Donald Wheeldin, "The Situation in Watts Today" (1967)
To answer the question, "what is the situation in Watts today?" is, perforce, to provide an answer to what the situation holds for every single Negro who lives in the United States.
The great though tragic Watts uprising in August, 1965, in which 36 persons (mostly Negroes) were slaughtered by police, 1,032 injured, 3,436 jailed, and $40 millions in property destroyed, is now held as responsible for the stunning defeat of Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown for re-election in California. Following his defeat, Brown charged that Watts and subsequent ghetto explosions brought on "the white backlash" that sent him into total political eclipse.
This is, of course, such an unsophisticated political estimate--omitting so many important factors--that, by itself, it becomes a substantial argument explaining his defeat. However, it has become popular for politicians, preachers, police officials and Negro "spokesmen" to blame everything on Watts--ranging from the Governor's defeat to the arrest of a teenager, anywhere in the state. Actually, the Governor's failure lies not in the star of Watts but, rather, in himself and his own inept coterie of underlings.
The inherent peril of Watts today, ghetto for many of Los Angeles 420,000 Negroes, is that nothing has really changed since that fateful week in August, 1965. If anything, the situation has grown alarmingly worse.
Burned-out buildings, vacant lots, boarded-up businesses still pockmark the main areas there. At the corner of 103rd Street and Compton Avenue, heart of its business section, is to be seen Mayor Sam Yorty's optimum contribution towards "an improved Watts community." It consists of a printed statement proclaiming free pony rides for the kids, over the mayor's signature. Further east on 103rd Street at Lou Dillon Avenue is to be found an old abandoned gas station that now headquarters a new organization called the Sons of Watts Improvement Association.
"Sons of Watts," ages 20-26, claim a membership of nearly 100, drawn from former neighborhood gangs.
Their stated purpose is to rebuild Watts into a prosperous community by seeking a return of job-supplying businesses and industry.
How have they been advised to do this?
They've gotten a few traffic signs posted and been urged to distribute 100 containers bearing a legend "Keep Watts Clean" in which people are asked to drop their empty bottles and trash.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles business community boasts getting "thousands of jobs" for Watts residents which Negro spokesmen in the area contradict as being only "a few hundred." However, Aerojet General Corporation, a huge West Coast outfit with kingsized military contracts, has taken $4.5 million of government money to set up a Watts Manufacturing Company that now hires Watts Negroes to make tents for the Armed Forces. It estimates keeping "200 people busy for the next two years."
The above-mentioned are the piddling answers to a community where today 42 out of every 100 men are reported unemployed and among whom many are unemployable. Watts is the community where Los Angeles voters recently denied funds for building a hospital despite 1960 health statistics disclosing: a death rate 22.3 percent higher than the rest of Los Angeles; 65 percent of all tuberculin reactors; 46 percent of the venereal diseases; and 42 percent of all food poisoning in the city.
Stark and graphic as they are, the statistics alone do not convey the real situation in Watts. Like other black ghettos throughout the country, it is mired in a racism that threatens to suck the substance from the American Dream and turn it into a nightmare. The bald fact of Watts is that black people there are not quite considered eligible for membership in the human family. . . .
Earlier, last May, all the tree top tall tensions that erupted in the Watts explosion threatened to break out anew after the gunning down of Leonard Deadwyler, young Negro father, rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital. After his car had pulled to the curb and stopped, Jerald Bova, a white policeman, trained his gun through the side-window and fired. He later termed it "an accident." Bova had a prior record of brutality towards Negroes.
At the massed funeral services for Deadwyler, following a fifteen block long march, Rev. W. H. Johnson, speaking on behalf of Watts ministers said: "No man's life in Watts . . . is worth more than the price of a bullet. Any innocent man may be killed in Watts. It is a jungle where inhumanity is the order of the day."
It was within this context that the late Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker poured acid into the wounds of the Negro community--as he had so often on prior occasions--by taking to the television and blistering the Negro community and its leaders as stupid and totally lacking in respect for his brand of law and order. Parker's sentiment was echoed by Mayor Yorty.
This turn of events caused great consternation, frightening some Negro leaders. Others became angered. All were worried and concerned. As a result, a hastily called meeting brought together the widest diversity of Negro groups united for the single purpose of challenging Parker and his "get tough" policy and treatment of Negroes. Sole condition for membership was being a Negro. Black spokesmen ranged from the churches to the Communists; Nationalists to the NAACP; social clubs to society matrons. They formed the Temporary Alliance of Local Organizations (TALO). During the summer, TALO financed and placed in Watts and throughout South Los Angeles a volunteer Community Alert Patrol to observe and report on police malpractices.
The CAP, equipped with 2-way radios, was an impressive step forward as it entered the ghetto areas to the cheers of the people who readily cooperate with the Negro volunteers in keeping the peace. It wasn't long before the Mexican community asked its help in setting up such a patrol in its area. Even the police who had bitterly resented CAP's presence, earlier, was forced to call on it for help in a number of cases. This volunteer action represented a first, halting step toward acquiring some "black power."
Meanwhile, others in TALO sought to press with the Los Angeles Police Commission and Chief Parker for a redress of Watts community grievances. While in the process, Parker died and some of the immediate pressures on the community receded. TALO, no longer with a single unifying object, began to dissolve. . . .
The largest and probably most noble single thrust in an effort to retrieve and make life bearable in Watts has been undertaken by the Presbyterians through Westminster House. With a paid staff of 100 social workers under the leadership of dedicated Morris Samuel (Father Sam) the Center is spending 66 percent of its $1,148,150 budget on a job training and employment program for Watts Negro youth.
Bluntly, this, too, is doomed to fail. Why? Because the shrinking job market, alone, will be unable to absorb the trainees. And the government doesn't have enough post offices in which to employ the rest. Beyond that what has as yet to be understood is that racism is a prop that undergirds and helps sustain this economic system. Finger-in-the-dike methods won't change it. Only a successful challenge to those who preside over it will usher in a new and different set of race relations. The power and direction of the system's present rulers are best illustrated in California by the McCone Commission Report, official document dealing with the so-called Watts Riots.
The Commission, headed by John McCone, former CIA director, spent 100 days and $250,000 in order to ". . . bring into clear focus . . . the economic and sociological conditions in our city that underlay the gathering anger . . ." It, of course, does neither.
The Report turns out to be a commingling of police public relations and anti-Negro bias. So much so that sole Negro Commission member Rev. James Edward Jones caused to be published a separate comment in which he "violently disagreed" with part of its "unjustified projection." The Report was blasted by the State Civil Rights Commission as "superficial, unoriginal and unimaginative." . . .
The most compelling lesson of Watts today is that it simply is not a matter of geographic location. It kaleidoscopes the situation in which we Negroes find ourselves throughout the country. It is only a matter of degree. We're trapped in a culture pattern that has seen our parents jobless and on relief; members of our families disintegrate through poor health and slum housing; and finally, we find ourselves as inheritors of a cruel and seemingly unending cycle of economic brinkmanship in an affluent society which has brought us to the breaking point. That breaking point is demonstrated in Watts and elsewhere in the country in a thousand clashes between Negroes and police since "That Was The Week That Was" in August, 1965. . . .
Nothing short of maximal government intervention on a scale equal to that now committed to the destruction of Vietnam can avert a major race holocaust in our country in our time. And there is nothing in the Johnson Administration or on the political horizon generally, that indicates any serious thought is being given the matter.
This is the reality now, leading inexorably toward a major national race crisis.
And when these present times are analyzed by future historians to unravel the whys and wherefores their starting point may well be that volatile black ghetto tucked away in South Los Angeles named Watts.