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What I saw in watts 50 years ago and what I see in America’s Watts today

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

A couple of friends and I stood transfixed with hundreds of others on the corner several blocks from my house in South L.A. watching what seemed like a horrid page out of Dante’s Inferno. But this wasn’t the classic writer’s epic poem. This was real life. Liquor stores, a laundromat and two cleaners blazed away. There was an ear-splitting din from the crowd’s shouts, curses and jeers at the police cars that sped by crammed with cops in full battle gear, shotguns flailing out of their windows. There was an almost carnival air of euphoria among the roving throngs as packs of young and not so young persons darted into the stores snatching and grabbing anything that wasn’t nailed down. Their arms bulged with liquor bottles and cigarette cartons.

I was 18, and there was almost a kid’s mix of awe and fascination watching this. For a brief moment there was even the temptation to make my own dash into one of the burning stores. But that quickly passed. One of my friends kept repeating with his face contorted with anger: “Maybe now they’ll see how rotten they treat us.” By the “they” he meant “the white man.” My friend’s words were angry and bitter. The words were bitter and in that bitter moment he said what countless other blacks felt as the flames and the smoke swirled around me.

The events of those days and his words still remain burned in my memory on the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots this August. I still think of the streets that we were shooed down by the police and the National Guard during those hellish days. They’re impossible to forget for another reason.

A half century later some of those streets look as if time has stood still. They are dotted with the same fast food restaurants, beauty shops, liquor stores, and mom-and-pop grocery stores. The main street near the block I lived on then is just as unkempt, pothole-ridden and trash littered. All the homes and stores in the area are all hermetically sealed with iron bars, security gates and burglar alarms.

In taking a hard look at what has changed in America’s Watts in the half century since the Watts riots, the name of Marquette Frye, the then-20-year old motorist whose arrest sparked the riots, has been replaced by these: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford and Sandra Bland. They have one thing in common with Frye. They were young, black, and like Frye, became the national poster names for police victimization of blacks. The clock on this chronic national plague has seemingly stood still. However, this is only one benchmark of how much or how little progress has been made since the Watts riots on confronting racial ills and poverty in America.

Certainly many blacks have long since escaped from the corner in South L.A. such as the one I stood on amidst the flames and chaos a half century ago. Their flight was made possible by the avalanche of civil rights and voting rights laws, state and local bars against discrimination and affirmative action programs that for many blacks crumbled the nation’s historic racial barriers. The parade of top black appointed and elected officials, including one president, the legions of black mega-millionaire CEOs, athletes, entertainers, and the household names of blacks from Oprah to Bob Johnson is unarguable further proof of that.

However, there’s the other hard reality that more blacks still languish on corners like the one I stood on in August, 1965. For them there has been no escape. A comparative look at conditions in Black America in 1965 and today tells their tale.

*In 1965 black adult joblessness stood at 10.98 percent, for teens it was 29 percent; in 2015 for black adults it stands at 12.6 percent, for teens 41 percent.

*In 1965, 76 percent of black students attended segregated schools; in 2015 the figure is 74 percent. In 1965, 20 percent of blacks were in single parent households; in 2015 the figure is 70 percent.

*In 1965, the wealth gap between black and white was a shade under $20,000; in 2015 it has leaped to more than $27,000. The black-white gap in homeownership has nearly doubled between 1965 and 2015. Today, nearly half of black children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. Overall, nearly one-third of blacks live in poverty; that’s a figure nearly triple that of non-Hispanic whites.

Then there‘s the issue that still remains the major flash point in racial relations in America. That’s the criminal justice system.

*In 1965, an estimated 35,000 blacks were in America’s state and federal jails; in 2015, the number has soared to more than half a million.

The gap between the two black Americas was brutally underscored in August, 1965, when at the height of the Watts riots, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Watts. He was jeered by a few blacks when he tried to calm the situation. But King did not just deliver a message of peace and non-violence; he also deplored police abuse and the poverty in Watts. Fifty years later, he would almost certainly have the same message if he came to South L.A. or any of the other Watts’s of America.

What I saw in Watts in 1965, and what I see in the Watts of America 50 years later stand as stark and troubling proof of that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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