It happened today - August 11, 2015
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPXL3iEVnCM On August 11 of 1965 the Watts riot erupted. In one sense it’s not at all surprising. In another it is. In a third it’s not. And in a fourth it is.
What’s not surprising is that a minor scuffle between two white policemen and a black motorist in the United States should have produced an explosion of black anger over what they regarded with reason as consistently bigoted policing. At any rate it’s not surprising to those of us living through a terribly predictable series of such incidents. No wonder black Americans were fed up.
Then again, it is surprising because the riot erupted eight days after the pivotal Voting Rights Act was passed. Not defeated. Passed. Finally, a century after the Civil War and formal emancipation, and nearly three and a half long and terrible centuries since the first black slaves were sold at Jamestown in 1619, the weight of the American government and of public opinion was solidly behind decent treatment for blacks. You’d think it would be cause for celebration, not for four days of mayhem over 50 square miles that had to be suppressed by the National Guard, leaving 34 dead (all but three of them black), over a thousand injured and millions of dollars in property destroyed.
Here it is important to recall Tocqueville’s comment that “the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform”. Now the United States did not have a bad government as these things go… provided you were white. For those within the charmed circle of American liberty under law, it was a very good government. And it was sort of OK if you were Hispanic. But it was horrible if you were black or aboriginal. And when the state, and the public, finally took off the white hoods, and black Americans could finally vent their rage and frustration without being lynched, and I mean that literally, it is no wonder their anger exploded.
Indeed, just 13 days after Lyndon Johnson’s other pivotal piece of Great Society legislation on race, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had passed on July 3 1964, a race riot had erupted in Harlem, and there were others in Rochester, Paterson, Philadelphia and the Chicago suburb of Dixmoor that summer. But it was Watts that touched off the “long hot summers” of carnage that lasted into the 1970s, with the worst being the Detroit conflagration of 1967. (Incidentally there is a terrific YouTube video of Gordon Lightfoot’s song about that episode, Black Days in July; whoever did it really did a great job with the visuals on an already powerful piece of music.)
Which brings me to the other way the upheavals were surprising. They were so destructive. After waiting for so long for decent treatment I understand the anger. But in city after city black rioters burned down black businesses and properties and ruined black neighbourhoods. And in the aftermath, as the face of politics and administration began to reflect black majorities, literally, the policies adopted were left-wing folly that drove away jobs.
Detroit, for instance, has never really recovered from 1967, and now features abandoned homes, feral dogs and picturesque but haunting ruined public buildings. And it’s black kids who are trying to get to school in this wasteland.
What’s depressing and weird is that fifty years later, so many people still applaud destructive outbursts of black rage in America. Yes, of course it’s understandable. But it’s ruinous.
Normal people shrink from violent chaos, regardless of their race. At their next opportunity after Watts, Californians chose Ronald Reagan as their governor and Americans generally chose Richard Nixon. And if these were not entirely reasonable or, in Nixon’s case, happy choices, they too are comprehensible. “Burn, baby, burn” is an appalling and nihilistic doctrine and it’s past time it was consigned to the rubbish heap of history. It will elect conservatives, which those on the left don’t want. But it won’t heal wounds, which those on the left presumably do.
Of course there are many voices, black and white and every other shade of humanity, saying stop, enough, channel your frustration into something more constructive. Across America black mayors, police chiefs, councilors and state legislators are trying to build not destroy. But they’re fighting a powerful current of pure destructiveness. And when you read stories about things like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, by comfortable often white journalists including those in the country next door, be honest. Don’t you detect a weird note of satisfaction in their coverage of these disasters, as though more blatant bigotry triggering more rage, burning black businesses, more bitterness and lawlessness were the right way forward?
Consider that in Baltimore, where the suspicious death of a black man in police custody in April produced a wave of protest and riots and scrutiny of the police, the murder rate has since surged as police stay away from high-crime areas. Scrutiny of the police is always good in a self-governing society provided it is rational. But nothing else is good about that result, least of all the exposure of law-abiding residence of those areas to brutal chaos. It’s so bad the major, who is a black woman, recently fired the police commissioner, who is a black man. But what comes next?
Looking back in sorrow, Watts was at once an entirely reasonable and an entirely unreasonable response to the situation in 1965. But it was a bad response, for America and for American blacks. Fifty years later, surely it’s time that lesson was learned across the ideological spectrum.