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.
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). A 1995 study argues, "The City of Angels has been less than angelic to African Americans, excluding their meaningful participation in everything from the 1984 Olympics to public contracting and employment" (Aubry 143).
In 1965, television coverage was newly widespread, and it played a major rote in the racial conflicts of the 19605. The Watts revolt seemed to affect all viewers, even though most people did not experience it directly. Because this mediated directness was new, people registered the paradox consciously. Viewers still noticed the oddness of seeing the same event from different locations. Television provided a new way for Los Angeles residents to map their city in all its unity and division. Screenwriter Budd Schulberg watched from Beverly Hills: "It was Black Friday, the 13th of August, 1965. Like millions of other dazed or complacent Los Angelinos, I was watching an unscheduled 'spectacular,' the damnedest television show ever put on the tube. Into our living rooms raged an element that is usually forbidden on television-life, and its dark, red underbelly, death" (1-2). Looters watched TV to find out where the police and fire departments weren't, and used those spots as their next targets (Home 322). Television fanned the flames of revolt. As Kenneth B. dark wrote in his landmark study of the ghetto: "The Negro lives in part in the world of television and motion pictures, bombarded by the myths of the American middle class, often believing as literal truth their pictures of luxury and happiness, and yet at the same time confronted by a harsh world of reality where the dreams do not come true or change into nightmares" (12).
Television displayed the distance between the deprivations of Watts and the affluence of the white 19605. However, Watts residents didn't need television to bring home the sharp divide between black and white Los Angeles. While the city's racial mixture was rich and complex, including substantial Chicano and Asian communities, the split between black and white in South Central L.A. was absurd in its utter starkness. In 1965, suburbia still lay on the immediate borders of Watts, a proximity that provided part of the explosive resentment. Watts was surrounded by pleasant, middleclass, "covenanted" neighborhoods, where deeds prohibited white homeowners from selling to African American buyers. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census of 1965 reported that housing in Watts was the most overcrowded, substandard, and overpriced in the metropolis (Fogelson, Violence as Protest 215). Sometimes the line between black ghetto and white suburb ran right down the middle of the street. The freeway system had only just begun to dominate the L.A. grid, which meant that white commuters in nice cars passed through the surface streets of Watts every day on their way to work.
In an era of unprecedented affluence, Los Angeles was "the luminous symbol of luxurious living for whites," while African Americans were locked out of the job market after their brief prosperity in the World War II defense industry (King 192). Racial discrimination in hiring had returned with a vengeance after World War Il (Sides 262). In the 19605, the Los Angeles defense industry had jobs to burn for white people, but few for blacks. "Nearly 70 percent of Los Angeles County's 650,000 blacks were packed into the riot area . . . [with] a jobless rate that was two to three times that of the surrounding white community. At the time of the upheaval, possibly 50,000 inner-city blacks and Mexican-Americans were out of work, and this despite an acknowledged shortage of skilled and semi-skilled workers" (Case 3). Significantly, the Watts revolt was a commodity riot, directed primarily at consumer goods unavailable to the unemployed and underemployed (Massey and Denton 58-9). As one young participant explained, "It seemed like fun at first, throwing rocks at Whitey's big new cars. We didn't aim to hurt nobody, just mess up the cars. At least, not at first. Then it seemed like the stuff we took was just there for us. If we didn't take it, somebody else would. But then it got to be not so much fun at all, just trouble" (qtd. in Bontemps and Conroy 277).
The news broadcast's camera angle on Watts is only one example of the many ways viewpoint becomes a contested issue. The Watts revolt arose from the utter contradiction in views between the residents of South Central LA. and the officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. A minor event became the last link in a long chain of painful history. To understand the revolt, one must understand the contradictory versions of history people saw when they looked at each other. But did opponents look at each other directly? The visual relationships of the Watts revolt differ greatly, depending on the source. Robert Conot's 1967 book, Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness, offers the most thorough and many-sided chronicle of events, on the ground and moment-by-moment. On August 11,1965, during the hottest summer on record, police officers stopped a young man near his home in Watts on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Conot reveals how the officers looked at the crowd of curious neighbors, saw them as a mob, and began to make indiscriminate arrests. The crowd looked at the police, saw decades of past abuse, and began to riot (Conot 3-29). August 13, the date of the local news broadcast under discussion here, was the crucial third day of the revolt. That evening, the National Guard arrived in Watts and the police began responding to the rebellion with force. The first eighteen of the revolt's thirty-four deaths happened between 5:45 p.m. on August 13 and 9:45 a.m. the following morning (Conot 243-304).
However, Conot's image of face-to-face interaction on the street is very different from the ocular distance of the TV news camera. With its sweeping glances at Watts, The Big News configures and reproduces the logic of racial segregation. In Los Angeles and across the nation, segregation "quarantines" the ghetto away from "the rest of us." The news distances viewers from Watts even as it claims to offer intimate knowledge of unfolding events. The camera presumes a monolithic white audience on the side of police authority, despite actual viewers' broad diversity of race and opinion. John C. Ellis has described how the "I" or "we" of broadcast W directly addresses the "you" of viewers. The people represented on screen become a distant "they." The TV camera's distant glances at "them" differ sharply from the fetishistic gaze of the movie camera.
Broadcast W uses sound to appeal to its audience, using a large degree of direct address whose function is to attract the look and attention of the viewer, and to hold it. The separation that this practice implies is different from that of cinematic voyeurism. It makes explicit a relationship between viewer and broadcast TV images, designating a TV first person singular or plural ('I,' 'we') and viewing second person ('you,' beautifully flexible in its lack of singular/plural difference). Together these first and second person designations can observe and speculate about third persons: 'he,' 'she,' 'they,'. . . The 'they' that is always implied and often stated in direct address forms becomes an other, a grouping outside the consensus that confirms the consensus. (Ellis 392)
This collusion between TV and imagined viewers characterizes The Big News and promotes distance from the subject filmed. The Watts community becomes the outsider who confirms the consensus among police, TV, and imagined audience. The news invites viewers into a whites-only virtual enclave of opinion contoured like the actual enclaves of the segregated city. The TV news camera glances voyeuristically Watts. In her famous study of visual pleasure, Laura Mulvey carefully distinguishes between voyeurism and fetishistic scopophilia: "voyeurism, on the contrary, has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt . . . asserting control and subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness."The cameras "portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing forthem a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy" (21-2,17). TV news looks voyeuristically and judgmentally at Watts, while reserving its loving fetishism for communications technology. Mechanisms of surveillance and control unite the police and media in a common perspective. The camera invites viewers to share their technology fetishism. At one point The Big News even watches TV over Chief Parker's shoulder. As a viewer I become the police chief, experiencing the revolt primarily through television, not directly on the street.
The Paradoxes of White Spectatorship
Of course, this neat alignment of camera, viewer, and police chief oversimplifies the paradoxes of broadcast news. The real fascination of The Big News lies in the ways the voiceovers, footage, and interviews contradict each other's ideologies. One central paradox is the reporters' desire to be distant from and close to Watts at the same time. One reporter pretends to have leapt over the walls of segregation without ever acknowledging their existence. He describes the revolt's physical threat to the bodies of white journalists, yet his report also presumes a disembodied ability to go everywhere and see everything. Another reporter's excited voice betrays his desire for a spectacle of destruction, despite his efforts at narrative control. A third reporter acknowledges long-term racial injustice, but contradicts this knowledge with expressions of surprise, indignation, and shock.
All broadcast segments claim objective distance from the revolt, even as they implicate themselves in structural racism. The revolt raises key questions of standpoint. Outsiders to Watts were not necessarily as distant from the revolt as they appeared. In a world of job discrimination, policemen, firemen, and news reporters were white (Aubry 149; Stein 10). These guardians of the public trust claimed standpoints of detached helpfulness. However, they worked within the segregated institutions that had helped to cause the riots. Under such circumstances, claims of professional distance or objectivity seem like comfortable illusions. In a race riot, everyone has a standpoint. Elizabeth Alexander's analysis of 1991-92 Los Angeles also applies to Watts in 1965. Alexander argues that it is impossible to watch footage of Rodney King's beating from a racially neutral position: "How does an incident like King's beating consolidate group affiliations by making blackness an unavoidable, irreducible sign which despite its abjection leaves creative space for group self-definition and self-knowledge?" (78).
Alexander addresses the black viewer's identification with black subjects on-screen. However, for non-black viewers as well, a race riot throws racial identity into relief. We viewers base our judgments of an event on our own past experiences, our prior definitions of order and truth, and our rage for justice or instinct for self-preservation. The KNXT news broadcast seems to assume a remote white viewer more concerned about personal safety than racial injustice. Elizabeth Alexander asks a question: can the viewing of racial conflict leave "creative space for group self-definition and selfknowledge?" We can look at this question in regard to white identity as well as black identity. Can white viewers, particularly those untouched by racism in their daily lives, respond to racial conflict with creativity and active engagement? In Alexander's words, can they acquire "the perspective of a witness rather than a spectator?" (83).
Space Age Television
The Big News evening broadcast for August 13, 1965, seems to promote spectatorship rather than witness. Even the opening credits declare the show's allegiance to a remote perspective, one that draws on the Space Age imagery of the 1960s. The imagery reminds viewers of L.A.'s preeminence in broadcasting and aerospace technology, both of which send American pride into "the limitless reaches of space. "The white reporter's view of Watts later in the broadcast will echo the distanced view of Earth featured in the opening credits. The broadcast begins with a view from the cosmos, stratospheric mists crossing in front of the camera. Penetrating swirling stars and floating flakes, the camera reveals a hard-edged, schematized picture of the planet, and in a burst of Cold War hubris, the United States takes up the entire hemisphere. A dot on the map indicates Los Angeles, with circles radiating concentrically. Accompanied by timpani rolls and telegraph beeps, the announcer's voice rumbles portentously: "From Man's new frontier, the limitless reaches of space, from the world we live in, from the United States of America, from Los Angeles, comes the story of today, The Big News. The most complete news report by the most distinguished team of reporters in Los Angeles television."
The opening credits narrow down in a funnel shape from "the limitless reaches of space" to "the most distinguished team of reporters" in a particular American city. The reporters' excellent credentials seem to provide a kind of mastery over cosmic chaos. Furthermore, The Big News begins by looking down at Los Angeles from above, from outer space. In the mid-1960s, the view from above was a new and important angle on Los Angeles. A cluster of recent technologies, including the space program, the freeway overpass, and the helicopter camera, allowed people to look down on Los Angeles either literally or imaginatively (Banham 88, 91). Saul Halpert's lead story on the day's looting and arrests in Watts follows the same funnel shape as the opening credits, moving from an aerial view down to a particular corner in Los Angeles. The sequence begins with silent helicopter footage of smoke blowing across the street grid of Watts, followed by a long aerial shot of a building on fire. "The sprawling ghetto that is much of Watts, where one out of every three adults is unemployed, and sixty percent of the people are on some form of welfare, presented the shocking spectacle of a battle zone this afternoon. It was a community on fire, the fires of frustration and hate, igniting conflagrations that spewed flame and billowing smoke high into the air. Big News cameraman Sam Greenwald filmed these scenes from a helicopter. Other choppers were shot at as they tried to fly over. . . ."
Like the Space Age perspective of the opening credits, this aerial view seems tailored to distance the viewer from the people of Watts. Halpert shifts attention away from the residents' poverty, frustration, and hatred in the same moment he mentions them. The community itself, ratherthan individual human beings, seems to be responsible for the trouble. The news sequence begins like a narrative film, moving from distant establishing shots to closer views (Karlyn). Unlike a narrative film, however, the camera stops short of fetishizing particular people's bodies or faces. Rather, the geography of Watts serves as the object of the gaze. Watts itself becomes a fabulous monster, igniting fires and spewing flames. Without help from people, Watts presents itself as a "shocking spectacle." The distanced aerial footage suggests this impersonal notion to both the narrator and the viewer. A vast low-density grid of streets and buildings fills the screen in the opening shot. This picture suggests the words "sprawling ghetto" to Halpert. Sprawl is no more characteristic of Watts than of many other parts of Los Angeles, but combined with the other inflammatory terms, "sprawling ghetto" seems to suggest an area out of control, like the swirling cosmos of the opening credits. Also like the opening, Halpert's story proposes the expertise of the news team as a form of mastery over chaos. The main character here is not a Watts resident, but Sam Greenwald, the Big News cameraman who bravely got these shots despite the threat of gunfire. Clearly, Halpert expects viewers to identify with Greenwald and to fear for his safety. This presentation turns our attention away from wondering why Watts is a ghetto and why people there are poor, frustrated, and angry.
Even on the ground, the reporter and cameraman deliberately distance themselves from the residents of Watts. After the helicopter's bird's-eye view, the next shot comes from the corner of wyd and Brandee, street signs clearly visible. This footage is also silent, probably filmed from inside the KNXT camera car. Carrying loot from ransacked stores, the people of Watts glide noiselessly by the camera like fish in an aquarium. This is Mulvey's "hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy" (17). The Big News team does not gather information from the people filmed. Rather, the journalists "learn" only from the police, not from community members or other African American leaders. "Liquor stores in the area were raided and pawnshops were stripped, as Big News reporter Jim Brown learned when he talked to an officer at the 77th Street station." This on-camera interview is startlingly loud and intimate compared to the previous footage. Not only does it have sound, it is also the first direct interaction between two people, in or out of the newsroom. To echo John C. Ellis' argument, the direct address of sound pulls us closer to the reporter/police and further away from the people of Watts.
The high proportion of silent, distanced footage derives in part from journalists' concerns for their own safety. It probably would have been dangerous for a white reporter to come down from the skies or out of the camera car on August 13 to interview African Americans on the streets of Watts. Indeed, the previous evening an ABC News truck had been overturned and set on fire. Reporters had been singled out for attack and beaten, along with white motorists in general (Conot 188). However, Saul Halpert's opening report establishes a degree of separation from its subject that transcends practical concerns.
For example, KNXT also had on-the-ground, up-close sound footage of the riots from the same afternoon, footage much more dramatic than the silent film chosen to lead off the report. The next segment will convey both the sights and the sounds of looters running out of a liquor store carrying bottles, of fire trucks rolling with sirens blaring, of firemen aiming hoses at burning buildings-not to mention shockingly vivid scenes of car-burnings and arrests from the previous night. Why, then, choose the silent footage to begin The Big News'! The answer lies in the relationship between this opening filmed sequence and Halpert's introductory comments in the studio: "Jerry, as we drove south on Avalon Boulevard this morning on our way to the heart of the Watts business district, the barrage of rocks began at iosth Street. Young people, many of them boys only twelve and thirteen years old, stood along the curbs and rained their missiles on the KNXT camera car. Fortunately, no glass was broken."
According to Av Westin, former executive producer for CBS News, "Is my world safe?" is the first question any news broadcast should answer (Westin 62). Confronted by rock-throwers, reporter Saul Halpert answers that question on a very personal level. Halpert expects viewers to disapprove of broken glass and to ask "Is my world safe?" along with him. While reassuring us that no glass was broken, however, Halpert also diverts attention from the main question: Why have thousands of people taken to the streets?1 Halpert sounds vaguely indignant as he reads the words "many of them boys only twelve and thirteen years old," but the target of his indignation remains unclear. As Robert Stam notes, "The rhetoric of network diplomacy, consequently, favors a kind of oracular understatement, cultivating ambiguity, triggering patent but deniable meanings, encouraging the most diverse groups, with contradictory ideologies and aspirations, to believe that the newscasters are not far from their own beliefs" ("Television News" 29).
Halpert's tone is similarly ambiguous, allowing viewers of opposing beliefs to think he agrees with them. The situation Halpert describes seems to call for an indignant response. Halpert's "oracular understatement" allows him to deliver that response without sacrificing his journalistic distance. The report also uses other means to divert attention from the journalist's own standpoint. The coverage leaps from direct conflict on the streets to the remoteness of helicopter footage. The narrator, able to sum up "the sprawling ghetto" with statistics and metaphors, doesn't seem to be the same Saul Halpert recently targeted by an angry mob. Watts no longer looms disturbingly close, like the twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys with rocks in their hands. The journalist reports on Watts "from the limitless reaches of space." he must be distant because we can't tell where he stands.
Paradoxically, this blurring of standpoint clearly reveals Halpert's position as a white outsider to the Watts community. "The white population is a stranger to the ghetto. Negroes are not only hemmed in it; whites are shut out of it," writes Martin Luther King, Jr. (191). Avoiding danger, the news crew leans into Watts from the other side of "the dark ghetto's invisible walls" (Clark 11). Despite this distance, the report still claims to offer complete coverage. Leaping from street confrontation to omniscient narrative, Halpert diverts attention from yet another question: how did this white reporter get this story? Both footage and voiceover use the same strategy: the only relationship we've established with Watts is confrontational and dangerous; therefore, we will pretend to have no relationship at all. Through this paradoxical strategy, both reporters and viewers can pretend to be inside the Watts riots while playing absolutely no role in the conflict. This disembodied presence parallels Richard Dyer's assertion about the invisibility of whiteness: "Whiteness also needs to be not visible. The claim to racial superiority resides in that which cannot be seen, the spirit, manifest only in its control over the body and its enterprising exercise in the world. Moreover, the ultimate position of power in a society that controls people in part through their visibility is that of invisibility, the watcher. . . . Perspective places the individual spectator as the addressee of an image and yet keeps him or her out of the image-we are the spatially privileged observer who is none the less not 'in' the picture" (Dyer 44-5).
Nonetheless, Saul Halpert probably does not think of himself as a white supremacist exerting visual control over Watts. Rather, he expresses his own desires for racial harmony. Robert Stam argues, "To explain the public's attraction to a medium, one must look not only for ideological manipulation but also for the kernel of Utopian fantasy whereby the medium constitutes itself as a projected fulfillment of what is desired and absent within the status quo" (Stam, Subversive Pleasures 224). In this case, "the kernel of Utopian fantasy" lies in the white reporter's desire to leap over the walls of segregation without ever acknowledging their existence. Racial conflict vanishes, knowledge of its history and sources rendered unnecessary. Halpert concludes with a Utopian fantasy in utter contrast to the rapidly spreading fires of rage, the battles between white police and young black men, that have formed the substance of his report. By wrapping up with this non-controversial scene of children playing, Halpert assumes that we viewers join with him in wanting peace more than we want justice: "Late this afternoon the rioting spilled out of its original perimeters into fringe areas. As we drove away from the scene, we observed four little girls, perhaps five years old, playing on a sidewalk on a street just a dozen blocks from 103rd and Compton. Three of the children were Negro; one was white. Playing peacefully together only a few blocks but a world away from small boys throwing rocks. Jerry."
Note that the white child is alone among the black children. This conclusion contains the kernel of a particular white fantasy: the desire to be inside the ghetto, yet safe. "Through the figure of the non-white person, whites can feel what being, physicality, presence, might be like, while also dissociating themselves from the non-whiteness of such things" (Dyer 80). Saul Halpert wants to drive into what he calls "the heart of Watts." Constant emphasis on the white subject's safety or lack of safety distracts attention from the reasons behind the danger.
The observations of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Watts riots bring the public's attention back to these reasons. In the first sentence of a November 1965 article for the Saturday Review, King explains why thousands of people rioted in Watts: "The flames of Watts illuminated more than the western sky; they cast light on the imperfections in the civil rights movement and the tragic shallowness of white racial policy in the explosive ghettos" (189). King brings the problem home. He implicates not only white institutions but also the regionalism of his own civil rights movement. In contrast with The Big News, King views the disturbances from the metaphoric angle of the ground. Instead of looking down at the fires from the sky, he stands among the rioters, looking up. King implicitly addresses the twin problems of the passive television viewer and the W show that broadcasts a cataclysm but fails to ask why it happened. He includes Los Angeles in "The North," apparently defining the region as "all the cities where southern blacks went in search of better opportunity." In the black Los Angeles of 1965, the southern presence was still very strong. The massive migration of workers seeking newly desegregated defense industry jobs had taken place only twenty-four years before. However, segregation in Los Angeles already had its own peculiar contours.
Civil rights leaders had long thought that the North would benefit derivatively from the southern struggle. They assumed that without massive upheavals certain changes were inevitable as the whole nation reexamined and searched its conscience. This was a mistake. It was founded on the belief that opposition in the North was not intransigent; that it was flexible and was, if not fully, at least partially hospitable to corrective influences. We forgot what we knew daily in the South-freedom is not given, it is won by struggle. (King 190)
In contrast to the Big News report, King argues that massive upheaval does not represent chaos, but rather a necessary step toward justice. The Watts revolt has its own logic and history. In the very first line of this essay, King asserts that the revolt carries meanings beyond its value as television spectacular: "The flames of Watts illuminated more than the western sky." While acknowledging imperfections in the civil rights movement, he refutes the idea that the North could benefit from southern political change merely by watching it from a distance. King argues instead that change requires direct local pressure, not distant observation.
Space Age Policing
Parker. . . occasionally left his office to watch TV coverage of the riots and fires.
Joseph Benti, The Big News
Police Chief William Parker would not have agreed with Dr. King about the need for massive social upheaval. Under his leadership, the Los Angeles Police Department had its own Space Age profile: distanced, expert, tightly controlled. Unquestionably, Chief William Parker was a racist. (Examples are legion, but see for example Parker's testimony in 1960 before the US Commission on Civil Rights, qtd. in Davis 295.) However, above all Parker was an authoritarian, vicious to anyone who questioned police authority, suspicious of anyone who was not a policeman. His favorite lecture topic was "Man Is By Nature a Predatory Animal Who Must be Restrained" (Bontemps and Conroy 270). Parker's opinion of mankind seems to dovetail with The Big News presentation of Watts itself as a "predatory animal." Like The Big News, Parker equates mastery with distance. Parker grounds his vision of police work in remote expertise, not in the familiarity of the beat cop. As Mike Davis records, the LAPD took unapproachability to paranoid extremes: "As reformed in the early 1950s by the legendary Chief Parker (who admired above all the elitism of the Marines), the LAPD was intended to be incorruptible because unapproachable, a 'few good men' doing battle with a fundamentally evil city. Dragnet's Sergeant Friday precisely captured the Parkerized LAPD's quality of prudish alienation from a citizenry composed of fools, degenerates, and psychopaths" (251).
The newscasters and the police chief all seem content to regard themselves as "The Man," the legendary white boss or cop of African American folklore, much discussed in the 1960s. Parker and The Big News reporters envision white male identity in terms of tight control and resistance to chaos. The Watts revolt found Chief Parker locked in an intimate relationship with the television news camera. To a degree that was highly characteristic of Space Age Los Angeles, both Parker and The Big News fetishize technology and place their faith in expertise. Communications equipment becomes more real than the relations between communicators.2 The broadcast directs its fetishism not at Watts but at the communications technology itself. In the revolt, the decisive players were the police officers and Watts residents battling outdoors and the state and local officials battling behind the scenes. Nonetheless, television and the police chief rely on each other for information, while the real story runs its fiery course down the street. Parker applies his idea of restraint to himself as well as others, resulting in what Mike Davis calls "prudish alienation." Parker will not sully himself or his police force by dealing directly with the amorphous masses. Senior reporter Joseph Benti remarks with seeming approval: "Parker kept repeating he had no intention of sitting down in any dialogue with a bunch of rioters. As far as he was concerned, there were no leaders in the riot area-it was just a mob." On the word "mob" Benti nods his head at the audience, distancing us from the "mob" and joining our perspective to Parker's.
It is hard to avoid the term "postmodern" to describe the closed circuit between Chief Parker and The Big News camera. Their eyes lock, to the exclusion of the outside world. At one point the camera even watches The Big News helicopter footage over Chief Parker's shoulder. Rather than encounter the situation on the streets directly, Parker spends his time in continuous press conference, a live camera crew ensconced permanently in his office. Like the audience, Parker experiences the revolt through TV. In Joseph Benti's lead story and in further bulletins, the hour-long Big News broadcast features eight separate quoted or filmed statements from Parker. Robert Conot describes how journalists reported-inadequately-on the revolt from inside Parker's office. Journalists, Parker, and the audience all share the same highly mediated view: "Chief Parker's office resembled the locker room of a team that has just won the world series. A television crew with live camera was parked there permanently. Up to 20 reporters, filling the air with smoke and babble, were in constant attendance, moving out only to file stories and meet deadlines. Every report, every rumor that came in was immediately relayed raw and without qualification" (Conot 234).
It comes as little surprise that the police chief and the TV news would find each other in the midst of the revolt. The press and the police are two of the few institutions that mediate between ghetto and suburb. During the revolt, their knowledge and control have broken down; rioters have gained the upper hand. One floundering communications center sees itself in the other. Through visual and verbal means, both attempt to maintain the aura of expertise and to define their viewers as allies.
News reporters and the police chief strike poses of control sharply at odds with their visions of chaos on the street. With their booming newsreel voices, anchorman Jerry Dunphy and The Big News reporters adopt a Man-in-Charge persona very different from the post-1960s happy-talk model of local news presentation. Each newsman is filmed at the same head-on, highly symmetrical angle, his shoulders and chest filling half the screen. As a viewer, I become Jerry Dunphy or Joseph Benti: "The TV close-up generates an equality and even intimacy" (Ellis 388). There are no dialogues or conversational exchanges between reporters. The Big News borrows its conventions from the academic panel, with reporters reading papers and Jerry Dunphy serving as respondent. Chief Parker also takes a professorial tone, defending the police with a cool, Brahmin accent and an appeal to "the facts": "This business of brutality. This has been exploited by the media, and actually there's no basis in it because the facts are all there. And this is the rationale that justifies in the minds of these people violating the law. The Negro breaks the law because the police have been unkind to him. That's the oldest canard in history and yet the media keep falling for it."
Although Parker may question the media, The Big News never questions Parker's expertise. As it dwells lovingly on communications technology, The Big News finds ways to bolster Chief Parker's command. According to Peter Dahlgren, television news often diffuses the power of political issues by "dwelling on technical detail, which evokes the need for expertise-not only to solve the problems but even just to understand them" (Dahlgren 105). The news shows footage of the Emergency Control Center, which Jerry Dunphy identifies as "an intricate communications hub." A white man in a white shirt and tie, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smoking a pipe, stands next to a bank of telephones and makes mysterious notations on charts covering the walls.
Footage of the Emergency Control Center immediately follows Chief Parker's on-camera refusal to meet with community leaders. Parker defends his own expertise in the strongest and least diplomatic terms: "I'm not going to play games with well-meaning people who lack expertise. . . . I'm not going to plead with a bunch of hoodlums to obey the law." In linking footage of the Emergency Control Center to Parker's statements, The Big News seems to declare: in the technological era, we no longer have to go into the streets to gather information from hoodlums and civilians. The information comes to us. New layers of technology enhance the powers of the traditional hero.
This belief in technology lies much closer to religion than to science. Mike Davis writes, "The fate of science in Los Angeles exemplifies the role reversal between practical reason and what Disneyites call 'imagineering'" (23). Like the Lieutenant Governor and the Mayor, The Big News fails to notice that the Emergency Control Center is tragically out of touch. Day after day, the ECC's pretensions to knowledge helped the riot to escalate. According to Robert Conot, the ECC kept telling public officials that everything was under control, while the riots spread and knowledgeable voices went unheard. By the time officials recognized the problem, it was too late to avert the violence that began on the evening of August 13. They refused to learn from anyone who actually knew; that is, from anyone close to the "chaos" of the streets.
Here are excerpts from Conot's riot chronology, starting early in the morning on August 13. Both the ECC and the public officials who relied on it seem to be operating on a different planet. As Watts resident Harry Dolan later wrote, "the white man [goes] on blithely secure in his armies" (34). This chronology demonstrates that there were many responsible Watts leaders with whom Chief Parker could have conferred.
By 1:15 a.m. rioters had traveled as far as three miles to the northeast, and looting was beginning along 103rd St., the business district of Watts. At his home in Hawthorne, five miles to the west, Glenn Anderson, the lieutenant governor of the state, could see the fires superimposed upon the dull glow of the city's lights. Since Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown was on vacation in Greece, Anderson was the acting governor, and would be responsible for calling the National Guard if the request were made.
At 1:45 a.m. Lt. Gov. Anderson was informed by John Billett, the governor's press secretary, who had checked with the ECC, that the riot was nearing control.
At 1:50 a.m. Mac Benton and several of the other plaindothes officers who had been in the area voiced the opinion at a critique at the 77th St. station that the situation was out of hand, and that the National Guard would be needed.
At 1:57 a.m. the sheriff refused to let fire trucks enter the area because protection could not be provided.
At 2 a.m. the perimeter was considered to have been officially dissolved, because people had spread out everywhere. (194-5)
From the ECC, Col. Quick telephoned Gen. Hill that, according to police reports, there would be no need for the National Guard. At 3 a.m. he left the ECC to go to his hotel. (197)
At 6:45 a.m. Lt. Gov. Anderson asked John Billett to check on conditions again, because he was scheduled to leave on a 7:25 flight for Berkeley to attend a meeting. . . . Billett called the police department and was connected with Sgt. Jack Eberhardt, in charge of the ECC. Eberhardt told him that there was still some activity-looting, snipers, and fires-but that the department was beefing up its reserves. "The riot area is contained," he said. "We do not anticipate need for the National Guard." Informed of this, the lieutenant governor left for Berkeley. (199)
[At 9:00 a.m. several events happened simultaneously.]
Col. Quick called Gen. Hill to report that activity seemed to be building up again, but that police officers at the ECC were expressing no alarm.
John Buggs [executive director, LA County Human Rights Commission] was calling the community relations service in Washington, asserting that it was evident the Los Angeles police could not handle the situation, that the National Guard, and, possibly, even the army, would be needed-that only massive force would be able to restore order now.
Fifteen leading ministers and several other persons, including Douglas Ferrell, the area's second Negro assemblyman, were meeting at the Praisers of Zion Baptist Church to determine on a course of action. A man rushed in to say that the people were getting ready to tear up Watts. All present agreed that the situation had passed beyond the point of control, and that the National Guard would be needed. A call was placed to the lieutenant governor's office to make the request that the Guard be brought in. The ministers were informed that the lieutenant governor was out of town and unavailable. (200)
The Big News seems to dwell on the same peaceful planet as the ECC. The broadcast continues to describe the LAPD and the National Guard in tones of crisp efficiency. Jerry Dunphy begins the 6 p.m. evening news by saying, "The military moved into the anarchy-ridden Watts area of South Los Angeles tonight," even though the National Guard would not arrive in Los Angeles until 9 p.m. and would not hit the streets until after 10:30 p.m. General Charles Ott, of the National Guard, made no secret to the press of his disdain for the media zoo in Parker's office, a chaos which made planning impossible. Nonetheless, when interviewing Ott, a Big News reporter dwells only on the technical details, asking merely, "Will the National Guard get into heavy equipment?" This focus on containment and order in the "anarchy-ridden Watts area" conceals another, preexisting form of containment-the segregationist containment of black people into one small, overpriced, underserviced area. Where was the order in Watts before the revolt?
An on-screen encounter between Chief Parker and state Senator Thomas Rees reveals the difference between communications technology fetishism and actual communication. The Big News crew fails to get the story even when it unfolds before their eyes. The camera records Parker ordering Rees out of his office. Reporter Joseph Benti remains silent on the reason for Parker's outburst. With further explanation, the viewer could have seen that Parker had completely botched his communication with Lt. Gov. Anderson. The technology cannot tell the truth by itself. By seeming to record everything, the news camera obscures Parker's incompetence. Furthermore, the press has usurped the role of elected officials. Note that Senator Rees could not enter Parker's office by the front door because "he lacked press credentials."
[Around 4 p.m. a member of the governor's staff informed Parker that Anderson had ordered the immediate mobilization of the National Guard.] Parker, however, misunderstood, or else thought that it was only another delaying tactic, for a few minutes later he was on television explaining that he had prepared a telegram, over Mayor Yorty's signature, to the President of the US requesting that federal troops be brought into Los Angeles, since state officials were refusing to call out the National Guard. Senator Thomas Rees, the city's lone representative in the state senate, having made his way into the office through the back door-the guards at the front door had refused to let him in since he lacked press credentials-became upset at this statement and tried to usurp Parker's place in front of the camera to explain that Anderson was calling out the Guard, and to suggest to Parker that he go out and fight the rioters instead of holding press conferences. It was an intervention to which the Chief demurred, exclaiming, "I didn't know state senators had anything to do with calling out the Guard!" Thereupon he suggested to Rees that, since it was not the senator's office and since he had not been invited in, he should leave without further ado. (Conot 238)
Meanwhile, out on the street, the most direct and essential communications systems had broken down entirely. The LAPD lacked p.a. systems, radio transmitters, or even bullhorns to communicate with crowds, firemen, and each other. When the National Guard finally arrived, many of them "received most of their reports of what was occurring by listening on transistor radios to XTRA, an all-news station, located in Tijuana, Mexico" (Conot 235). The Guard lacked the basic means to demarcate the riot area and to warn motorists against entering. This absurdity would be funny if it had not killed people. Thirty-four people died in the revolt, most of them shot by police or Guardsmen. "Lacking any kind of equipment, such as street barriers, to set up their roadblocks, the troops found it necessary to improvise. At Wilmington and iosrd Sts., a crudely lettered sign said: TURN LEFT OR GET SHOT" (Conot 276).
Since 1965, the LAPD has depended more and more heavily on its own aerial angles of control over South Los Angeles. Police no longer have to rely on the helicopters and communications systems of television, as they did during the Watts revolt. Mike Davis describes "the LAPD's pathbreaking substitutions of technological capital for patrol manpower" (251). The department often chooses high-tech surveillance over community policing. The Emergency Control Center has sharpened its technology and lengthened its acronym through the addition of the Emergency Command Control Communications System, designed between 1969 and 1971 by NASA and Hughes Aerospace. The full name of the ECCCS almost seems a self-parody of The Man's tight control. "The LAPD's space program" includes near-continuous helicopter surveillance of the inner city. "Under Parker, ever alert to spinoffs from military technology, the LAPD introduced the first police helicopters for systematic aerial surveillance. After the Watts Rebellion of 1965 this airborne effort became the cornerstone of a policing strategy for the entire inner city. As part of its 'Astro' program, LAPD helicopters maintain an average nineteen-hour-per-day vigil over 'high crime areas'" (Davis 252). The distanced view encountered in the opening segment of The Big News has become a literal force in South Los Angeles. Watts residents spend their lives under the helicopter's roar and searchlights. The fires continue to burn.
Prophecies of Destruction by Fire
Despite racially charged differences of view, one image of the Watts revolt crossed racial borders. Speakers and writers of many races used the same rhetorical figure, the prophecy of destruction by fire. This prophecy emerges from the social climate of the 1960s as well as the climate-folklore of Southern California. The year 1965 sat on the arc of social change, with global revolution behind and more upheavals to come. Many Americans smelled something burning. Their strong sense of apocalypse separates reactions to the 1965 uprising from public reactions to the 1992 uprising. James Baldwin published his deeply prophetic essay The Fire Next Time in 1962, well before the nationwide revolts of the mid-1960s. Baldwin asked: "Do I really woof to be integrated into a burning house?" (Baldwin 108). The prophecy of destruction by fire also continues what Kerwin Klein has called "a genealogy of California authors from Mark Twain to Mike Davis who have imagined California as Armageddon" (Klein). Los Angeles is a desert pretending to be an oasis. Regular brush fires remind residents that scorching heat may reclaim the city at any moment. "Although Southern Californians do not understand the semi-arid environment in which they live, they are haunted by a vague and nameless fear of future disaster" (McWilliams 199).
There are two ways of handling the prophecy of fire in relation to the Watts revolt. One method emphasizes human action; the other sees fire as fated and inevitable, like a natural disaster. Saul Halpert's voiceover for the Big News falls into the second category. In Halpert's description "the barrage of rocks" and "the fires of frustration and hate" seem like weather conditions, removed from human agency. Similarly, in her famous essay on the Santa Ana wind, the white novelist, essayist, and screenwriter Joan Didion reminds readers that "Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse." She sees the Watts Revolt through the lens of natural catastrophe. "The city burning is Los Angeles's deepest image of itself: Nathanael West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end" (220-221). Like Halpert, Didion gives agency and imagination not to Watts residents but to the city itself and to the detached observers who watch from above.
By contrast, African American writers focus on the causes of the riot and use fire prophecy as a cautionary tale. The fires are not fated or inevitable; people can avoid destruction if they act in time. A particular generation of black writers engaged in fire prophecy: those young enough to identify with the civil rights movement but old enough to keep believing that a white audience could and would listen. In 1968 an anthology of works by emerging Watts writers appeared, entitled From the Ashes and edited by Budd Schulberg. Many of the authors featured in the anthology engage in fire prophecy. In "Will There be Another Riot in Watts?" civil rights worker and World War II veteran Harry Dolan metaphorically turns the blithe immunity of whites into the gunpowder of the next revolution. Dolan invokes not the early Biblical days of God's covenant with Noah-the origins of the phrase "the fire next time"-but the furious days of the Last Judgment. The fire will result from immorality, not from a sense of climate as destiny. The white people of Los Angeles bring on the fires through a chain of actions. Indifference, not climate, is the substance that makes fire inevitable.
So at this moment it goes on, the white man going on blithely secure in his armies, committing the same, the very same acts, and as he does, these acts are not forgotten or forgiven but are used as powder to load the human guns, and fill the flaming souls until the people are saturated with death and welcome it.
And then-and then, God help us, for a man blind with injustice does not value worldly goods, for themselves alone, and so he will destroy and destroy until the ache in his soul has burned out. . . . No, there will be no riot in Watts; possibly, just possibly, Armageddon. (Dolan 34-5)
It is human beings who act and souls that flame. Even the guns are human. From another perspective, as an advocate of nonviolence, Martin Luther King, Jr., also concludes his essay on Watts by declaring: "The urban slums need not be destroyed by flames; earnest people of good will can decree their end nonviolently-as atrocious relics of a persisting unjust past" (King 194). King defends the right to prophesy, rejecting the idea that prophecy itself leads to violence. Rather, he insists that people can prevent violence by using their abilities to spot and explain fire: "Those who argue that it is hazardous to give warnings, lest the expression of apprehension lead to violence, are in error. Violence has already been practiced too often, and always because remedies were postponed. It is now the task of responsible people to indicate where and why spontaneous combustion is accumulating" (193).
Unlike The Big News, King asks the big question: "Why?" He goes on to explain the context and history of the revolt. His prophecy of destruction by fire has a past and future. It accompanies a sense that remedies have been postponed and realities have been suppressed. The combustion seems spontaneous and inevitable only because the source of the fire has been concealed and ignored for too long. King discusses the ways in which Los Angeles knew the revolt was coming yet hid the prospect from itself. King uses the phrase "could have expected" to signal the wishful separation of cause and effect. The city could have expected a riot but didn't, even though the causes accumulated in plain view. King gives the history that remains invisible if you only look at the pictures from August 11-18, 1965.
Los Angeles could have expected the holocaust when its officials tied up federal aid in political manipulation; when the rate of Negro unemployment soared above the depression levels of the Thirties; when the population density of Watts became the worst in the nation. Yet even these tormenting physical conditions are less than the full story. California in 1964 repealed its law forbidding racial discrimination in housing. It was the first major state in the country to take away gains Negroes had won at a time when progress was visible and substantial elsewhere, and especially in the South. California by this callous act voted for ghettos. The atrociousness of some deeds may be concealed by legal ritual, but their destructiveness is felt with bitter force by its victims. Victor Hugo understood this when he said, "If a soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness." (192)
For King the revolt does not represent random chaos. Rather, the revolt has historical weight and consequences. King uses words such as "torment" and "holocaust," with all their historical connotations of persecution.
Before the uprising, the younger generation also engaged in quite tangible prophecies of fire. "The revolt represented not so much a departure but a continuation of trends that had been in place for some time. South Los Angeles contained 12 percent of the city's population but reported 37 percent of all fires set by juveniles and 33 percent of the false alarms" (Horne 307). During the uprising, the rhetoric among younger people began to change. The prophecy of a fire to come presumes that responsible listeners might hear and heed the call before it's too late. Young militants didn't give their audiences that much credit. The time frame changes. "The fire next time" turns into "the fire this time." When two men with armbands and walkie-talkies burst into Lelia Hodge's store and warned her to put a "Negro-owned" sign in her store window, they talked about fire not as an avoidable option but as a definite intention: "As long as the Ku Klux Klan is riding and burning, we, the Black Brothers, are going to also ride and burn." The Black Brothers also give a reason why. They portray the revolt as a direct and parallel response to continuing white racism. A young man named Woody Coleman called Dr. King a "misguided or misinformed individual." While speaking of the near future, he conveys the intention to grab "a slice of that cake" now, not later: "The historian Clay Carson, then toiling as a reporter, interviewed Woody Coleman of the Non-Violent Action Committee shortly before the revolt, who uttered words at odds with the philosophy of his organization. 'I'm looking for a bloodbath this summer. We're going to get tired of being peaceful and non-violent without getting anything. We're still getting crumbs; we're going to get a big slice of that cake'" (Home 100-01).
Delayed gratification also appears in an unusually candid and uncontrolled moment of The Big News. The Watts coverage returns to footage from the previous night, with a rare openness to the sights and sounds of the street. For a minute or two, black and white men seem to share a common viewpoint, if not a common purpose. In this moment of the broadcast, the action becomes immanent to the reporter as well as the participants. Sound draws viewers into the street scene rather than creating distance. On the night of August 12, 1965, KNXT cameras recorded the moment when people overturned a car and set it on fire, as bystanders cheered. This segment is the only place in the August 13 Big News broadcast where the viewer hears the voices of people on the streets of Watts. In counterpoint with another man, a southern-inflected voice shouts:
-Let it go, man!
-Go 'head on!
A reporter adds his own excitement to the soundtrack as he follows the overturning and lighting of the car: "Jeez, they really turned that thing over. Now they're gonna burn it. It's all the way-there it goes!"
One hears satisfaction in the voice of the white reporter as well as the voices of Watts residents. The residents urge on the action, while the reporter merely watches and comments. Nonetheless, as the horn blasts and the car begins to burn, observers from all viewpoints seem to experience a release from tension. The long-expected has arrived. This moment reveals that spectatorship is not necessarily opposed to active witness; it is a moment of truth as well as a voyeuristic spectacle. Certainly, the burning of a car is a narrow and impoverished symbol for the racial puzzle of Los Angeles. This scene is voyeuristic not only in its sensationalism but also in its morality; it allows us to watch a car get punished for the sins of its owners. The televised spectacle provides only temporary relief from chronic pain. However, the mingling of excited voices also resonates with an underlying cross-racial politics. Despite the city's segregated imagination, everyone knows at some level that structural racism exists. The release from tension derives its power not only from watching a destructive act, but also from witnessing a suppressed truth emerge at last.
1. In his report, Halpert estimates that over seven thousand people were involved in the riots from August 12-13. Using figures from the McCone Commission report on the Los Angeles revolt, Robert Fogelson estimates that as many as seventy-five thousand people took part over three days ("White on Black" 120-121).
2. I am paraphrasing Marx's definition of commodity fetishism: "the relationships between the producers. . .take on the form of a social relation between the products of labor" (164).
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ELIZABETH A. WHEELER is an associate professor of English at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Uncontained: Urban Fiction in Postwar America (Rutgers UP), selected by Choice as an Outstanding Academic Book of 2001. Her articles have appeared in Postmodern Culture, Southern California Quarterly, and Black Music Research Journal.…