Looking back at the Watts Riots

I read this article in the Situationist Anthology last week. It appeared in Situationist International’s Journal No. 10 (1966). The article is about the Watts Riots in Los Angeles in 1965. It was described in the media as a “race riot” but it was nothing of the sort. Yes, Watts is a black neighbourhood but the riots weren’t inflamed by racial tensions but by potent mix of economic, social and political deprivation as well as police brutality. In essence, riots of this kind are rebellions. It’s odd but while reading it I was struck by the similarities between Watts and Tottenham. The article is titled “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”. In typical SI fashion, no author is credited.

August 13-16, 1965, the blacks of Los Angeles revolted. An incident between traffic police and pedestrians developed into two days of spontaneous riots. Despite increasing reinforcements, the forces of order were unable to regain control of the streets. By the third day the blacks had armed themselves by looting accessible gun stores, enabling them to fire even on police helicopters. It took thousands of police and soldiers, including an entire infantry division supported by tanks, to confine the riot to the Watts area, and several more days of street fighting to finally bring it under control. Stores were massively plundered and many were burned. Official sources listed 32 dead (including 27 blacks), more than 800 wounded and 3000 arrests.

Reactions from all sides were most revealing: a revolutionary event, by bringing existing problems into the open, provokes its opponents into an inhabitual lucidity. Police Chief William Parker, for example, rejected all the major black organizations’ offers of mediation, correctly asserting: “These rioters don’t have any leaders.” Since the blacks no longer had any leaders, it was the moment of truth for both sides. What did one of those unemployed leaders, NAACP general secretary Roy Wilkins, have to say? He declared that the riot “should be put down with all necessary force.” And Los Angeles Cardinal McIntyre, who protested loudly, did not protest against the violence of the repression, which one might have supposed the most tactful policy at a time when the Roman Church is modernizing its image; he denounced “this premeditated revolt against the rights of one’s neighbor and against respect for law and order,” calling on Catholics to oppose the looting and “this violence without any apparent justification.” And all those who went so far as to recognize the “apparent justifications” of the rage of the Los Angeles blacks (but never the real ones), all the ideologists and “spokesmen” of the vacuous international Left, deplored the irresponsibility, the disorder, the looting (especially the fact that arms and alcohol were the first targets) and the 2000 fires with which the blacks lit up their battle and their ball. But who has defended the Los Angeles rioters in the terms they deserve?

We will. Let the economists fret over the $27 million lost, and the city planners sigh over one of their most beautiful supermarkets gone up in smoke, and McIntyre blubber over his slain deputy sheriff. Let the sociologists bemoan the absurdity and intoxication of this rebellion. The role of a revolutionary publication is not only to justify the Los Angeles insurgents, but to help elucidate their perspectives, to explain theoretically the truth for which such practical action expresses the search.

You can read the rest here.

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Filed under racism, riots, Society & culture

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