It was fifty years ago, August 11, 1965, that all hell broke loose in Los Angeles. What began as a simple traffic stop, turned into a rebellion/riot that result in 34 people dead, 1000 people injured, over 4000 citizens arrested. The Watts Riots, as the event came to be known, also ripped the veil of complacency and hypocrisy from America’s self-image, as the immortal specter of racism and racial oppression made itself known to all the world.
In the last fifty years there have been scores of similar conflagrations – in Washington, Harlem, Los Angeles (again), Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Newark and Philadelphia. In the last half century there has been a sense of a “Groundhog Day” pattern – there is a police incident/miscarriage of justice/no justice – then frustration turns to rage that turns to burning and looting – there is a paramilitary response to “restore order” – “order is restored” – a commission/panel/forum is convened to identify the root causes of the disorder – recommendations/proposals/commitments to change are made – change takes place, but not fundamental/institutional/cultural change – Reset.
Even with the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Reset button has never been far away. Black mayors, Congressional Representatives, Senators, Governors and a black president have been elected, again and again and yet, the Reset button has never been far away. The failure to indict the officers who tried to beat Rodney King to death caused the Reset button to be pressed again –as was the case after the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King, as was the case after the police execution of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The philosopher George Santayana once said “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. And it seems that as a society, as a nation, although we claim to remember the past, we seem to ignore it or not give it the credence and importance that it deserves. As so we repeat the past over and over. The Reset button remains, simply waiting for the next tragedy or the next egregious demonstration of injustice.
A library could be filled with the books, reports, articles and commission findings that followed the aftermath of Watts, Harlem, Newark, Detroit, etc. Some of the presumed greatest minds have labored to propose strategies and solutions that would remove the need to resort to that damned Reset button. And yet, there is an unstated recognition that no time will be the last time because when it comes to the fire born of frustration combined with racism, inequality, injustice and racial oppression, the fire has never gone out, and there will always be a next time.
And as we watch the all too familiar made for television drama play out in Ferguson, the embers of death and destruction have only just now cooled down in Baltimore and we can only wonder when and where the Reset button will be pressed.
The sad symbols of sorrow, the inevitable eulogies, the pledges of reconstruction and reconciliation – they are part of the ritual of this country. They are part of the ritual because the necessary predicate of recognizing the humanity of all people, including black Americans has not taken place. The statistics of unemployment and mortality and incarceration tend to only partially deodorize the stench of racism.
The entire country watches the demented kabuki choreography of public officials refusing to recognize the fact that the facts don’t lie – the disparity, inequality, unfairness and injustice that are the unwanted birthright of the national black community leaves too many with no option other than to press the Reset button that leads to rebellion that leads to repression that leads to resentment that leads to soon to be forgotten promises of reconciliation and renewal.
As we remember the Watts Rebellion of fifty years ago, we would all do well to remember the words of George Santayana.