From Watts 65 to LA 92

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #903, April 20, 1997

This is the third in a series of commentaries by Bob Avakian on some features of the imperialist economy and the mood of the people.

WATTS '65 and L.A. '92

Look at the 1965 Watts rebellion--and more generally the urban rebellions of the mid and late '60s--and then look at the 1992 L.A. Rebellion. What's similar and what's different?

Well, obviously, what's similar is the overall social system and also the particular problem the rebellions took immediate and explosive shape around--which was the oppression of Black people, with a cutting edge expression of that being the question of police brutality and everything that we're all too familiar with in that regard. But there are also some significant differences between the rebellions then and now.

In L.A. 1992, there was much more of a multi-national character to the rebellion. You can look at that statistically: actually more Latinos were arrested than Black people, there were a number of Asians, and even something like 10 percent of the arrestees were white. This rebellion had a broader scope that way, even though the defining element was still the oppression of Black people. But it wasn't limited to that--there were other sections of the people who saw and took up the rebellion as their own.

Now, one thing this reflects is changes in Watts and more generally in South Central L.A. To my understanding, Watts is no longer an almost all Black area, the way it once was. For example, the high schools there generally have much more of a mix of Blacks and Latinos. In the '60s, you think of Jordan High-- that was essentially a Black high school. Today, in a number of high schools in South Central L.A. maybe a majority of the students are Latinos. Even in the housing projects-- I have been reading a lot of reports about different housing projects, including in L.A.--and it's clear that in the housing projects in Watts and South Central L.A. there are both Mexicans and other Latinos as well as Black people. There are a lot of contradictions among these masses, which the bourgeoisie is trying to exacerbate. They're trying to create and heighten antagonisms among the people. But it is clear that, as compared with the '60s, it's a different situation now--in terms of who lives in the projects or who goes to the schools, in South Central L.A., and even in Watts, while at the same time there are some real and basic similarities.

Another indication of the significant differences, and a very important dimension to all this, is the way the ruling class reacted to the '92 Rebellion, as compared with how it responded to the Watts '65 and generally the urban rebellions of the '60s.

Rebellion Appreciation

What's similar and what's different?

In '92 there was the beauty of the spectacle of the ruling class scrambling to get on top of and suppress the rebellion, while also politically maneuvering in relation to it. And, of course, an essential similarity is that, as its "bottom line," the ruling class responded to the rebellion, as it has to every major rebellion, with the armed force and violence of the state.

But sometimes the masses don't appreciate their own achievements. So we should take time, not only to appreciate them ourselves, but to remind the masses of their own achievements--in order to raise their morale, but also to give them a sense of their own revolutionary potential. Sometimes the masses miss this, and we should bring this to them.

In 1992 we had this beautiful spectacle of the head of state of U.S. imperialism, George Bush, having to get on the TV--CNN and what all--and everywhere in the world you could watch George Bush quiver and quake and talk out of both sides of his mouth and temporarily retreat and back-step even while he was brandishing his sword. This was a really beautiful spectacle. Beauty is also a class question, and to the proletariat all over the world this was a truly beautiful spectacle. And obviously the '92 L.A. rebellion had a tremendous impact on every strata and all aspects of U.S. society and the world, in at least as powerful a way as any of the rebellions in the '60s.

Again, it's important for the masses to take account of their own achievements. Look at all the effects of this rebellion. First of all, the Police Chief, the notorious Gates, is gone. He wasn't replaced by anybody better, but so what, he had to go. The Mayor had to go. The system was forced to hold a federal trial of the cops who beat Rodney King for civil rights violations--and Powell and Koon were found guilty and had to do a little time. Then when they got around to having the first O.J. Simpson trial, the reason they had it in downtown L.A.--and therefore got the kind of jury they did--was they were afraid of the consequences coming off the rebellion if they had it out in Santa Monica or whatever.

A lot of times the masses don't even have the sense of what they have achieved, or they get worn down by bourgeois propaganda offensives and are made to forget their tremendous achievements. They may forget--or not have a clear enough sense of how they made George Bush get up there and talk out of both sides of his mouth and shake and quiver even while trying to bluster and threaten.

The ruling class did have to talk in terms of concessions for awhile, but on the other hand, they didn't come across with even the same kind of concessionary things that they did in response to the Watts Rebellion and other urban rebellions in the '60s. At that time, they did a lot of talking and they made a lot of promises that they didn't fulfill, of course, but although a lot of it was empty talk, they did do some concessionary things--qualitatively more than they did in relation to the '92 L.A. rebellion. And the concessions they made in response, not just to the '65 Watts rebellion, but to the many, many urban rebellions of that time and more broadly to the '60s upsurges overall, had a lot to do with building up the Black middle class. But this time around, they have not come across with the same kinds of concessions. (They brought out this fossil, Peter Ueberroth, ran him around talking out of the side of his mouth about the "Rebuild LA" project and all this kind of stuff, but nothing really came of it. "Rebuild LA" just kind of fizzled, because there wasn't the material basis, and therefore there wasn't the political intent and will on the part of the ruling class, to even carry out that kind of program.)

Never Fight the Next War Like the Last One

This calls to mind the Nightline show where Ted Koppell was interviewing some masses from South Central who expressed the expectation that there would be the same kinds of concessions this time as there were after the '65 Watts rebellion. And this also calls to mind an important principle of warfare: never fight the next war like the last one.

This principle has application more generally. Never expect even things that look similar to events in the past to play themselves out the same way this time around. Very quickly this time around, it became clear that, as opposed to what happened in the '60s, the ruling class was not coming across with any significant concessions. There was no substance to the promises they made and the initial show they made (with Ueberroth and all) about addressing the poverty and desperate conditions in the inner cities. It became clear that they intended to deal with these conditions only with a combination of "neglect" and, above all, intensified police-state repression.

At a time when the ruling class is tearing up the whole Roosevelt New Deal social contract, as well as the whole "war on poverty" social contract--there are not going to be any major concessions. And this has been made even more clear with things like the passage of a "welfare reform" bill, signed by Clinton, which is part of a whole ruling class attack on the very concessions that were made in response to the '60s upsurge.

What will be the effect of this on the masses and in particular what will be the effect, politically and ideologically, on people who were expecting, or hoping for, some kind of concession? The effect will obviously be to anger people, and to disabuse people of certain illusions. But also this can be disorienting and somewhat paralyzing in the short run, and the more so to the degree that you have these expectations. And I think there was a lot of mass expectation with the '92 L.A. rebellion, as there was in the '60s, that if you raise enough hell the ruling class will have to do something--they will have to listen, they will have to do something to alleviate some of this shit. But very little is being done in that direction--and a great deal is being done in the opposite direction.

In a sense it is strategically favorable that the ruling class does not have the reserves to make any real concessions of this kind, but tactically it poses difficulties, because it does increase the hardship and the desperation of the basic masses and this has a contradictory impact on the consciousness and the morale of the masses of people. I think things like this are important for us to be very acutely aware of, in order to have a deep and all-around grasp of the situation we are working in, and obviously it is also important to be constantly learning more about this.

Now does this mean then that the New Day we have talked about, in the wake of the L.A. rebellion, is not real after all? No, quite the contrary. It is very real and it is of profound importance. It has profound implications. But it is occurring in a different context, precisely a new context--it is a New Day, not the old day in the present time.

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