Gerald Horne, Watts and the Fire This Time

Gerald Horne’s Fire This Time is an intriguing study of the Watts uprising, situating it in both a national context of red-baiting and the impact on civil rights struggles of the destruction of any kind of radical class-based organizing, and an international context with its connections to liberation struggles and cold war politics. He argues the uprising marks a full change:

The uprising in Watts was a milestone marking the previous era from what (16) was to come. For blacks it marked the rise of black nationalism, as blacks revolted against police brutality. But what began as a black revolt against the police quickly became a police revolt against blacks. This latter revolt was a milestone too, one marking the onset of a “white backlash” that would propel Ronald Reagan into the governor’s mansion in Sacramento and then the White House. White backlash proved to be more potent than what had given it impetus, black nationalism. This too was the meaning of the 1960s (17).

This is part of a larger argument, and I’d guess it is one he is making across several books – I haven’t read the others, but they are all on my list

I have argued that just as the conflict between capitalism and slavery led to the abolition of bonded labor, the conflict between capitalism and the possibilities of socialism led to the abolition of formal Jim Crow. I am certain that at some point in the twenty-first century, historians will be obligated to tackle this important question–the dismantling of legalized segregation by reference to the Cold War (17).

He also has a clear understanding (though he doesn’t use the same language) as those who describe California’s racial hierarchies – he refers to it as compounded racism drawing on Griswold de Castillo:

The impact of the Mexican heritage of California must be considered also. Blacks could receive civil rights concessions for national security reasons; in California there’ was the added incentive of a competing, compounded racism. By the time Los Angeles experienced another burst of civil unrest in
1992, the city’s Latino, or Spanish-speaking, population was growing more rapidly than monolingual blacks. This created an opportunity for blacks in the city and state to assume the position of “middle man minority” and consequently to gain top posts in City Hall and Sacramento much more rapidly than their Latino counterparts. (18)

This is echoed in the wonderful quotes he draws together about the complexities and contradictions of L.A.’s residential and labour landscapes—this book’s strength is in the framework for analysis and the incredible amount of original source material that he draws from. My only critique is that it seems like a (very large) chapter in a larger work, drawing on an understanding of a radical and left-leaning L.A. that is not widely known, making the framework seem sometimes like an outline, filled in with amazing detail:

Langston Hughes captured the complexity of LA and race at this time. The city, he said, “seemed more a miracle than a city, a place where oranges sold for one cent a dozen, ordinary black folks lived in huge houses with ‘miles of yards,’ and prosperity seemed to reign in spite of the Depression.” Yet he felt that Hollywood “might just as well be controlled by Hitler.” 26 The social scientist Charles Johnson also noticed this racial complexity. “In certain plants where Mexicans were regarded as white, Negroes were not allowed to mix with them; where Mexicans were classed as colored, Negroes not only worked with them but were given positions over them. In certain plants Mexicans and whites worked together; in some others, white workers accepted Negroes and objected to Mexicans; still in others white workers accepted Mexicans and objected to Japanese.”27 When employers hired African Americans, they preferred the light-skinned variety. According to James Gregory nothing bothered Okies more “than California’s system of racial and ethnic relations.” They were shocked by signs reading “no white laborers need apply.” The conflict between their past and present realities helps to explain why a raw racism became a “source of group identity” for many of these migrants from a state known as “Little Dixie.” 28 (29)

Despite, or because of this, many felt it widely understood that L.A. didn’t have the same kind of race problem as did Detroit or Chicago.

Staff member William Colby reminded the McCone Commission about the widespread opinion that “Los Angeles was number 1 as the place where Negroes are better off.” Perhaps because of the affluent stratum of black sports figures and entertainers, cinema and television representations, the appealing climate, or all of the above, the city was favored by many black migrants, not only from the traditional southern areas but also increasingly deteriorating midwestern cities like St. Louis.20 Despite the claims of Colby, a number of blacks viewed the City of Angels as “spiritually below the Mason-Dixon line, without the nastiness of park benches labeled ‘for colored,'” and “40 years behind the rest of the country.” 21 (50) (20. Report by William Colby, 11 Nov. 19 Box 18, 16 McCone Papers)

I love also the drawing out of class divisions, the particularities of Watts that made it the epicentre of rebellion:

On top of the regional insult suffered by all blacks, those of Watts had the added burden to bear that gave added intensity to their anger; they not only faced interracial pain but the intraracial variety as well. Stanley Sanders, the other son of Watts and its first Rhodes scholar, has added his own interpretation. He blamed the building of Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Court, and other housing projects that came to hold a significant percentage of the black poor as being partly responsible for Watts’s image. Out of this vortex emerged gangs like the Black Swans and the Farmers. Each project spawned different gangs, and conflict was not unknown. Speaking in 1990, Sanders recalled that “most middle class blacks” were “afraid to come to Watts.” With a remaining scintilla of bitterness, he recalled rejection at a dance because he came from Watts. He and his friends were deemed “outcasts.” They were “looked down on” by other blacks. They were the “bottom of [the] barrel,” he continued. He remembered not only a “color line” but an “economic” line. There was economic conflict that had both interracial and intraracial consequences. The same could be said of color conflict. There was not only the usual white chauvinism; there were “very few fair skinned blacks in Watts,” and these were perceived as discriminating against their darker brothers and sisters, referring to folks in Watts as “those black niggers in Watts” as if they were “a whole different race.” This combination of resentments–a compounded racism in sum-helps to explain why LA exploded first and with a fervor dwarfing contemporaneous outbursts. 25 (51)

There’s some really interesting stuff about the reaction, and how the uprising was viewed by establishment figures:

Later, after the fires had cooled, journalist Theodore White agreed with Parker: “Modern Negro violence is not simply rioting but an urban form of guerilla warfare” that needed to be confronted with new “weapons and tactics.” Strikingly, White conceded the black nationalists’ argument, even using androcentric terms: “It is, at this time, perhaps necessary to find out how to create some form of Negro self-government coupled with Negro responsibility in the big cities which will give Negroes that sense of control over their own destinies that all men so dearly require.”(64)

This idea I find both fascinating and a bit tragic – the way that Marcus Garvey was also able to find some common cause with white supremacists because both groups wanted black folks to secede, to separate, to segregate. It helps put in perspective the change in the movement post-Watts, and why it was such a crisis for King and others:

The Watts Uprising helped to set in motion a nationalism that filled an ideological void in Black LA. The Black Scare was unpredictable; it could and did present a threat to the person of some elite whites. The stories and pictures of whites being pulled from their cars and attacked were frightening to some of those with melanin deficiency. But, akin to the old Jack Benny joke, where the comedian is torn when the robber demands, “Your money or your life,” LA elites recognized that the nationalists could be accommodated in a way that their militant predecessors of the left could not. As long as separatism was decoupled from reparations, the NOI-influenced nationalism not only did (132) not present a threat to private property, it could even be helpful-along with racism–in keeping apart those who might want to unite jointly against the LAPD and the elites it was sworn to protect. The problem for blacks was that the blows from LAPD batons raining steadily down on their heads — overwhelmingly by white officers commanded by white elites–made any notion of “black and white unite and fight” seem like a delirious dream not even worthy of Hollywood. (133)

And so we are left to look at what remains, what happened to the vibrant movements. He doesn’t go into the destruction of the Panthers, only that their tenure was brief and allusions to the role of the FBI in their demise. But it’s clear why he believes they were targeted as they were:

So, after the excessive fire launched by the LAPD, there was widespread praise for Chief Parker, some flawed affirmative action, and a few other minor reforms. The black community was moving increasingly in a nationalist direction, angry at whites generally and their perceived designated representatives, a mostly.white LAPD. But this sentiment was contained in crystallized form in the theological vessel of the NOI [Nation of Islam]. There was the NAACP, which was perceived as being the spokesman for the middle class. There were gangs, some evolving toward the Black Panther party. And there were the so-called cultural nationalists, who pioneered in the “Black Is Beautiful” movement but allowed themselves to be manipulated against the Panthers. The Panthers had concluded that only armed struggle could repel the LAPD.
Except for the Panthers, all of these forces had rudimentary middle-class ideas about becoming entrepreneurs or middle-level government bureaucrats, or managing illicit empires, or simply finding a way to survive U.S. imperialism mentally and culturally without challenging it. In the 1990s all—except the Panthers—continue to exist. (167)

Leave a Reply