Academic journal article Afterimage

'An Outpost of Strength': The Los Angeles Times Performs Law and Order versus Chaos during the Watts Rebellion of 1965

Academic journal article Afterimage

'An Outpost of Strength': The Los Angeles Times Performs Law and Order versus Chaos during the Watts Rebellion of 1965

Article excerpt

ON August 12, 1965 the Los Angeles Times ran a brief news item about a riot sparked by the arrest of Marquette Frye, an African American man stopped for speeding. (1) Pulled over by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in his neighborhood of Watts, Frye good-naturedly submitted to a sobriety test, but turned sour after his mother and brother arrived on the scene to witness his humiliation. Under the watchful gaze of a growing crowd, the Frye family became enmeshed in an altercation with the attendant white patrolmen, who promptly arrested them all. Calling for backup, the police then arrested several more onlookers who had entered into the fray. As the night drew on, the violence spread.

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Despite the involvement of 1000 people in Wednesday's rioting, the story didn't make the front page. It instead appeared on page three, alongside an item about the dangers lightning posed to drought-stricken Southern California. The accompanying photograph, a dramatic nighttime scene of lightning bolts racing toward a house, power lines and trees, ominously prefigured the forthcoming violence in Watts that was so blithely downplayed by the Times. As Times' patriarch Otis Chandler later put it: the Los Angeles Times was staunchly "a WASP paper." (2) An unidentified staff member, basking in the racism his anonymity allowed him, bluntly revealed the paper's attitude toward black Angelenos during the 1960s. Apparently strife in Watts was routinely dismissed at the Times as the makings of "a bunch of black jigaboos." (3) Whether expressed with a veneer of politesse or vulgarly proclaimed, the racist sentiments of the Times would affect their coverage of what was then the worst riot in American history.

The five days of rioting dubbed the "Watts Rebellion" resulted in the death of 34 people, over 1000 injuries and almost 4000 arrests. Extensive arson and rampant looting came with a price tag of 40 million dollars. (4) The dazzling display of heat lightning given prominence on August 12 soon yielded to photo-coverage of the arson that swept through Los Angeles' poverty-stricken terrain. The fear provoked by drought had nothing on the fear provoked by the specter of young black men chanting, "Burn, baby burn!" Photographs taken from street-level documented firefighters struggling against out-of-control fires, while aerial photographs further testified to the fragility of Los Angeles' social order: blobs of black smoke marred the grid of the urban landscape. The editors of the Times had long fed the Chandler empire's self-satisfied view of Los Angeles as the ultimate dream town for white, affluent Protestants. The Watts Rebellion would, in retrospect, mark a turning point for the Times: the paper became increasingly liberal during the 1970s. Its riot coverage, however, could be characterized as the mutterings of someone having a nightmare yet somehow determined to control the terrible surreality of the dreamscape.

With the springtime influx of 200,000 U.S. troops into Vietnam and the dispatch of Marines to quell an uprising in the Dominican Republic, the United States' military interventions had become daily fare for the national papers. By August Los Angeles Times' readers had grown accustomed to representations of militaristic violence against racial others, albeit safely displaced onto foreign soil. War photography in the Times, such as August 12's front page image of a machine gun aimed toward snipers hidden in the Vietnamese landscape (taken from a military helicopter), now gave way to images of armed National Guardsmen and police officers patrolling the streets of Watts (Fig. 3). In place of patriotic depictions of wounded American soldiers, the Friday, August 13 edition of the Times offered a front page diptych of a white policeman being treated for injuries "suffered when his patrol car was stoned by the mob." The accompanying article told of "bands of Negro youths and adults" who "roamed the turbulent neighborhoods. …

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