THE STATE OF WATTS
Forty Years After the 1965 Revolt
By the Watts Renaissance Planning Committee
Timothy Watkins Sr., Co-Chair
As Watts enters its fortieth year anniversary of the 1965 Revolt, hope continues for a better future. A peculiar little place,Wattsis like the orphaned child that becomes a great communicator and world class symbol of perseverance. It is for reasons of pure tenacity and determination of its people that the place still exists, much as it has for the last 100 years. Watts…the rebellious child, challenging the world beyond its skimpy one-mile square borders, to acknowledge and respect its people….for people do survive and cooperate here despite perceptions of the world beyond Watts.
The people that sleep here know….that there are musicians, artists, inventors….along with doctors, lawyers, merchants….and then there are the lovers, haters and exploiters among us. For this is Wattsand its legacy; a poor place that has nurtured some of the worlds richest contributions to politics, science, sports, medicine and invention…. a poor place where rich human spirit thrives despite the failure of the longest fought war in American history: The War on Poverty.
It was through the absence of service, following the exodus of businesses and residents fromWattsafter the ’65 Revolt that solutions were sought to fill the void. The real need for education, justice, health care, employment, planning, housing and attention to culture and the environment compelledWattsin an unprecedented, trailblazing fashion.
Forty years later, not a lot has changed inWattsdespite the influx of untold millions of dollars and hard work. Also, despite the fact that when another riot, much broader and destructive, erupted in 1992, it was almost as ifWattsyawned. The riot surged and thrust huge throngs of people into the streets ofLos Angeles. But unlike the ’65 Revolt, this time it was more like a tsunami, with violence and destruction washing over Watts and rapidly dissipating. Sadly,’92 was without the profound sense of purpose that compelled change throughoutAmericaduring the decade following ’65. It was in ’65 that a slowly churning civil rights movement erupted with the birth of Black Nationalism and an end to the status quo……or so we thought.
Popular thinking at the time was that the War on Poverty could combat despair and hopelessness with a newfound commitment to “making things better” for people that had been abandoned and forgotten by the rest of society. The War was supposed to aim resources towards places like Watts, the Mississippi Delta, East Oakland and theBronxwhere hopelessness turned to desperation threatened to tear the very fabric of life away from other peaceful, stable communities. Relief is an odd friend to poverty. It reduces the pressure in the pot while the contents keep boiling. No less hot and constantly building again to the point that begs for relief; the chance to vent a little.
Members of the Planning Committee find themselves frustrated by American society’s seeming unwillingness to “turn off the fire under the pot”. The more we work, the more there is to do. Some people that work in Watts compare the syndrome to “building a bicycle while riding it”. Therefore, it is with a profound sense of urgency that we find ourselves seeking solutions to poverty while continuing to treat its symptoms.
In this light, we must stop to express appreciation for, and insight into the uphill battles that we manage in partnership with all of our friends in the struggle. It is our belief that within this very battle, reside the solutions to poverty. The imperative is to distinguish potential associated with sustainability rather than the minimalism of survival…the power associated with being enabled versus the obligatory permissions that ride with empowerment. Again, it is in this light, that we have stopped to assess and analyze the longest fought war in American history.
Many wonder, with all that has been waged on The War in communities like Watts, why so little seems to have been achieved. In fact, in too many ways, life has become decidedly worse. In reflecting on forty years of direct experience, we are convinced that “poor policy makes poor places”. This observation makes the distinction between “poor places” and “poor people” and allows us to hope for the return of human dignity to people living in places likeWatts, as it allows their potential as enlistees in The War to be examined.
If in fact, people suffering poverty conditions are diligently consulted, their relegation to the outskirts of The War can be reversed, making them full participants in the development of solutions to poverty. We can’t tolerate the argument that it is the individual responsibility of our neighbors to “propel themselves into the mainstream by pulling themselves up and out of poverty by the bootstraps”. More than fifty years of welfare has ruined generations of families by making them life-long dependents of governmental assistance. Therefore, we won’t be persuaded for we’re already convinced that without correction to poor public policy, no significant change to quality of life conditions in places likeWatts can occur. We are also convinced that over time, without correction to poor public policy, organizations that fight poverty will settle for simply treating the symptoms of poverty in frustration, having given up on the search for a cure.
Far too often in the community ofWatts, quality of life is directly impacted by the failure of unions to join in community advocacy. It seems that the point of “union” in places like Watts is missed. For the families of over 670,000 members of the American Federation of Labor in the County of Los Angeles, far more could be achieved if membership issues were set aside and human beings simply joined in support of one another. Every day, thousands of Watts area union families are provided with services that are meant to improve the quality of their lives. Through the unions, they are connected to tens and hundreds of thousands more. The challenge and the opportunity is before us to develop ties that bind between the millions of residents throughoutLos Angelesthat happen to be either directly, or indirectly connected to unions.
Reflecting on our collective experience, and after researching data on the subject of public policy in our community, statistics bolster our conclusions about life inWatts: Eight major policy areas suppress and undermine solutions to poverty. Many would say that there are more but these eight impact the broad spectrum of quality of life issues. They are education, health, housing, employment, justice, planning, and attention to culture and the environment. It is within these eight areas that pressures aggregate to the extent that makes life virtually unbearable in the community ofWattsand others like it.
With careful planning and full community participation, solutions to poverty can be identified by the people ofWatts. Ideas that have long been abandoned inWattscan once again emerge to solve old problems in a new stream of consciousness.
- In 1945, the United States Government Council on Race Relations commissioned a group of professors to study migratory patterns of Black and Brown people during the great migration that followed the abolition of slavery. The study was remarkable in that it was titled “The Problem of Violence” yet it focused on the conditions that drove abject poverty in Watts at that time. Ironically, it found that education, housing, employment, justice, planning and attention to local culture were the areas that needed to be addressed. Recommendations were provided at the close of the study.
- In 1965, the Governor of California commissioned a blue panel group of esteemed citizens headed by then Senator John McCone. The findings of the commission mirrored those of the study that was conducted forty years earlier. Recommendations were provided at the close of the study.
- In 1992, following the Los Angeles Revolt, Rebuild L.A. determined that many of the same conditions that were found in earlier studies, contributed to the wanton destruction and senseless violence that fueled the rebellion. Recommendations were provided at the close of the study.
- In 2005, the Urban League released a study that bolsters the conclusions of all previous studies. Recommendations were provided at the close of the study.
Little has changed and in fact, much has worsened.
The primary concerns on the minds of mostWattsarea citizens include the same group of negative conditions that were identified sixty years earlier. Therefore, why not take the recommendations from the studies produced over the past sixty years and implement them through a series of local accountability models. For the sake of the Watts Renaissance, let’s just call it Plan B, an assured implementation plan for all past recommendations that are deemed by the people ofWattsto be relevant and worthwhile as of 2005.
So as the world scrambles to tell its story about Watts….Forty Years After the Revolt, from an outside point of view, let this account stand as one from the inside ….one that reflects a consciousness of the damage done by poor public policy …and the unyielding determination of a community to end its poverty.
Copyright 2005, all rights reserved.