The Anatomy of A Rebellion

Against the Current, No. 84, January/February 2000

Paul Ortiz

Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s by Gerald Horne (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1995) Carter G. Woodson Institute Series in Black Studies, $16.95 paperback.

“All Negroes are aware of the mass of lies on which the prejudice is
built, of the propaganda which is designed to cover the naked exploitation.”—C.L.R. James (1938)1

THE FIRST TIME I traveled to Los Angeles with a comrade of mine in the labor movement, I had one of those sharp educational experiences that cannot be replicated in the classroom.

We had driven twenty-four hours straight down the coast from Seattle to attend a labor conference in LA and didn’t have any lodging.

When a couple of local people asked us where we were staying that evening we replied that we would just pull our car next to a park and catch some sleep. Horrified, our new friends told us bluntly that “The Los Angeles Police (LAPD) will pull you out of your car, kick the shit out of you and then arrest you.”

This grim assessment of the LAPD was corroborated in the wake of the 1992 LA riots by a local fifth-grade teacher who told historian Mike Davis that: “In the area where I work, the LAPD is a sadistic occupying army.”2

Laughing at our incredible stupidity, two total strangers offered us the use of their office to sojourn for the evening. We slept safe and sound and lived to attend the conference.

But most working-class people in the twenty-square-mile district of Watts-Willowbrook in 1965 did not enjoy such privileges. By this time, they had experienced decades of brutal treatment meted out by a police force notorious the world over for its repressive practices.

In Fire This Time, a disturbing and powerfully-written book, Gerald Horne, professor of history, and director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, quotes a former officer of the LAPD who recalled that “Some officers randomly and arbitrarily beat and tortured black men, even those who were not suspected of anything. `Bending fingers back, twisting ears, tightening handcuffs into medieval torture devices, slamming the victim’s head into the door while placing him in a vehicle,’ were some of their milder techniques.” (135)

A municipal judge in San Bernadino told riot investigators that “When I review a person’s criminal record for any purposes, I give no weight whatsoever to a Los Angeles felony arrest unless it is followed by a conviction, since in my opinion, it frequently means merely that the defendant was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is said to be particularly applicable to Negroes.” (149)

For decades, the police in Los Angeles had been known for their organized “Red Squads” and anti-labor violence. Indeed, Professor Horne notes that “It was difficult in the 1930s to circulate propaganda, appear on a picket line, or hold a radical play without being battered by the Los Angeles Police Department.” (6)

What Sparked the Watts Uprising?

Given this long history of state repression, it only seems logical that the “spark” that started the Watts Riots involved a confrontation between California Highway Patrol officers and an African-American motorist, Marquette Frye, on August 11, 1965. After Mr. Frye’s mother arrived on the scene and began to argue with the officers, both she and her son were roughed up and arrested.

According to Horne, rumors that Rena Frye had been further brutalized by the police (plausible given the sordid history of police interactions with Black citizens) helped to further enrage African-American men in particular.

Seeking to draw together the threads of race, class and gender throughout this book, Gerald Horne argues that: “The patriarchal, though comprehensible, complaint emerging from slavery that black men could not protect their families and `their’ black women apparently enkindled a major twentieth-century insurrection.” (55)

But there were larger reasons why African Americans rebelled in Los Angeles. Gerald Horne draws from a remarkably rich and diverse collection of primary materials (including the Papers of the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and The Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations papers) to paint a picture of a city that had become increasingly hostile to its Black working-class population.

In common with other central cities of the urban North—like Chicago and Detroit—Los Angeles was even then undergoing a slow yet devastating process of deindustrialization that ratcheted the African-American unemployment rate up to epidemic levels.

Marta Russell observes that “Capitalism has certain disadvantages, among them that many people are impoverished against their will.”3 While most historians of the civil rights movement have ignored A. Philip Randolph’s prescient warning at the 1963 March on Washington that “profit-geared automation” was wiping out jobs and civil rights gains in Black communities, African Americans in Los Angeles could ill afford such naiveté.4

In common with their counterparts in the urban North, the Black working class in LA was caught in a vicious cycle of automation, unemployment, underemployment and job discrimination which made the ages-old street-corner “shape-up” for day labor a degrading and painful experience.5

Gerald Horne notes though that the same “men on corners could just as easily be transformed in August 1965 to fathers and husbands deciding to seize goods for their families.” (248)

To compound this severe economic crisis, Mayor Sam Yorty had long blocked the flow of federal anti-poverty funds into LA thus “emulating Alabama’s Governor George Wallace, figuratively [standing] in the door of City Hall blocking the distribution of federal antipoverty funds from Sargent Shriver’s Office of Economic Opportunity to Watts and other poverty-stricken neighborhoods. For the combative Yorty it was a question of right-wing philosophy and real concern about where money would flow, who would supervise the flow, and what strengthened constituencies would result.” (52)

In its feverish efforts to explain the Watts Riots to the rest of the world, the U.S. government published an internationally distributed tract that placed a major share of the blame on Yorty’s fellow administrators.6 But Gerald Horne is also careful to note that private capitalists did their share to make the city a living hell for many of its Black residents.

Like their counterparts in other American cities after World War II, banks, savings and loan institutions and real-estate agents conspired to deny African Americans access to the kinds of loans, long-term mortgage plans and residential choices that fueled white suburban prosperity across the country.7 A UCLA residential study published a year before the riots noted the “’tendency for non-whites to have had [to make] a relatively higher down payment than whites’ for housing.” (52)

Horne observes that the federal government itself was complicit in these racist practices: “Following the lead of the Federal Housing Administration, savings and loans associations refused loans to blacks in white neighborhoods; in 1940 the FHA underwriting manual contained requirements that discriminated against Blacks and made the adoption of racially restrictive covenants a condition for FHA insurance of new construction.” (31)

Because many of the region’s aircraft and other manufacturing plants were located in suburban districts, this enforced residential segregation physically separated African Americans from an increasingly-shrinking pool of union-wage jobs.

Many smaller local businesses took advantage of a population that was tied down and locked into a residential ghetto. “To understand fully the breadth and depth of the revolt,” Horne argues, “it is necessary to understand the role of business. Some businesses overcharged customers or disrespected patrons; others were the repository of the commodities that were either necessities or the symbols of self esteem.” (111)

A California Department of Industrial Relations official lamented that “’Like a plague of locusts, door-to-door salesman, collectors, customer peddlers and others that are generally classified as the “suede shoe boys” prey’ on South LA residents.”

Exorbitant rates of interest on loans and credit gouging further pinched African-American household budgets. When the Watts Uprising commenced, there was a logic to it that was anchored in the lived experiences of Black residents.

Churches, schools, libraries and residential areas were mainly spared while numerous businesses, large and small were targeted for arson. However, “In the larger stores, department stores and clothing stores the first target was the credit records. These were destroyed before the place was burned.” (65)

As the riot progressed, small businesses that had acquired positive reputations in their neighborhoods seemed to have been passed over, but as the flames burned out of control, such fine distinctions were sometimes blurred. For these reasons, Horne characterizes the Watts Uprising as “. . . no mindless riot but rather a conscious, though inchoate insurrection.” (3)

This contrasts sharply with the assessment of the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots (known as the “McCone Commission”) who claimed that “The rioters seemed to have been caught up in an insensate rage of destruction.”8

The Cold War and the Watts Riot

Besides giving us what is now easily the finest book-length description of the chronology, context and causation of the Watts Riots, Professor Horne introduces a number of provocative arguments that should fuel debates in academic as well as in activist circles. Horne is adamant about one thing: The groundwork for the Watts Uprising was laid by the destruction of leftist political, legal and labor organizations in Southern California in the wake of World War II.

Citing the disintegration of the Civil Rights Congress, Horne argues that “The CRC provided a visible channel through which people could join together across racial lines to combat bigotry in a militant fashion; moreover, it was a living and graphic reminder that there were numerous nonblacks of goodwill who were willing to fight racism generally and police brutality against blacks specifically.” (7-8)

Equally disastrous, the Red Scare in the 1950s pushed the NAACP and other civil rights organizations into more conservative directions, further alienating them from an increasingly distant African-American working class that seethed with resentment at “out of touch” leaders. This interpretation sets Gerald Horne apart from a school of liberal scholarship on the civil rights movement that emphasizes the “openings” that the Cold War created for civil rights organizations to press for equal justice.

The price for such a claim however was a disavowal of class struggle (or even its pale sibling “economic justice”) in return for formal equality. Simultaneously, Horne presses an argument throughout the entire book that the decline of left-wing organizations and industrial unions in southern California left a void that gangs, the Nation of Islam, and cultural nationalists filled.

The role of federal, state and local authorities in crushing leftist organizations, Black Communists, and eventually, the Black Panther Party in LA and elsewhere Horne insists, shows that state authorities were more willing to deal with youth-based gangs and narrow Black nationalist formations than they were with militant interracial organizations. If the burgeoning prison-industrial complex is any indication, than Horne is absolutely correct.

White elites and a certain kind of Black nationalism could even find common ground in the notorious Moynihan Report that essentially called for African-American men to copy white male patriarchal behaviors in their relationships with Black women.

The timing of the Report was a godsend for the various investigative commissions that came into being in the wake of the 1960s urban rebellions, as Moynihan’s findings took local and state authorities off of the hook for the miserable living conditions that created anger in Black communities.”

For those less interested in grappling with difficult questions of housing and education,” Horne states, “the black family was an easier hook on which to hang the problems of South LA.” (231)

Horne’s point is borne out by sampling the work of riot-era sociologists (perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of the riots according to the author) who used patriarchal sociology to attack African-American women as mothers for supposedly ignoring their young boys in favor of their daughters and creating a “tangle of pathology.”

Blair Justice’s flawed study of the riots is typical in claiming that “The sons, in turn, become embittered in their hunger for attention. Many turn to the streets and violence.”9 This kind of reasoning colored the “McCone Commission” summary and, along with the Vietnam War, ensured that little of substance would be done to address the social and economic conditions that fueled savage inequality.

When the insurrection began, rebels and reactionaries alike invoked the looming specter of the war in southeast Asia. “If I’ve got to die, I ain’t dying in Vietnam, I’m going to die here,” declared one riot participant and many other insurrectionists echoed these sentiments. (59)

LAPD Chief William Parker stated that “This situation is very much like fighting the Viet Cong,” as his precinct stations were deluged with calls and false alarms designed to confuse police dispatchers. For its part, the McCone Commission invoked Vietnam in 1965 to ensure that Governor Pat Brown’s idea of creating a massive job-creation program would be safely undermined. (“Obviously such a program is bound to encounter tough sledding in Washington, especially as the Vietnam costs escalate . . . .”)10

What began as an African-American working-class riot quickly became a police riot. Horne pieces together an enormous number of affidavits and coroner’s reports to paint a horrifying picture of a police force carrying its imperative to guard private property to the most extreme lengths. Every police murder was sanctioned by the state as “justifiable homicide, “ and victims were gunned down for stealing shoes.

Horne, a careful historian, notes a precedent for this brutality: Between 1962 to the eve of the Watts Riot, “there were sixty-five inquests involving homicide by officers during that time, and only one ended with a verdict other than justifiable homicide, a case `in which two officers “playing cops and robbers” in a Long Beach Police Station shot a newspaperman.’” (68) Soon, the police were reinforced by trigger-happy National Guardsmen who “blazed away `over the tops of cars and anything else that moved in the curfew area.’” (82)

The Aftermath

Gerald Horne argues that the aftermath of the insurrection produced mixed results for its protagonists. Some observers and riot participants credited the uprising with producing greater solidarity within the African-American community. Horne however, asserts that this “solidarity” sometimes carried overtones of a heightened Black masculinity that

“. . . signaled the acceleration of a Black nationalism laced with a spiraling masculinity that was to continue through the 1990s.” (341)

While state officials did grant limited concessions to African Americans in south LA, there was an overall fear that such programs would be viewed as “rewarding” riot participants. There were limited gains in employment programs and community centers. A new hospital was constructed. But the pace of deindustrialization quickened and GM, Firestone, Goodyear and Kaiser Steel closed up shop and left behind a devastated region.

Fire This Time is an impressive work of scholarship and an impassioned plea to revive a tradition of left-led organizing that reaches across lines of race and sex. It is also a work that places the urban crisis in a larger international political and economic context—a much needed corrective to the existing scholarship on urban insurrection in the United States. It is important to note that shortly after Horne’s book was released, it was subjected to a derisive, red-baiting review by former U.S. Senator Fred Harris in the 1996 Journal of American History.

Harris, who served on the Kerner Commission, accuses Horne of defining the “left” solely in “Marxist-Leninist” terms, an absurd accusation. What Harris seems to be disturbed by the most is Professor Horne’s insistence that issues of class, political power and political economy must be accorded central place in understanding the origins and the aftermath of the Watts Riot.

To do so, however, is to question the ability of capitalism to sustain a healthy polity—an absolute heresy in the era of free market hegemony. What may have bothered Harris the most—in 1965 and now—is that many of the riot participants whom Gerald Horne quotes framed their actions as an insurrection against “the system” rather than against all white people. They defined that “system” as including elements of the police, the business sector, even many of their own Black “leaders” who they believed had sold them out for upward mobility.

Critiques such as these generate the potential for new social revolutions and the possibility of the redistribution of wealth. This is exactly the outcome that the Kerner Commission, the McCone Commission and other such commissions organized in the wake of the urban riots of the 1960s mobilized to quash, but it is exactly what is needed to avoid even bloodier insurrections in the future.


  1. C.L.R. James, “A History of Negro Revolt,” Fact (September 1938), 66.
  2. Mike Davis, “Who Killed Los Angeles? Part Two: The Verdict is Given,” New Left Review, 199 (May-June 1993), 39.
  3. Marta Russell, “Productive Bodies and the Market,” Left Business Observer (November 9, 1999), 2.
  4. Militant African-American workers in Detroit referred to automation as “Niggermation,” for the awful toll it took on workers’ bodies and jobs. See: Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. A Study in Urban Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975), 101-102.
  5. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (known as the “Kerner Report”) noted in 1968 that “In disadvantaged areas, employment conditions for Negroes are in a chronic state of crisis.” See: The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders Report, 257.
  6. For a sampling of this tract, see: Jerry Cohen and William S. Murphy, Burn, Baby, Burn! (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1966), 190.
  7. For a compelling sketch of this process in Detroit see: Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
  8. The Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, “Violence in the City—An End or A Beginning,” (December 2, 1965), 1.
  9. Blair Justice, Violence in the City (Leo Potisham Fund: Texas Christian University Press, 1969), 81.
  10. McCone Commission Report, 41. Just a few weeks earlier, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leaders had issued their famous anti-war declaration stating that African Americans should refuse to “fight in Vietnam for the white man’s freedom, until all the Negro people are free in Mississippi.” See: Manning Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1982 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984), 93. This anti-war sentiment in African American communities was strong throughout the urban North. Anthropologist John Langston Gwaltney discovered as much when he interviewed Black informants for his classic work: Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America (New York: Random House, 1980).

ATC 84, January-February 2000