Today I am remembering the Los Angeles Watts Riot exactly fifty years ago.
I was at the time a premed student at the University of Southern California and had moved out of dorm housing to my first apartment. I don’t know how I found the place, but it was a new building; studio apartments were $75 a month. I later found out I was the lone Anglo living in an otherwise Black apartment community, on the northern edge of Watts, CA. I lived on the second floor, next to the corner apartment overlooking the main street, which was just off Vermont Avenue.
I grew up in a family that disliked African-Americans, Roman Catholics and Jews. Derogatory stories or comments about these persons frequently came up. However, something within me viscerally reacted, knowing that these comments were wrong and around the contrary age of 14, I pushed back at my parents when they said those hateful things. I am sure now that this was the Lord’s nudging.
Up to that point in my new apartment, I had lived as a privileged white boy around other mostly white privileged people. However, in my lonely life in that apartment, my neighbors slowly became my family. At that time, I had broken up with my first love and was very angry with my parents, who lived in Pasadena. I did not go home for a long time. I had no telephone. I suspected that the apartment house manager and his wife were being paid by my parents to keep an eye on me. I would come to get my mail at the mailbox outside their office, and the manager’s wife seemed to know it was me, opened the door to their apartment and would take my hand and pull me into her living room. She would sit me down and want to know about my day. Maybe this started as a sense of duty or assignment, but as I came to know her, there was compassion and concern for me. Through time, she became a surrogate mother and one I could trust. I am grateful for her.
My neighbors on my side of the building were mostly single, working in service sector, going to school themselves, or employed at a neighboring factory. It did not take long for me to be invited to dinner or coffee. I remember many warm evenings sitting on the top of the steps near the corner apartment with my neighbor, drinking the popular beverage of the time, Colt 45. Soft jazz and songs from Lou Rawls drifted through the apartment sound system. As I look back, feelings of affection and gratitude well up in me now for those friendships.
As a naïve white young man at that time, fifty years ago, I was unaware of the tension between the black community and the police, and the grinding poverty and struggle for life within this community. The area near USC was very depressed and the University was indifferent about these social conditions. In the 1990s that would change with a new USC President, who intentionally built relationships within the community, found federal money for low-income housing, and more important, required USC students to volunteer as tutors and youth mentors. But that was not 1965.
I remember that August morning driving down Figueroa. There were a lot of burglar alarms going off. I went to Laguna Beach to paint a seascape for a college art class and drove back on a warm summer evening in my red 1957 Ford Fairlane convertible, the top down (!!!!). Some buildings were on fire along the Harbor Freeway. I heard on the radio that there was some kind of a “riot,” but dumb me, I did not know what that meant. When I came to the freeway exit, I continued on a city street toward my apartment. Then in the shadows on a street corner, I saw it: a US Army tank pointed right at me, a soldier halfway out of the turret. I continued toward Vermont Avenue and I could see in the distance that the whole street was on fire. My apartment was one block before Vermont and I was frightened (with my car top down!!). I drove into the underground parking, walked up the steps in the darkness. At the top of the steps the hallway lights were out and a hand grabbed my arm. My neighbor in the corner apartment pulled me into his place. I could see the fear in his eyes. “Listen! Listen!” he whispered; in the distance there were loud pop pop pop sounds. We crawled to the corner window so we could see the street below. I remember it was a very wide street, densely lined with more apartments. We would quickly look out the window, then lie down on his carpeted floor, and listen. In the distance, a car screeched around a corner and headed toward us. Gunshots growing louder. The car screeched to a stop. Two occupants ran toward a downstairs apartment directly across the street. A door slammed. More screeching around the corner and two LA Police cars pulled behind the car. We popped our heads up briefly to see and then hit the floor again. Loud pounding on a door. Loud voices. We looked again. A huge flash of light. My neighbor said “shotguns” and the door to that apartment blew open. We lay on that carpeted floor for a long time and I tried to be as small as I could. An ambulance came. We could see the flashing red lights reflecting off the ceiling above us. After an hour or so, all was quiet. I returned to my apartment and watched the unfolding chaos on KTLA Channel 5.
For the next two days, I stayed in my apartment. My neighbors saw to it that I did not go out. On the third day, after two more nights of shooting and luminescent orange glow of fires in the distance, my neighbor took me to the market on the corner to shop for ourselves and our other neighbors. When we came to Vermont Avenue, I remember that the major LA street was thickly covered in shards of glass. How could there be that much glass in a street? Smoldering, burned out shells of stores lined the street, but the market was still there. Not yet being 21, I remember asking my neighbor to help me buy a six-pack of colt 45.
We became an occupied city. National Guard soldiers on every corner. A few nights later at 10pm, there was a heavy knock at my door. I opened and I saw a helmeted Army sergeant with the short butt of a cigar smoldering in his mouth. “You live here? “ He entered with two other solders and they looked around. They were looking for looted goods. I remember the sergeant looked at me with some surprise and shaking his head. I don’t know if it was because he was surprised that I was white or that my apartment was its usual mess. When the soldiers went next door to the corner apartment, I went with them to stand beside my neighbor as they interrogated him.
A year later, I shared an apartment with my brother closer to campus and those important, early friendships and memories of that August 1965 riot drifted away.
Fifty years between Watts and Ferguson. Has anything changed for African Americans or diminished racial tensions? Where can we find hope?
Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI writes:
“Hope is a vision of life that guides itself by God’s presence, irrespective of whether the situation looks optimistic or pessimistic at any given time. Hope is not based on whether the evening news is good or bad on a given day. The daily news, as we know, is better on some days and worse on others. If we hope or despair on the basis of whether things seem to be improving or disintegrating in terms of world events, our spirits will go up and down like the stock market. Hope is not based on CNN, or any other network. Instead, hope looks at the facts, looks at God’s promise, and then, without denying the facts or turning away from the evening news, lives out a vision of life based on God’s promise, trusting that a benevolent, all-powerful God is still in charge of this world and that is more important than whether or not the news looks good or bad at a given night.”
The social prophet Jim Wallis reminds us that there are all kinds of politicians. He says that a politician checks how the wind is blowing by holding up his/her finger, and then votes the way the wind blows. We can change the politicians but they all hold their fingers up to the wind. Wallis contends, “We need to change the wind!” This is our work as people of hope. The wind will change the way politicians make decisions.
I am remembering Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s visit to my parish in the Logan Barrio of Santa Ana, CA, in May 1990, twenty five years ago. Guns, violence, changing politicians did not change apartheid in South Africa. People of hope like Tutu changed things. He reminded us in his visit that people of faith prayed together and lit candles and put them in their windows so that the neighbors, the police and soldiers and the wide world would see their belief. Tutu said that the government did notice and passed a law that it was a subversive act to put a lit candle in your window. That crime was as serious as brandishing a gun. Tutu said that the local children saw what was going on when they said, “Our government is afraid of lit candles.”
Those lit candles and prayers and hope changed the wind in South Africa.
Sociologists and news commentators will continue to dissect the Watts Riot of 1965. I know that my close friendships with my apartment neighbors and my life in that neighborhood planted something within me, which, combined with a year working with the Urban League in Berkeley in 1967 and thirty years of ministry in Santa Ana, continues to give me hope as we work to change the wind.
Pray for my Pasadena High School Alum friend, Robert Grant Iii, sergeant in the LAPD, who will probably work the night shift in Watts, CA.