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Last week was mostly calm. No police shootings of black children or adults. No anonymous troops in the streets of any U.S. city. Quite a contrast to August 11-16, 1965. Fifty five years ago, Los Angeles burned. Or, more accurately, Black Los Angeles burned, troops roamed the streets, and police had six full days of unrestrained beat downs to show who was in charge.

Watts: 55 Years On

Today, as an openly racist president urges on racial strife in U.S. cities and seeks to campaign with threats of violence and even worse, integration, in the suburbs, pseudo-revolutionaries keep telling us that nothing has changed. Perhaps we should look back at historical reality, to give our current, still systemically racist, society some context. 

The 1965 riots happened almost exactly a year after the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The riots started on August 11, a week after President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It was a hard time for Civil Rights activism. Our first televised colonial war was drawing people’s attention away. Unlike WW-II or Korea, in Vietnam, TV networks saw the intersection of lighter, more portable 16mm cameras and greater viewer interest as a source for novel profits for news programs. And the war, in an exotic foreign location, provided more action than staid protest marches. 

In 1964, the California Real Estate Association (today the California Association of Realtors) promoted a ballot initiative to enshrine racial discrimination covenants into the California Constitution. The Republican Party and other white supremacy boosters pushed the amendment to success. Bayard Rustin wrote, after the 1965 riots, that,

“The whole point of the outbreak in Watts was that it marked the first major rebellion of Negroes against their own masochism and was carried on with the express purpose of asserting that they would no longer quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life.” 

34 people died in the 1965 riots. One Sheriff’s deputy was shot to death by another deputy, and one LAPD officer shot and killed another LAPD officer. No “rioters” killed any police, firefighter or soldier during the riots. 

LAPD Chief William Parker compared the black citizens of Los Angeles to the Vietnamese fighting against colonialism and also compared black citizens living in ghettos to monkeys in a zoo.

Most people, white people, didn’t see the riots except through the eyes of TV cameras and the claims of police officials. LAPD Chief William Parker compared the Black citizens of Los Angeles to the Vietnamese fighting against colonialism and also compared black citizens living in ghettos to monkeys in a zoo.

After the riots, a commission studying the causes listed poor education, poor and crowded housing, poor health care, poor job prospects, bad police-community relations. After lots of speeches and promises, Los Angeles, California, and the nation took essentially no steps to address any of the identified problems.

Jump ahead 27 years, to 1992. A whole generation. In Black neighborhoods, schools were still bad. Healthcare remained non-existent. Job discrimination was still the norm. And the government still refused to enforce basic health and safety codes against slumlords.

But other things had changed. There were no cellphones, yet. But 16mm news film, which took hours to develop and edit, had given way to videotape, which could be broadcast right from the scene of news stories. The advent of inexpensive videotape also made it possible for even small businesses to have “security camera” systems to record robberies and other crimes.

On March 16, 1991, 15-year-old Black student, Latasha Harlins, was shot in the back of the head by an angry Korean liquor store owner. Both the store’s security camera system and two witnesses in the store at the time revealed the story. The store owner erroneously accused the Black child of attempting to steal a bottle of orange juice. The child was actually holding money in her hand to pay for the juice when the store owner accused her. After heated words, the orange juice was on the store counter when the child turned and started to walk away. The store owner, enraged that a mere Black person would disrespect her, pulled out a gun and fired a shot into the back of the child’s head.

The shooting was intentional. It was unprovoked. IF the child had been white, it would have been first degree murder. But even with the video tape and two eye witnesses, the D.A. decided that the killing of this black child should be no more than “voluntary manslaughter.” 

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The case was assigned to a newly appointed judge, Joyce Karlin—the blonde, white daughter of a movie executive, who enjoyed the drama of the courtroom and the style of being able to appear every day authoritatively in a simple black robe. After a trial presentation, a jury found the store owner guilty, and recommended the maximum sentence of 16 years. But the blonde, white judge was appalled. She publicly proclaimed that the real victim was the store owner, who had to suffer the bad publicity and trial burden of killing nothing more than a black child. She gave the store owner probation and a $500 fine, and set her free.

The very next week, Judge Karlin had a more serious case. A man was accused of kicking (not killing, just kicking) a dog. Found guilty, Judge Karlin sentenced the man to a harsher penalty than he had imposed on the Korean liquor store owner for killing Latasha Harlins. To Judge Karlin, kicking a dog was a much more serious crime than merely killing a black child.

The week before Latasha Harlins was shot in the back of her head, a gang of police officers delivered what LAPD chief Daryl Gates said were “between 53 and 56" blows to Rodney King, who was first struck while kneeling, with his hands up, during an “arrest” for drunk driving. As with Latasha Harlins, a video camera captured the beating of Rodney King. A citizen, not the police, recorded the beating, and turned it over to the news media, who published it to a horrified world, after the LAPD said that they didn’t want it. As with the Korean liquor store owner, the police simply lied about the incident, committing perjury, blamed the Black victim for their misconduct.

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Four police officers were charge with crimes for the Rodney King beating, although 14 had been involved. As with Judge Karlin’s sympathy for the Korean liquor store owner, as the ‘true victim’ of the Latasha Harlins killing, Los Angeles Superior Court judges were sympathetic to the four charged police officers. They decided that it would be unfair to try the officers in a Los Angeles court, where the jury pool would contain too many black and latino jurors. So the decision was made to move the trial to Simi Valley, in Ventura County. 

Simi Valley is one of those enclaves, like Signal Hill, where white police officers gather to live, away from the people they police. It was a trial venue that guaranteed a jury panel of family and friends and business associates and club members of the charged police officers. It was a venue guaranteed to be “fair” to police officers accused of putting a beat down on a mere “Black thug.”

On April 21, 1992, the Court of Appeal ruled that Judge Karlin’s decision that no prison time and a $500 fine was within the discretion of a sitting trial judge. On April 29, 1992, the Simi Valley jury with no black jurors acquitted the four police officers, despite the videotape and despite their plain perjury. Rioting started immediately after the verdicts were announced. 

To “contain” the rioting, the LAPD, headed by notoriously racist Daryl Gates, walled off Koreatown, preventing residents and business owners from fleeing into surrounding wealthy white neighborhoods, but allowing rioters free access to destroy and loot Koreatown businesses. The LAPD simply sacrificed Korean Americans to the riot, in order to protect white neighborhoods. The National Guard and U.S. military were called in to help the LAPD suppress the riots. 

As in 1965, the riots were studied. Numerous reports pointed to the poor housing, healthcare, education and job opportunities that hadn’t seemed to change much since 1965. But a few reports noted that the rioters in 1992 included Hispanics and whites, and that a new motivation seemed present - the growing economic disparities between classes in the U.S., which crossed race lines. 

Jump forward again. Another generation. Corporations don’t care about race, except as a tool to divide workers against each other. They want profits. And in search of profits, they worked to develop the technology to put smart phones into the hands of every person, including children across the nation. As the 21st century dawned, news cameras and home video cameras gave way to cell phone videos.

What had been the rare video of police misconduct like the Rodney King beating became routine fare on the emerging internet. We saw police officers shooting Black children at play, shooting fleeing Black people in the back. We saw police officers shoot Black men dead, then walk up and drop “hide out” guns beside the Black bodies to fabricate the pretense that the police “had to” shoot. 

In 2020, we saw white men stalk and then shotgun a Black jogger. We saw cops break down the door of a sleeping Black Emergency Medical Technician and shoot her 8 times. And we saw a white policeman kneel on the neck of a Black man, kneeling for 3 minutes after his fellow officers noted that the man was unconscious, while bystanders recorded him. And we then learned that he and other officers had falsified police reports about the incident.

In 1965, NONE of this could have happened. In 1965, what the police said was “the truth,” and what Black people said was irrelevant. In 1991, what security video and what eye witnesses said had become important. But our systemic racism still moved the trial to a pro-police white enclave. And a white jury refused to convict. But in 2020, we know for certain that police routinely lie on official reports. We see videos proving that racial motivation is a factor in too many of the killings and too much of the violence that gets reported in the corporate “liberal media.”

But in 2020 we also see that white, Hispanic, Asian and Native American people are joining Black people in protesting the violence of police who seem to think their only function is to defend the corporate oligarchy. In 2020 we see real, progressive change from both 1965 and 1992.

It is not enough change. But we are talking now about “microaggressions” and “economic disparities” instead of shootings in the street. Violent crime has been on a long decline. We are reading White Fragility and So You Want to Talk About Race. And some, surely not all, and probably not enough, yet, are understanding what they are reading.

In 1965, Bayard Rustin wrote,

“The whole point of the outbreak in Watts was that it marked the first major rebellion of Negroes against their own masochism and was carried on with the express purpose of asserting that they would no longer quietly submit to the deprivation of slum life.”

In 2020 we are closer to an end of the deprivation of slum life, of racial discrimination. But we are further away from economic equity. We have made progress, but we still suffer from what Rustin called “their own masochism,” an ennui driven by poverty, poor education and worse healthcare.

But with every cellphone video exposing the truth that the corporate oligarchy wants to deny, we move closer to the promised land. If we can only move people to the voting booth as well as to their cell phones, we will move even faster forward. 

Tom Hall

Tom Hall