Shortly after the Watts riots in 1965, I visited the Los Angeles headquarters of H. Rap Brown. While a friend conducted his business with the young, radical speaker and community organizer, I waited outside, chatting with some of the men from the neighborhood as they passed the time, waiting for something to happen. The subject was the riots.
The afternoon was strange, cloudy, at the end of summer; the light was the color of ashes. There was some rueful laughter, but the mood was mainly one of regret. So much had been destroyed, burned, smashed, looted, and so little had been won. "Why?" I asked the men who stood outside the headquarters with me, waiting, knowing that it could begin again.
No one could answer my question, no one knew why he had rioted, no one spoke of pent-up anger or a divided America; neither hunger nor hatred merited their attention. Watts had burned, and they had to live in the remains.
"Why didn't you burn down Beverly Hills?" I asked.
One of the men put his face up close to mine, showing me his teeth, in anger or a grin. "You know how far it is from Watts to Beverly Hills?" he asked. And added, "We ain't got no fucking cars, you know."
He stepped away, hands on hips, head cocked to one side, making a burlesque of examining me. "To get to Beverly Hills on the bus takes three transfers, 1 hour and 25 minutes, if you make connections. Man, how you gon' keep your rage up through three transfers?"
The character of the Watts riots went against everything we know about society and culture. All the evidence suggests that their purpose is the preservation of the group. A culture of self-destruction is a contradiction in terms, an absurdity. But not in Watts or Chicago or Detroit or in the daily life of the long-term poor in America. What accounts for the behavior of the poor? Why do they act in such seemingly incomprehensible ways?
Five years ago, I began to work on a book to explore these questions. By listening to the poor, I learned that they live inside a surround of force--and not one force, but many. Their intolerable situation recalls the method by which Native Americans killed buffalo or enemies: putting them into a surround, sending them into panic and then destroying them. The military term is a pincer movement.
The one inside the surround has no time to reflect on the situation, to think, to plan. Panicked, he or she reacts. That is the way the poor live, surrounded by crime, drugs, greedy landlords, the slap of graffiti, the filth in the streets, the cruelty of the welfare system, the attacks of the police and on and on. Inside the surround, political life--not in the sense of voting in elections, but in the way Pericles used the word to mean activity with other people--cannot exist, not at any level: family, neighborhood, community, city, state. Political life begins in reflection, in finding the middle ground between extreme order and the chaos of absolute freedom. It requires time.
For the poor, however, living inside the surround permits only reaction--force to meet force. And it does not work for them. A person who meets overwhelming force may either succumb and be defeated or resist and be destroyed.
The essential difference between the long-term poor and the rest of America is the inability of the poor to have what I have described as a political life.
Since the word "political" has been used to mean so many things, let me take a moment to recall its origins and its implications for the poor in America. The concept goes back to ancient Greece, where both democracy and the idea of personal freedom were invented. It is called political life from the word polis , meaning the city state, as in Athens. It must also be noted here that the ancient Greeks held slaves, refused to grant citizenship to women and so on. …