More Than the Western Sky: Watts on Television, August 1965

Article excerpt

The flames of Watts illuminated more than the western sky.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

THE 1965 WATTS REVOLT was the first major episode of 19605 urban unrest. For a week in August, African Americans took to the streets of South Central Los Angeles. Police Chief William Parker and local television reporters worked together to present a unified interpretation of the revolt to the public. Both television and the police stressed their technological mastery and emotional distance. This stance was somewhat misleading, however. The police really didn't have a grip on the situation, and public spokesmen revealed white fears, angers, and fantasies about race even as they tried to conceal their own standpoints; indeed, this concealment is one marker of white privilege. Television news coverage reveals mid-twentieth-century constructions of race still relevant for an audience entering the twenty-first century. The segregated imagination of 1965 reportage echoes in the coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising and the 1995 O. J. Simpson trial.

This essay analyzes the KNXT (CBS Los Angeles) evening news broadcast (a.k.a. The Big News) for August 13, 1965, and compares its almost exclusively white perspective to the views of African American essayists and revolt participants. The broadcast purports to describe black emotions, but describes white emotions instead. The coverage provides an object lesson in the ways white people can choose either to see and hear black anger or, instead, to shut it down through "objective analysis" and "thorough coverage." Today, the news still presents African American communities primarily from outsiders' perspectives; as of April 2000, only 5.31 percent of daily newspaper journalists were African Americans (Fitzgerald 4). The historical distance of this "riot coverage," more than thirty-five years ago, offers new perspective on a racial divide still sharp and fresh in the contemporary world.

Segregated Geographies

A divide in responses to the Watts revolt reflects the racial gulf in Los Angeles and America. One's standpoint even determines the name of the event: was it hooliganism, a declaration of equality, a riot, a revolt, or an uprising? The white police chief and newscasters tend to view the event as random criminal chaos, and they respond with stances of rigid control. By contrast, black speakers and writers tend to see the revolt not as chaotic but as the logical outcome of white racism. They respond with prophecies of further destruction if racial inequality continues, and strive to draw connections between the history of injustice and the moment of revolt. I have divided this essay into three sections: "Space Age Television," "Space Age Policing," and "Prophecies of Destruction by Fire." The words "Space Age" refer to the detachment shared by the police chief and television news, a Spaceman's perspective on the Watts revolt. "Space Age" also refers to the fetishization of communications and surveillance technology, a fetishization that replaced a concrete understanding of events on the street.

The final section, "Prophecies of Destruction by Fire," challenges efforts to shut down the revolt's many meanings. The prophecy of destruction by fire is a rhetorical figure shared by both black and white observers, even if they interpret it differently. If only temporarily, this "unexpected" uprising breaks through efforts to routinize segregation. A suppressed knowledge of injustice emerges momentarily into a shared language: everyone knew this revolt was coming, even those from the white side of the street who hid the knowledge from themselves. The ability to hide such important knowledge indicates the power of segregation- a power still in force long after the Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts of the 1960s. In Los Angeles in 1993, 73.1 percent of African Americans still lived in segregated neighborhoods and encountered great difficulty in obtaining housing elsewhere (Minerbrook 24). …