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Countdown to Chaos? : 30 years after the Watts riots, two Angelenos look back and ask: Why did it happen--and will it happen again?

August 11, 1995|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After five days the glow dimmed, but not the fury.

Jagged glass and charred husks of wood were swept from the streets, but the sharpest images--emphatic, newly emboldened--weren't so easily brushed to the edges of memory. Aug. 11, 1965, is another date imbued with the unwieldy significance of historic moment or -- better-- cataclysmic event. What started a handful of blocks outside Watts that day was a shout of fire and fury that is still, all too often, seen only as just that--raw emotion.

Distance has done little to deepen understanding, and the story, for those who lived it, remains half told.

From the vantage of 30 years, Angelenos sift through the ashes for causes, lessons learned. Problem is, the past and present seem too closely tied. The deficiencies that plagued the 46.5-square-mile area known as Watts, and the surrounding southern tip of Los Angeles, remain largely unchanged--except there are more of them.

Upon visiting Los Angeles, Watts specifically, in 1972, writer James Baldwin committed these impressions to the page: "Watts doesn't immediately look like a slum, if you come from New York: but it does if you drive from Beverly Hills. . . . Over it hangs a miasma of fury and frustration, a perceptible darkening, as of storm clouds, of rage and despair, and the girls move with a ruthless, defiant dignity, and the boys move against the traffic as though they are moving against the enemy. The enemy is not there, of course, but his soldiers are, in patrol cars."

Sadly, Baldwin's observations could be a sharp assessment of conditions in 1995. Or in April, 1992. The past and present blur distinctions, so for many who have watched incremental advances bog down in unemployment, a dearth of social services and sub-standard living conditions, the long-range future becomes not simply uncertain, but irrelevant.

Just what took hold of the streets on a hot summer evening 30 years ago--uprising, rebellion, insurrection, riot--was so amorphous that available descriptives felt inadequate, dishonest; mere words unable to contain it.

As August '65 bleeds into the memories of April '92, as motorist Marquette Frye (whose traffic stop lit the short fuse) is eclipsed by motorist Rodney King, it becomes necessary to revisit history, no matter how dim or painful. To understand that the rage and fury are not abstract.

*

"It seemed that August, 1965, marked the point when L.A. blacks decided no longer to tolerate misery," explains Gerald Horne in his new book, "Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s" (University Press of Virginia), adding his holistic diagnosis to 30 years of theories. The title gives a nod to one of Baldwin's most resonant essays, "The Fire Next Time," about the racial nightmare that has kept America from "achieving country."

But it is what occurred at least a decade before Watts quite literally seared an impression on the public's consciousness that sits center of Horne's thesis. It is a link rarely considered: the collapse, in the aftermath of the '50s Red Scare, of interracial labor and social movements formed by the Left.

"There were many causes and reasons for the tumultuous events of August, 1965, in L.A. It should have come as a strange surprise only to those who were not paying attention," writes Horne, who is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Zimbabwe and has been professor of history and chair of the Black Studies Department at UC Santa Barbara. The incongruity of a paradise riddled with underside sores; besieged by remnants left for its working class to pick through, more precisely the working class of color.

The list unscrolled: intra-racial friction between middle- and lower-class blacks, year of arrival as status symbol, restrictive covenants that kept blacks from moving outside of prescribed areas.

Even the work set in place to attempt to turn the tide faced unceremonious dismantling. In the 1950s the political Left buckled with the mortal blow of the McCarthy-engineered Red Scare. And so, Horne believes, collapsed a core of the progressive movement--from newspapers like the California Eagle, published by a black woman, Charlotta Bass, to the foundations of trade and tenant unions.

"What happened to Charlotta Bass is a metaphor for what happened in L.A," says Horne, a former lawyer and activist who has served as staff counsel for the Affirmative Action Coordinating Center and a member of SANE-FREEZE Campaign for Global Security. "In some sense she decided to align herself with the Left and progressive forces, and there was a concerted effort to subvert her newspaper."

Highlighting this rarely considered link, Horne's hope was to better understand some of the issues that were muffled in the tumult.

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