It was during the summer preceding my freshman year in high school that I had my first real glimpse of racial violence. Sure I’d seen news footage on TV of racial confrontations in the deep south but honestly, as a 14 year old teen growing up in So Cal I wasn’t really paying much attention and it didn’t have much of an impact on me. But what happen in August of 1965 was different. One moment I was in the midst of enjoying an incredible summer, the next I was watching a city on fire on TV and it was right in my own backyard! Just 25 miles from where I sat, Los Angeles was ablaze! The Watts Riots had begun!
The riot began the evening of Wednesday August 11. when a Watts resident was arrested for supposedly driving while intoxicated by the Highway Patrol. The family of the man arrested arrived at the scene, where words were exchanged. Rumors of physical brutality against the suspect and a pregnant women spread through the angry, growing crowd. It soon became physical and the suspects mother and brother were arrested. That’s when all hell broke loose. Two days later on Friday the 13th the situation was out of control and the National Guard was brought in.
For 5 days the violence raged on. The entire time I sat glued to the TV not quite believing what I was seeing. It seemed so surreal. I remember one of my friends telling me that if I needed proof I should go up to Sierra Madre Ave where you could actually see the glow of the fires and the smoke rising over the city. I never did, I didn’t want to. What was being shown on TV was enough for me. Actually it was too much for me. The little neighborhood of Watts and the area surrounding it no longer look like a part of greater L.A. but more like a war zone in some foreign country. The situation was completely out of hand. Looters, were everywhere, gunfire echoed in the streets, rioters threw rocks, bottles and set fires. Oh how they set fires! I couldn’t believe they were burning down their city! What had begun in the little 2 square mile community of Watts soon covered nearly 50 square miles of south central Los Angeles .
By the time the rioting ended over a thousand buildings were either destroyed or damaged, 34 people had been killed, more than a thousand people were injured and nearly 3500 were arrested. A study commissioned by the governor cited high unemployment, poor living conditions and inadequate schools in Watts as the main reasons behind the rioting and expand on them throughout the report. They also offer a number of solutions to the problems. The reasons given are valid, but I’m troubled by the absence of the words racism and discrimination from the report, conditions that have long existed in this great country of ours, for certainly they are the true underlying factors that triggered the riot. The people of Watts, like other blacks across the nation, were simply fed up,and had been for sometime, and they chose to react. And those solutions suggested in the Governor’s report that I mentioned, not a single one was ever acted on.
In 1992 we had the Los Angeles Riot. Another South Central L.A. riot that began in reaction to the not guilty verdict handed down to four white Los Angeles Police officers accused of beating of black motorist Rodney King in 1991. Although the entire attack was captured on video tape the officers went free. With shouts of injustice and prejudice rioters took to the streets. For 5 days the rioting continued. In that time more than 50 were killed and over 2000 were injured. Nearly 3600 fires were started and 1100 buildings were destroyed. Again the National Guard was called in to police the streets. Although the main trigger seemed to have been the not guilty verdict, A special Committee cited high unemployment and poverty levels as also being to blame for the rioting. At least this time around they also included segregation issues and police brutality in their report. Once again minorities were simply fed up with the injustices they believe they are forced to live with and reacted violently.
It’s been nearly 50 years since the Watts Riot and 22 years since the Rodney King riot. Many things have changed in that time but the one thing that seems to have remained the same is the underlying sentiment of prejudice and injustice. We still have police officers who abuse their authority and beat and sometimes even kill suspects and get away with their crimes which doesn’t instill much confidence in their authority from citizens. Now please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that all police abuse or misuse their authority. Those who do are few and far between. Unfortunately these idiots make it bad for all other police officers. You have to understand that because of the nature of their jobs at times force is a necessary tool in the apprehension of a suspect as is shooting in self defense. They have a job to do, to protect and serve, and the majority of our police officers are doing just that.
Today we have Ferguson where the black community had already tried and convicted a white police officer for shooting and killing an unarmed black youth. Tension continued to build as the Grand Jury seemed to be dragging their feet in making a determination on whether to indict the officer or not. When they at long last announced their decision not to indict. The already angry community exploded. They started fires and rioted. Even the victims angry father was inciting the crowd with shouts of “Burn the bitch Down!” Yeah it was ugly and it was wrong.
When I first heard about the Ferguson shooting a few months ago I immediately formed an opinion based on what was being reported. I thought the policeman abused his authority and had gone too far. I was certain that he could have handled the situation differently. Funny how the talking heads on the nightly news can spin a tale and actually point it away from the truth. I remember when the news was “just the fact” now it’s whatever will hold viewers interest. What’s happened to “innocent until proven guilty.”
Naturally as more and more ‘facts’ were released particularly the autopsy report, I changed my mind. I truly believe suspect was the aggressor and the officer feared for his life especially after the altercation and gunfire that took place in the police vehicle. And now that all the Grand Jury witness testimony has been released who can have any doubt about what really happened in Ferguson.
From Watts to the streets of Ferguson may be 50 years apart, but angry fed up people are still raising hell and taking it to the streets. Haven’t we learned a damn thing? I tell you the more things change the more they remain the same.