The Texas Observer AUGUST 20 1965 A Journal of Free Voices A Window to The South 25c Los Angeles – The Fire This Time What If There Had Been a High Wind? Los Angeles The race riots and the fires and looting in the Watts ghetto in Los Angeles need to be recognized immediately for what they are, an event in our national history like the Nat Turner Rebellion or the Whiskey Rebellion or the Boston Tea Party. Had Negroes in Houston stoned and beaten up “whitey” on the basis of color, looted whites’ stores and started more than a .thousand fires, and maintained sniper fire against firemen who came to put them out, the press and a large element of the conservative community in Texas would have turned against the Negro cause vengefully and with gusto. In the South also this would be the reaction; consider ‘the chief Alabama “peace” officer’s wire to Los Angeles police chief W. H. Parker that now Parker knows what they’ve been going through in Alabama. \(Now he knows what the Negroes have been going through in Alabamathat would be more like the and of course opposition; but people were subdued, and the news reports, whether reliable or not, were somehow calm, accounts of a disaster that has to be understood. The Watts area was in a condition of violent disorder. Whites were not safe there; property was up for grabs. The stores that were burned were mostly whites’ ; Negro merchants tried to turn away the mobs with signs that said, “Negro-owned.” Taking the loot, some of the Negroes knew they were by theft redressing the unjust redistribution of the American abundance. And then there were the fires, above all there were these fires. When James Baldwin titled his book The Fire Next Time, he just did it, he did not say in the book why he did it and to my knowledge he has never explained it. But he was messing with the Black Muslims at the time, as he acknowledged, and that seemed to me the explanation of the title: that it had occurred to the Muslims that the one violent ace in the ghetto is Arson. Baldwin knew this, if only subconsciously, and by his title he predicted Los Angeles. By his title also he may bear some responsibility for it; but Lord, how much more must all the dissembling politicians and segregationists and gradualists and tokenists and the Negro apologists for taking-it-slow, too, for now the fires have begun to blaze and the weapon is known. Outbreaks in Pasadena, Long Beach, San Diego, San Bernardinothese have already been reported as the sparks of Los Angeles are borne on the winds of the news. Muslims and communists and hatersall they need to do is stoke resentment against police brutality in the ghettoes, turn it against transient and merchant whites, and then start breaking store windows. Resentment of the whites so richly earned, the larceny that lurks in us all inflamed in poverty, the sight of a store’s goods there for the takingthe crowds rush in. After the looting all it takes is one man to set the fire; then on down the street. “Burn, baby, burn!”that was the battle cry in Watts. I HAD GONE to Los Angeles to attend, with my friend Fred Schmidt, the former Texas labor leader and aide to Congressman Henry Gonzalez who is now doing pioneer social studies at U.C.L.A., a conference called by some California liberals on the future of U.S. liberalism. About fifty of us met in a mansion at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara; we talked and swam, feasted and fiddled, while Los Angeles burned 90 miles to the south. Fred has been working on the problems of the very Watts area that suddenly was alight with fires and dark with terror, Negroes beating whites and burning their cars and policemen beating Negroes to the ground with rifles they used as clubs, mobs of thousands roaming at large burning and stealing, tanks in the streets, National Guardsmen machine-gunning suspected Negro snipers in gutted buildings while firemen waited for the shooting to stop. This was no place for a white man then, friend or foe; to be white was to be hated, the enemy, and beaten. None of us who were whiteno matter what we’d been doing, no matter that Fred had written, with a colleague, a tome two inches high on the problems and needs of the Negroes in the Watts ghetto could go there, not unless we wanted to be beaten, or wanted to be shot, or wanted to run, or wanted to strike back. Fred and I drove down to Malibu, the long stretch of Pacific beach above which comfortable homes are perched for miles, and met, at the apartment of a friend of Fred’s, a Negro man and wife who had been in Watts during the first three days of the rioting. Their children played away down on the beach, a little dark-skinned group amid the weekend crowds of whites. The Negro man wore a mustache and was a swinger; his hand unrolled in circles as he talked and he said “Sure, baby,” in a way a Texan isn’t used to hearing. A Time Magazine reporter was there, and he was a study, taking notes carelessly on foldedover copy paper, a dress shirt open at the neck, his face of well-scrubbed flesh highlighted by just enough sunburn where it was a little too fleshy: a well-fed young Time man, asking questions. \(But I guess Time man was asking, were the ones doing the rioting and lootingwere they looked down upon or shunned by others? “Oh no, baby, oh no. That’s not it. Oh, no,” the Negro man replied. How long did the leaders in the community make some attempts to head off the riots? “Well, maybe the first day, day and a half ; they’ ,4. say a little something; but then they decided to, you know, wait.” You could see the Time man checking in his mind to see if he’d overlooked any of the teletyped questions from New York that this eye witness might be able to give him a good quote on. The Negro’s wife knew what his questions were, and she exclaimed, “They weren’t hoods! They were young women, with children. People like that. They weren’t hoods!” Again and again she went over this thought; she understood the Man’s theory, and that was not what she had seen; she was Negro and knew they had just grievances. Her husband said he had talked to a dozen eyewitnesses of the incident that sparked the first riot. Press reports in Los Angeles referred to the arrest of a young Negro charged with drunken driving. He had subsequently pleaded guilty, as the
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