The Semiotics of the Watts Insurrection
By Danny Simon, Contributor
The Watts Rebellion began Aug. 11 and ended Aug. 17, 1965, after an altercation between a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s unit and a group of black citizens escalated violently.
Six days of fires, looting and violent confrontations between members of the black community, local law enforcement and the California National Guard that enforced martial law, left 34 dead and more than $40 million in property damages. Amid the ashes, the mass media rushed in to report from the newest war zone—not in Vietnam, but in the City of Angels.
For a brief moment, the nation was wide awake and its eyes moved to the plight of urban black America in the American West as never before — or since. Previously, black Los Angeles was largely ignored in the media, or occasionally covered by black journalists like retired Los Angeles City Councilman Robert C. Farrell. But the sensationalism surrounding the 1965 Watts Riots produced a rabid curiosity, which was partially satiated by popular books and articles that attempted to put the events into context. This happened while espousing a wide range of ideological positions on American history and culture. What is astonishing is the range of perspectives that this one event spawned, and that some writers actually took the time to ask the right questions and formulate answers that got to bigger truths. This in stark contrast to the limited McCone Report, the government’s investigation and report, which largely exonerated police officials and ignored structural poverty and racial segregation.
In A Journey into the Mind of Watts, a young Thomas Pynchon went to the streets and brought back some straight answers, a feat that seemed to mystify so many at the time. Systematic ghettoization, poverty and police harassment led a slim minority of the population of Watts to rebel against anything they could. Leave it to a surrealist fiction writer to be a rare clarion voice in the midst of so much pain and confusion. In A Prelude to a Riot, Paul Jacobs addresses the structural issues of race and poverty that led to the insurrection of poor urban blacks against a system that failed to address their concerns: police brutality, ghettoization, white ignorance, economic exploitation and general disregard for the black ghetto in Los Angeles and across the nation amid a period of economic prosperity. Jacobs concludes that unless America addressed those issues, more revolutions against the government and society would continue.
Was it a riot or was it a rebellion? Complexity may be a vice, however the semiotics of the telling and retelling of the event are varied and revealing.
The use of the the term “riot” connotes a lawless and chaotic disruption of the status quo, a plague set loose upon the innocent and civilized. Before 1965, ironically, race riots in America were the practice of white terrorists who attacked black communities. As the nation’s media cast its gaze upon Watts, multiple meanings were relayed and accepted. For segregationists, it was proof that integration was dangerous and containment of the black population was necessary; for the general viewing public, it was proof of distinct cultural differences. While some of the media sensationalism may have produced a short-lived form of sympathy, it did not create a form of empathy which would have demanded a historical recitation of inequities of race and class stemming from Jim Crow.
The use of the term “rebellion” connotes a concentrated effort by individuals within a group to strategically attack what they believe are either concrete or symbolic examples of exploitation and violence within their community. Fed up and tired of waiting for progress to arrive, black youth exploded and could not be contained by traditional leadership in the community. Black revolutionaries involved in the Watts rebellions found empowerment and international attention through violence and looting, a warning to a result of a nation riddled with inequity and too slow or simply unwilling to engage.
Whether the event was perceived as a riot or a rebellion depended on one’s place amid a deeply divided American society. The effects of separate but always unequal was largely ignored by most white Americans out of a habit of denial that continues to this day amid this supposed post-racial era. Mass incarceration of the poor and the militarization of law enforcement occlude the structural inequalities that remain from 50 years ago. But infected with historical amnesia, the next urban unrest will appear unexpectedly, cleaved from the past, though explanations of the event will have to be 140 characters or less.