Watts Riot An image from the 1965 Watts Riot

Alastair Stephens looks at how riots changed American history and represented a historic challenge to the ruling order

It all started with a police stop for minor offence. Two (white) cops pulled over a young (black) man, Marquette Frye for reckless driving.

They accused him of drink driving and carried out a roadside ‘sobriety’. Soon the driver’s mother (who’s car it was) appeared from around the block to berate her son. There was an altercation; pushing and shoving, a policeman pulled out a shotgun. 

On what was a hot evening a crowd started to gather. The cops called for back up and then tried to arrest Fry. He is wrestled to the ground. Then his mother and brother are arrested. As the atmosphere became more fraught insults and then objects were thrown. The police tried to break up the crowd with batons only making them more angry. By now word of the disturbance was spreading through the neighbourhood.

And so began the Watts Riot of 1965.

It lasted six days and spread over 46 square miles of Los Angeles urban sprawl. 4,000 armed troops were deployed to put down the unrest. There were nearly 3,400 arrests, 1,000 injured and 34 people were killed. 

But it was more than just a riot. It was a rebellion by a whole community. More than 30,000 people were said to have participated. 

The causes of the outburst were the causes of most urban riots: poverty, bad housing, police brutality and institutional racism. African Americans had long suffered these though. Would had changed?

The Civil Rights movement

The riots shocked America and the world. Was the US solving its race relations problems? Wasn’t the Civil Rights a non-violent movement?

The effects of the Civil Rights movement on the the country’s black population had been profound. 

After centuries of oppression they had stood up to fight back and actually won in the Deep South, rolling back the racist laws known as Jim Crow.

Starting in the early 1950s it had taken on the racist power structures of the former slave states using non violent action: boycotts, sit-ins, marches and vigils.

The situation had not remained non-violent. But the violence all came from one direction as the state unleashed baton-wielding cops with dogs and hoses. 

When this did not succeed they then turned a blind eye to white terrorism as members of the Klu Klux Klan reverted to the purpose they were originally created for – to keeping blacks down through terror. Bombings, kidnappings and shootings followed, as the killers struck with impunity.

But the movement maintained its discipline, and with the rest of the country and the world looking on the Federal government was forced to intervene in the South for the first time since the abandonment of Reconstruction in the 1870s.

New Federal troops were soon backed up by new Federal laws as Congress passed legislation on civil and voting rights. 

Civil Rights’ partial victory

Much of white America then congratulated itself and felt that the system had worked, an injustice had been corrected. All would now be well. The reaction of black Americans was different though.

On the one hand they had been inspired by the movement they had built and the gains that had been won. Their rights as citizens and humans had at last now been acknowledged by a country that had denied them for so long.

However when blacks in the South tried to use their new legal rights, such as to vote, they found that obstacles remained.

New campaigns were started, such as in Selma, Alabama, (the subject of a recent film) but the powers that be were losing interest and were closing ranks again. They had gone as far as they were willing to go.

From heroes to villains, Marin Luther King and his fellow campaigners were now increasing labeled as Communists, and the FBI campaign against him intensified.

Segregation everywhere

Whatever the white people thought, black Americans knew that the country, it’s structures and institutions remained deeply racist. Society was still segregated from top to bottom and blacks excluded from any real power. 

This was as true in the north as in the Deep South. The discrimination might not be backed up by criminal law but there was a thicket of civil laws, unofficial bans and all too often open violence.

For decades after the Civil War the northern states had managed to keep blacks in the south, but as the twentieth century got started the flow of black migrants from Dixie to the cities of the north and west increased. These jumped during the two World Wars when the need for workers temporarily overcame northern scruples about employing or housing blacks.

Still the racism that had disfigured life continued. Lynchings and race riots became as common outside the south as in it. All blacks were kept in fear of all whites by these violent outbursts.

Amongst the worst of the race outrages were the Chicago race riot of 1919, in which 38 were killed and the Tulsa riot of 1921. The death toll in the latter may never be known but estimates start at the official 39 and range into the hundreds. Virtually the entire black section of the town was razed to the ground. These ‘race riots’ were in fact white mob attacks on black neighborhoods, they were often highly organized and could last days. They had more in common with eastern European pogroms than any riot. 

By the 1960s blacks were still at the bottom of the pile by every possible measure. Other minorities such as the Irish, Jews, and Italians had arrived, been discriminated against and then integrated in some way (though WASPs still remained on top). Blacks remained the great ‘Other’, never to be accepted.

Riots spread

Los Angeles, the great boom city of the West, was no different. Legal restrictions, white vigilantism, and police collusion with it, meant that blacks who had arrived to work in the war industries of the 1940s were restricted to two run-down neighbourhoods: Watts and Compton. With their overcrowded, squalid housing and high levels of unemployment, the new ghetto areas became a pressure cooker of disappointed hopes. All that was needed was for the police to turn up the heat for the place to blow.

And when Los Angeles blew the whole world paid attention. White America realized that things were really changing. Never before had black America challenged the state in this kind of way

It was not the first ghetto riot though of the sixties. There had been others. The year before Harlem had been rocked. This was followed by Rochester in up-state New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Philadelphia.

On each occasion they had grown in militancy. 

By the Watts rising rioting had become more selective. Stores owned by white “oppressors” who had ripped off customers or treated them badly were looted and burned, others owned by blacks or who gave credit were left.

The conditions in Watts however were present everywhere across black America. White police had oppressed and brutalised the communities they were supposed to protect for as long as anyone could remember. They did this because they were racists, and they did it because they could. As long people felt powerless to resist they would continue to do it. 

Suddenly people felt they could resist. They knew they the world was watching.

New radicalism

The Civil Rights movement was not the only inspiration for the newly militant black. They had also seen national liberation movements across the world, in Cuba, in Vietnam in Algeria and Kenya, take on, and beat, white colonialists. 

People had heroes other than Martin Luther King: people like Che Guevara, and new home grown radical leaders such as Malcolm X.

The growing radicalism was also a reaction to the difficult impasse the movement seemed to have reached. Even previously moderate leaders were looking for a new way.

They now saw the need to unite with other oppressed groups and started to organize in the north. They launched a poor people’s crusade to march on Washington.

Others were going in different directions

The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (better known as the SNCC, pronounced “snick”) had always been on the radical wing of the movement, leading actions such as the lunch counter sit-ins. 

Now it declared itself for Black Power: blacks needed to organise separately from whites who were blunting their radicalism, keeping blacks dependent; blacks had to free themselves, starting with their own minds. Cultural nationalism would be the starting point of a renewed struggle for freedom.

The way in which people were freeing their minds was reflected in language. The words invented by white people, such as ‘negro’ and ‘coloured’ were cast aside. People now became ‘black and proud’.

This cultural rebirth was important and a vital part of the movement, but others wanted to go beyond it. They were taking a more political and openly revolutionary position.

1966 also saw the foundation of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, by a small group of activists. It brought together most of the influences on the Black Power movement: cultural nationalism, guerrillism, Marxism and social action. In its 10 Point Program it demanded an overthrow of the racist structured of society, American capitalism and advocated armed self-defence of people from the state (a theme going back, ironically, to the American Revolution two hundred years before).

A series of incidents in the heady atmosphere of 1967 thrust it to national prominence and soon it had thousands of members and the support of large sections of the black population. 

Soon a quarter of Blacks were said to support them and they had the respect of millions of others. The Panthers terrified the powers that be, who would stop at nothing to destroy them.

The police cracked down everywhere and the FBI launched a massive campaign of infiltration and subversion. Soon dozens of the party’s leaders were dead, in prison or in exile.

The party’s failure was not all down to state repression though. They had grown rapidly, too rapidly, and their politics, a jumble of ideas, did not put them in a strong position to deal with the state’s pressure. They pursued a number of different strategies some of which were mutually contradictory: from ‘community organising’ to armed struggle, from Maoism to Afro-centrism. Some looked for allies in the Democratic party, whilst others wanted to start a guerilla war in the US, both dead ends. By 1971 the Panthers had effectively broken apart.

Unfortunately every other grouping on the rapidly growing US new left was to suffer a similarly rapid turnaround in their fortunes, and for similar reasons.

Detroit burns

The ghetto riot peaked in 1967 – 68 when mass outbreaks swept dozens cities, creating a real fear that the country was on the verge of a nationwide uprising by the black population.

In 1967 there were riots in Chicago, Newark and elsewhere. In July riots broke across New Jersey including in Newark were 23 people were killed, the vast majority black. Days later Detroit exploded.

Now synonymous with urban decay, in the 1950s and 60s the ‘Motor City’ was better known for feeding the nation’s insatiable desire for automobiles, produced out by its vast car plants. This industry had sucked huge numbers of black to work “on the line”.

This influx also inadvertently produced a cultural colossus as it became the centre of a production line for soul music pumped out by the legendary Motown label.

But the great car plants and the city itself was still characterized by institutional racism.

Housing remained in practice segregated, something enforced in part with violence. The city in 1943 had witnessed a ‘race riot’ in which 34 people died, of whom 25 were black, and 17 had been killed by the police.

So in June 1967 a routine police raid on a bar escalated rapidly into to a full scale urban uprising which, what it lacked in direction, it made up for scale and ferocity.

Some 10% of the black population was said to have taken part whilst another 25% described themselves as bystanders.

It went on for five days and hundreds of buildings were burnt whilst rioters took part in gun battles with police.

Martial Law was declared and first the National Guard, and then the Army, armed with tanks and helicopters, was sent in to put down the rioting. By the end 43 people were dead and 4,000 had been arrested.

Urban riots would continue to break out across the country peaking again with the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968 which provoked rioting in practically every major city.       

Setting the country alight

The riots deeply effected white America. 

Many recoiled in fear at the death and destruction. Even the mainstream media was forced to admit that they were the expression of an anger which had been brewing for a long time. 

They shocked the country out of its smug complacency about poverty and racism.

America in the 1950s had created an image of itself as the richest, freest, greatest society in the world. It simply closed its eyes to the conditions that many still lived in.

The riots shattered this image and exposed these problems. They also turned them into issues that had to be urgently addressed.

The ghetto risings and the growing black movement also radicalised many young white people.

It made them angry at their own society, and taught them that change in a society suffering from a crushing ruling class consensus, could only be brought about by direct, and if necessary violent, action spread through the student population.

By 1968 the great ghetto riots were coming to an end, but were being emulated by others. Waves of protest against the war in Vietnam were now bringing the country’s universities to a standstill. These would reoccur again and again, facing increasingly fierce repression, culminating in 1970 in the Kent State University massacre where National Guardsmen killed four when they opened fire on a demonstration.

Other oppressed people were also inspired to fight back – most unexpectedly amongst what were then still referred to as ‘homosexuals’. In the summer of 1969, a routine police raid on a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, tuned into a riot and then the birth of an entirely new identity.

When the cops raided the Stonewall Inn in June of that year instead of running away to hide their identity its patrons and people in the street fought back. Drag queens, street kids and gay men stoned the police and overturned their vans. The police heavy squad was sent in and there followed nights of violence. 

The Stonewall Riots created a new community. People cast aside the labels ‘queer’ and ‘homosexual’, and declared themselves to be gay and proud. Within weeks a press and organizations had appeared and a totally new movement was born.

Changing history

The riots changed American history. They represented a historic challenge to the ruling order. Millions of people in America and elsewhere identified with the rioters and supported them. Mass rebellion by a long oppressed group inspired many to take action themselves, of all different types.

History has not been kind to the riots however.

The consensus seems to be that they were the beginning of the end of the inner cities. Many argue that after the riots businesses and the white people, and the middle classes in particular, fled the cities for the surburbs.

This is of course to ignore practically everything else that happened after the riots: years of government inaction in addressing the issues that drove the riots such as police racism and brutality (what has changed after forty years?).

It also ignores the actions that really created the urban wasteland that is still so many American cities: the devastation of industry by Reagnonomics and the accompanying mass unemployment, a totally counterproductive war on drugs that caused the country’s nartcotics problem to spiral out of control, the demonization and criminalization of  black people and their mass incarceration.

All these things led to the social breakdown that afflicted the inner cities and black America. The victims are blamed for their own problems.

Still, many of the contradictions of the riots were contained in a confrontation between Martin Luther King and Watts’ residents when he toured the riot hit areas in 1965. He was surprised to find that the locals did not welcome his offer to mediate and shocked to hear them say that they had “won”. He asked them how they could say they won when 34 people had died and their community was gutted. They replied “We won because we made them pay attention to us.”

In the US all attempts at resistance have been met with repression and massive pressure form the state. The unions are weak and political system is, and always has been, dominated by two ruling class parties, both much to the right of our Tories. It is unsurprising when resistance bubbles to the surface it may take spontaneous and sometimes counterproductive forms.  Socialists however must always be on the side of the oppressed.

The fire next time?

The riots of the sixties presaged, and helped produce a period of social conflict and change when many of the structures of American society where challenged. African Americans are freer today than they were forty years ago, even if racism continues. This turbulent period also spawned many other movements such as the women’s movement and the LGBT movement which are still with us.

African Americans are still America’s most oppressed group in a society disfigured by racism, despite there being a black president. They have also been at the vanguard of struggles against the system.

We can only hope that the latest wave of struggles will sustain themselves and finally change America.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.