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25 Years After the Watts Riots : McCone Commission's Recommendations Have Gone Unheeded

WATTS: THEN AND NOW. First in an occasional series.


Twenty-five years ago, Marlen E. Neumann set out to heal a riot-torn city.

Alongside seven other members of a state commission appointed to investigate the causes of the 1965 Watts riots, Neumann spent more than three months walking the scorched earth of the district--interviewing residents, scrutinizing conditions, gauging the anger that for six days had rocked Los Angeles.

"That community needed answers," said Neumann, the sole woman appointed to the riot commission. "And they also needed calming."

From Aug. 11 to 16, blacks long frustrated by their lot and angered by a controversial police arrest wreaked havoc on their community. Stores were looted and burned. Whites driving through the riot zone were snatched out of their cars and pummeled, their autos torched. Rooftop snipers fired on police officers and firefighters.

When the riots finally ended, 34 people were dead, including a firefighter and a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, and 1,032 were injured. About $40 million worth of property was damaged or destroyed.

Eight days later, then-Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown assembled what became known as the McCone Commission, named after Chairman John A. McCone, an industrialist and former head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Charged with ensuring that such violence never again touched the city, the commission launched an inquiry into the riot and its causes, fashioning a 101-page white paper filled with ambitious remedies for many of Watts' ills.

Now, a quarter-century later, members of the commission and its 70-person staff express sadness and frustration as they reflect on what became of their report and its proposed remedies.

The commission had offered up ambitious prescriptions: "emergency" literacy and preschool programs, improved police-community ties, increased low-income housing, more job-training projects, upgraded health-care services, more efficient public transportation, and many more.

While some of the recommendations were adopted and sustained, bringing with them a handful of substantive changes in Watts, most were not. Some were enacted and then, for a variety of reasons, were scaled back or allowed to die out altogether. Others were simply ignored.

"I guess I'm struck with a sense of futility," said Ben S. Farber, a young prosecutor fresh out of the U.S. attorney's office when the commission recruited him to work out of its headquarters in the Sierra Building.

"I feel the same futility as the people in Watts--although I guess I'm not as uncomfortable with it," he said. "We (the commission) did all that I think we could do. How do you break the cycle of (problems), I don't know."

Such frustration, those who worked with the commission recalled in interviews, is a far cry from the sentiment that prevailed at the Sierra Building 25 years ago. Back then, optimism pervaded the place like sunlight. A sense of mission abounded.

"People felt some urgency," said John A. Joannes, a staff member who helped draft the skeleton of the McCone Commission's historic report. "Everyone saw this as something extremely important. That's why it's disappointing that things didn't turn out well. There was real determination to do something."

McCone was known for rising at 5 or 6 in the morning to begin the day's toil. Vice Chairman Warren M. Christopher, an attorney, spent long hours battling back the stacks of reports, memos and other paper work that sprouted daily on his desk. Staff members often routinely worked 12- and 14-hour days, as did the other commissioners--who included the late insurance executive Asa V. Call, the Very Rev. Charles Cassasa, the Rev. James Edward Jones, former Superior Court Judge Earl C. Broady and Dr. Sherman M. Mellinkoff, UCLA Medical School dean.

There were 64 meetings during the 100-day inquiry. There also were regular visits to the three field offices in the riot zone and informal talks with residents. About 530 witnesses were interviewed formally, including Mayor Sam Yorty and Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker. And finally, there was the report writing.

"We didn't want it to be just a scholarly work that no one would understand," said Joannes. "We wanted to write something that people would be able to read."

As taxing as the work became, the commissioners forced themselves to move with dispatch-- prodded by concern that the city's racial climate would not permit a protracted investigation. Many blacks were still angry; many whites were still edgy. As a result, rumors of renewed violence swirled through the city like Santa Ana winds.

"I wish we could have had more time," said Neumann. "One hundred days were not enough, but we had to do something. A lot of people thought the city would blow up. There was little time to waste."

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