Fire next time... US uprisings in the 1960s


‘What White Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, White institutions maintain it, and White society condones it.’

 ‘On the evening of August 11, as Los Angeles sweltered in a heat wave, a highway patrolman halted a young Negro driver for speeding. The young man appeared intoxicated and the patrolman arrested him. As a crowd gathered, law enforcement officers were called to the scene. A highway patrolman mistakenly struck a bystander with his billy club. A young Negro woman, who was erroneously accused of spitting on the police, was dragged into the middle of the street. When the police departed, members of the crowd began hurling rocks at passing cars, beating white motorists overturning cars and setting them on fire. The police reacted hesitantly. Actions they did take further inflamed people on the streets.’

The year? Not 1992, but 1965. In the few days that followed the outbreak of rioting in Watts, a Los Angeles black ghetto, 4,000 people were arrested, 34 killed and hundreds injured. Damage was estimated at $35 million. At that time the Watts riot was regarded as the worst since the Detroit riot in 1943. It shocked the nation.

But Watts was not an isolated event. Violent disorder – more often than not exercised against black people – had been a feature of the 1960s in response to black people’s self-organisation against racism and discrimination. In 1963·64 police used dogs, firehoses and cattle prods against civil rights marchers in the South. White racists bombed black people’s houses and churches, shooting black people who opposed white supremacy. White police were involved in lynch murders of civil rights workers in Philadelphia. KKK shot black people indiscriminately. None of this shocked White America.

When black people fought back with bricks and bottles, police responded with gunfire. Violence escalated and black people continued to organise and fight back. 43 riots and disorders were reported in 1966, and 1967 saw outbreaks of rioting, principally in the black ghettoes of major cities across the United States. That frightened White America. Usually sparked off by a minor incident with the police, the riots became an expression of black anger against racism and repression.

It was a result of these riots that President Johnson appointed a Commission on Civil Disorders – the Kerner Commission – with the brief that it should discover what happened, why, and how it could be prevented in the future. The report it produced was an indictment of US White society, revealing discrimination, disadvantage and racism. It recommended a programme of affirmative action in the ghettoes to redress poverty and ‘make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens’.

The Commission reported that by and large, the rioters were black, young, male, lived in the ghettoes, were better educated than their peers, but employed in demeaning jobs. They were proud of their race, acutely conscious of discrimination, hated the police and were hostile to middle class blacks who had sold out. ‘They were and they are a time-bomb ticking in the heart of the richest nation in the history of the world.’

The Report concluded that ‘our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white –  separate and unequal’. But the Commission was warned by one witness:

‘I read that report ... of the 1919 riot in Chicago and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot in 1935, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of 1943, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot. I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission – it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland – with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.’

Since 1968 White America has held its breath that the riots would not recur. The affirmative action programmes did not materialise on anything like the scale recommended. Twenty-five years later, the ghettoes in US cities are more violent, the poor are poorer, the sick are dying faster. In 1992 middle class America is focusing on AIDS, drugs, crime, gangs, the ‘underclass’ and the breakdown of ‘the black family’ as the causes of the violence and the riots. But in essence the issue is the same as the Kerner Commission reported: ‘What White Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, White institutions maintain it, and White society condones it.’

But like all riot investigations before and since, both in the US and in Britain, the Kemer Report concentrates on the violence of the oppressed, not the daily violence meted out by a racist society to which the riots are an angry response.

There is a subtext to the report, just as there was a subtext to the Scarman report on the 1981 inner city riots in Britain. When President Johnson commissioned the inquiry into the 1967 riots he was sure that a conspiracy of radical black militants was to blame. By 1967, black political organisation had surpassed civil rights constitutionalism. Johnson’s real nightmare was that behind urban uprising lay Black Power and black consciousness which could really challenge the racist social order. Despite going to the lengths of running Stokely Carmichael’s movements through a computer to try to show a connection with the spread of the riots, the Commission dismissed the conspiracy theory. But it did conclude that militant organisations encouraged violence and ‘helped to create an atmosphere that contributed to the outbreak of disorder’. It was enough. While affirmative action was not the priority, ensuring the destruction of black militancy was. In the years that followed a generation of black revolutionaries were hounded, imprisoned and murdered. Middle class elements, prepared to settle for crumbs and sell-out the ghettoes, were swiftly incorporated into the corrupt political mainstream.

It seemed to work and it was cheap. It was enough of a model for Britain to follow in the face of its own urban riots in the 1980s. But in the 1990s White US society is about to be visited by the fruits of its political chicanery and barbarism. In such a society Los Angeles can only be the beginning. The time-bomb is still ticking.

Carol Brickley

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 107 June/July 1992


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