Learning from the Watts Rebellion, 50 Years Later
Aug 31, 2015
8 Min read time
Police arrest a man during the Watts riots, 1965. Photo: World-Telegram / Ed Palumbo / Library of Congress
A week after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement, the Watts rebellion broke out in Los Angeles. The riots began on August 11, 1965, when an argument between a white highway patrolman and a black motorist led to violent confrontations among police and residents of South Los Angeles. By August 17, thirty-four people had died, and more than 1,000 injuries and nearly 4,000 arrests were reported. The demonstration of black rage in Watts was a stark contrast to the jubilation of civil rights activists a week earlier at the VRA’s signing ceremony in the White House.
Less than a year later, one activist, Bayard Rustin, authored The Watts “Manifesto” & the McCone Report in an exhaustive attempt to root the rebellion’s origins in de facto segregation, racialized poverty, and class inequality. The Manifesto’s unflinching condemnation of racism in Los Angeles and the racial insensitivity of liberal allies is a must-read for today’s young activists, particularly in the Black Lives Matter movement, and lawmakers spearheading the resistance against police killings of unarmed blacks.
Rustin’s treatise countered the McCone Commission’s Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?, which was commissioned by California Governor Edmund P. Brown shortly after the outbreak. Like Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case For National Action in 1965, the McCone report affirmed commonly held assumptions about sources of Watts residents anger and action—poor community-police relations, an all-white police force, family disorganization, defective behavior—while giving less attention to economic marginalization and unemployment.
Although the Watts rebellion was sparked by a confrontation between a black motorist and white highway patrolman, Rustin believed that the location of blacks at the bottom of the political economy—in “ghettos of despair,” as he called them—was the foundation of the tensions expressed in Watts. If so, then lawmakers and activists had to expand the discussion beyond moderate police and criminal justice reforms. These were important but not enough to address the grievances of the urban poor.
The Manifesto’s exposition on the material conditions of the so-called ghetto was informed by Rustin’s conversations with unemployed young people in Watts, some of whom destroyed white-owned businesses with reputations for exploiting black patrons. Preempting future unrest, Rustin thought, required galvanizing the country behind transformative economic policies and fighting de facto segregation and chronic unemployment. Following the lead of his mentor, the prominent labor activist A. Philip Randolph, Rustin advocated a $100 billion “Freedom Budget” that would pay for a massive jobs program targeting the urban poor.
Rustin believed that the location of blacks at the bottom of the political economy—in ‘ghettos of despair’—ignited tensions in Los Angeles.
Rustin also implicates Los Angeles’s political apparatus, including the police department, in the rebellion. Chief of Police William Parker’s infamous statement following the unrests—“We’re on the top and they’re on the bottom”—was not merely intended to calm the public and business community. It was a governing methodology that sustained Los Angeles’s racial caste system. This was demonstrated by the conservative movement’s repeal of California’s Rumford Fair Housing Act with the Proposition 14 ballot initiative. The initiative, which took root in Los Angeles County, reinforced de facto segregation and racial polarization in region.
By all accounts, Martin Luther King supported Rustin in blaming de facto segregation and economic marginalization for the rioting and the plight of the urban poor. After traveling to Watts a few days after the outbreak, he accompanied Rustin to meetings with public officials including Mayor Sam Yorty and Chief Parker. Juxtaposed against the backdrop of anti-black violence in the segregated South, these officials claimed that racism and police misconduct in Los Angeles played only minor roles in causing the disturbance. King concluded that structural racism paired with class inequality were just as problematic in Los Angeles as de jure segregation in Birmingham. The Watts rebellion actually heightened his commitment to ameliorating what political scientist Cathy Cohen calls “secondary marginalization”—the acute poverty and stigma uniquely experienced by working-poor blacks.
A lot has changed in the fifty years since the Watts rebellion. Whereas only a hundred of the nation’s elected officials were black in the mid-1960s, three decades after the unrest, the number exceeded 8,000. Cities such as Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Newark, and Chicago—all of which experienced violent outbreaks in the 1960s—eventually elected black mayors. Yet deindustrialization, suburbanization, and the flight of middle-class residents deepened poverty in urban centers.
Interestingly, despite the current epidemic of police killings, the politics of policing has changed since the Watts rebellion. Many police departments are now led by entrepreneurial superintendents who assume the role of shrewd politician. These officials routinely denounce the jackboot policing tactics of the Chief Parker era—tactics that are no longer palatable to middle-class urbanites—while simultaneously adopting policies such as “broken windows” and Operation Safe Streets, which institutionalize racial profiling and police misconduct. Twenty-first-century police chiefs are also skilled at political stagecraft and forming multiracial coalitions to back controversial policing strategies. Thus, the task of reforming police departments is as challenging today as it was five decades ago. Activists encountering cases of police misconduct face opposition not just from police chiefs and elected officials, but also from certain politically connected blacks and neighborhood groups.
Metropolitan regions also experienced demographic shifts in the last five decades. Middle-class whites began moving back into urban cores in the early 2000s. Pro-growth policies privileging real estate interests reduced affordable housing options and gentrified historically black neighborhoods. The foreclosure and subprime mortgage crises further destabilized some black communities. Blacks fleeing central cities found what seemed like refuge in smaller and historically white enclaves such as Ferguson, Missouri. The black majorities in other areas such as Watts have been replaced by Latino and other nonwhite immigrant populations.
Despite these changes, the challenges facing the urban poor are just as daunting today as they were when Rustin authored the Manifesto. Rustin hoped that a liberal consensus would muster the “political will to demand that the vast resources of contemporary America be used to build a genuinely great society.” but this never happened despite his, Randolph's, and King’s insistence. Civil unrest, sometimes more volatile than in Watts, intensified from 1966 to 1968. The demobilized civil rights movement that had eliminated the de jure racial order was replaced by an insurgent, black power movement only to be countered by the conservative backlash of the 1970s, which ushered in law-and-order policies and expanded the carceral state’s reach into poor communities.
Today, many Americans still see working-poor blacks through Chief Parker’s dystopian lens—dangerous, irredeemable, and prone to violence—notwithstanding quality-of-life improvements and demographic shifts in many cities. This view is shrouded in an anti-interventionist attitude that has no appetite for energetic federal solutions to mitigating urban poverty. My research drawing from the National Opinion Research Center’s 2000–2012 General Social Science Surveys found that whites, compared to blacks and Latinos, are more critical of federal assistance to cities. The more Americans believed in the trope of black pathology, the more opposed they were to the kinds of federal action Rustin and King championed.
Not surprisingly, white America’s skepticism toward federal aid to cities also increased after the urban rebellions of the 1960s. Yet the influence of the Reagan presidency made anti-interventionism—he called it “devolution”; others spoke of “decentralization”—a bipartisan governing philosophy, which has lingered long after he left office. Joshua Sapotichne and Samuel Workman’s study of 6,500 congressional hearings between 1946 and 2004 assessed the lasting impact of decentralization on American political culture. They found that “Reagan-era urbanism,” which tempered domestic policymaking after the 1970s, discouraged Congress from using the federal government’s energies to reconstruct urban communities.
This devolution-decentralization wave is the worst possible scenario envisioned by Rustin. In the past few years, some states have gone so far as to establish rigid guidelines for how residents in high-poverty cities can use federal dollars. Others passed laws prohibiting local governments from adopting workplace protections for economically vulnerable populations such as living wage ordinances and anti–wage theft rules.
The decentralization ethos emerging after the 1960s is an important reminder of the stubborn opposition to transformative policies. Some of the mostly young activists of Black Lives Matter—a designation that includes the official organization of Black Lives Matter as well as allied groups, activists, and networks—who have been at the forefront of recent demonstrations might not need the reminder, but others probably would benefit from it.
On August 21, activists and researchers affiliated with the burgeoning movement released a national platform Campaign Zero, detailing ten policy recommendations for reforming police departments. The platform, however, gives little attention to how police misconduct is wedded to a political economy that perpetuates de facto segregation. Some of the recommendations—such as community oversight, limits on the use of force, investigatory oversight, and community representation—are updated versions of proposals introduced by mainline civil rights groups decades ago. Others are similar to recommendations found in the McCone report and the study of the 1967 rebellions by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also called the Kerner Commission).
Certainly Campaign Zero and Black Lives Matter should remain committed to criminal justice reform and halting police killings. Even partial Police and federal adoption of Campaign Zero’s platform would be a significant victory. Yet the outrage in Ferguson and Baltimore—similar to the Watts rebellion—cannot be resolved if police reforms are divorced from policy agendas targeting chronic unemployment and poverty. As Rustin said, “If every policeman in every black ghetto behaved like an angel and were trained in the most progressive of police academies, the conflict [between blacks and law enforcement] would still exist.” This is so because overpoliced blacks also live in the poorest communities, which suffer the secondary marginalization that middle-class black communities don’t.
Fifty years after the Watts rebellion, we need to recommit ourselves to correcting the conditions that undergirded the civil unrest of the 1960s and that inform the current struggles over police killings of unarmed blacks. The killings are symptomatic of a “we’re on the top and they’re on the bottom” governing philosophy and the politics of decentralization that place working-class blacks and others living in poor communities at the bottom of the political economy. Solving these problems through federal action, as well as local grassroots pressure that ties police reforms to economic justice initiatives, is essential to averting more rebellions in the next fifty years.
August 31, 2015
8 Min read time