makes this so different from the toiling masses of black youth in the urban ghetto, whose social contract with the state is violated routinely?
Those Watts fighters revolted against the discrimination by the city and state governments and against the charlatans who owned the local grocery stores which were quick to cheat a poor family of their income. The black establishment’s response to the rioters mimicked that of the leading “Founding Fathers” to the Sons of Liberty’s economically costly tea party. In response to the destruction of tea, George Washington, the iconic figure in the Patriot movement condemned the Boston Tea Party for “hurt[ing] our cause”.
Their statements could have easily been issued by the more moderate leaders of the Civil rights movement in response to Watts. The Sons of Liberty were simply a more radical component of the independence movement, just as the Watts protesters were to the NAACP leaders. This illustrates the blatant hypocrisy of some who would are more concerned with private property than human lives. Watts had a clear context. Those who were revolted did not exist in a vacuum, but in a socioeconomic system that deprived them of their basic rights and dignity.
I want to clarify that I do not support violence. I have not committed any violent acts in my participation in the protests. But I believe if we are to achieve a radical vision of equality and justice we must recognize the roots of the problem, rather than fixating on its outgrowths. And while I am not in favor of burning down black businesses, I ask why the sanctity of private property is deemed more important than the lives that are ruined constantly in our squandering cities and suburbs.
There are many similarities between the Watts and Ferguson protests. We must hesitate before quickly condemning the actions of angered, troubled individuals; we must grasp the larger picture. When confronting the blatant hypocrisy of our supposed representatives and the media, we remember the words of the prince of peace, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
In the wake of the Watts Riots and other scenes of unrest in the 60’s, California Governor Pat Brown created a commission to study the roots of these disturbances. The commission’s findings were finalized in the McCone report, completed in an effort to understand and reduce the potential for further riots. The report indicates that there is a “devastating spiral of failure” that exists in the black community. Does this spiral still exist today? A Dissent magazine article recently read “50 years later: Poverty and the Other America”. It would not be improper for a future magazine title to read “50 years later: the McCone Report”, in response to the protests that have sprouted up in response to Brown and Garner tragedy.
Gabriel Kilpatrick is currently a student at the City College of New York where he studies economics and political science He is also one of the founding members of new City College YDS Chapter as well as an organizer with the NYC DSA local.