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What the Watts Riots Could Teach Us About Future Fergusons

5 minute read
John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

Sunday marks the first anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown, which resulted in protests in Ferguson, Mo., and around the U.S. Next week we remember another period of civil unrest, the 50th anniversary of the Los Angeles Watts Riots, a six-day melee that resulted in 34 deaths, more than 1,000 wounded, and almost 4,000 arrested. On Aug. 11, 1965, white cops stopped a black driver who was suspected to be under the influence, he resisted arrest, and the cops beat him. A rumor spread that the officers had beaten a pregnant black woman.

The Watts Riots offer lessons for today’s Civil Rights street protests against the police murder of black people—and it’s not just that sometimes you have to take it to the streets. Make no mistake: You do—but there are other things that we must also do to make sure that today’s protests have a better outcome than the Watts ones did.

Watts kicked off a series of black-led urban riots in what came to be called the “long, hot summers.” Previously, race riots had almost always entailed white thugs streaming into black neighborhoods, as seen in the famous Tulsa race riots of 1921. Only in the wake of Watts did the norm become black people burning down their own neighborhoods in response to white offenses.

It’s easy to look back on the Watts Riots as a sign that black people were fed up and fighting back. It had a feel of “Burn, Baby, Burn,” maybe a Panther or two in shades standing by. The perception was all so much “fiercer” than people getting battered by fire hoses or singing “We Shall Overcome.”

But after the dust cleared, it became clear that these riots did nothing for black America. Many white storeowners didn’t reopen their stores in black downtowns, resulting in the desolate, dangerous wastelands that so many urban downtowns became, furnishing the grounds for further miseries.

The National Welfare Rights Organization had been calling for the relaxation of welfare requirements, and the riots helped seal the deal. Welfare had been a stingy program originally intended mainly for widows, but as “riot insurance,” as it was quietly called, it was rapidly refashioned into an open-ended service that seemed to dispense checks with no one caring whether anyone ever got job training or worked again. This was a new kind of welfare, which some white radicals sincerely hoped would bankrupt the government and create a Brave New World. But the black subjects of this experiment suffered multigenerational life on the dole, which only ended with the re-reform of welfare in 1996.

Unlike the Watts Riots, the recent protests starting with the one in Ferguson are bearing actual fruit. The injustice of how much easier it is to be killed by a policeman if one is black than white is now on the nation’s mind in a way that it never has been before. Cameras could make a difference, and it’s too early to deny that on the basis of the fact that so far the cameras have often ended up showing us murder rather than restraint. We may be in a transitional period during which cops have yet to fully understand how much they need to change their conduct.

But our new protesters must not replicate the excesses of the “long, hot summers” riots. Too often, the Ferguson protests paralleled the Watts ones in burning down black businesses as well as other ones. In general, future protests should be not only peaceful, but also very strictly goal-oriented, focused on the arrest of obviously guilty cops, calls for body cameras where none are being used, and perhaps independent oversight panels. Journalists and intellectuals should refrain from calling people who use the riots as an excuse for theft and violence “revolutionaries.”

After all, whatever the thrills of scaring white people are, let’s face it: You don’t want them to retreat completely. Already these recent protests have seemed to discourage some cops from doing their jobs in black neighborhoods at all—Baltimore, for example, saw crime increase after the protests in response to the death of Freddie Gray—which means more black people could be at risk of getting hurt and killed.

Finally, if after a while it looks like the new protests have made a serious difference—and no one should be afraid to admit that they have if so—then it will be time to take the protests to a new level. How about protesting black lives taken by other black people and demanding that this problem be truly addressed by both black neighborhoods and the cops who patrol them?

Black-on-black murder is what happens too much during our modern long, hot summers, after all. The new protest movement could go down in history as something truly large, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work. A great many Americans find the “Black Lives Matter” slogan bankrupt because they think it really means “Black Lives Matter When White People Take Them.” Let’s prove them wrong.

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