The Legacy of the Watts Riots
Abraham H. Miller:
Riots often occur because of the immediate gratification of the violence and the carnival atmosphere of the moment. But while one can say that about soccer riots, spring break in Florida, celebrations of athletic victories or any of a number of similar events, one cannot say that about the riots in black urban neighborhoods without being called a “racist.” Little wonder, then, that the commissions of the sixties refused even to consider that the riots were political only in the sense that they served the needs of the poverty industry—the scores of liberal academicians, legislators and so-called civil rights leaders bent on remedying America’s social ills with expansive and expensive government programs.
Every decennial anniversary of the Watts riots or the commission reports brings the poverty and civil rights industries before the cameras. Their spokesmen repeat the same worn clichés and advocate the same failed policies of pumping billions into the abyss of the inner city. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the Kerner Commission Report, Vera Kimble, of the Eisenhower Foundation, advocated spending no less than thirty billion on the inner city to deal with the root causes of the riots.
Kimble might be shocked to know that today, after millions of dollars spent on research, we have come no closer to identifying the root causes of riots. What we do know is that the theories under which the commissions of the 60s operated had little basis in fact. As early as 1971, sociologist Clark McPhail found that the cherished theories about the frustration, aggression, and relative deprivation of many urban blacks—the cornerstones of the commissions’ thinking—could not be sustained by meaningful statistical evidence.
Standing nearly a quarter of a century later from his perch as President of the American Sociological Association, McPhail again called for moving beyond the models that had influenced the commissions toward a study of the riots themselves. Specifically, he suggested partitioning the riots into different behaviors by different actors on different days.
One who took up that suggestion was the journalist Eugene Methvin. Methvin was, perhaps, the first to undertake such a systematic analysis, and he documented how to prevent riots. But it was hardly what the liberal establishment wanted to hear. Methvin found that the greatest deterrent to a riot was not an understanding of root causes or implementation of social programs but a fast and decisive police response. In a comparative study of the Watts riots and the Rodney King riots, I later found that Methvin was uncannily correct.
The Watts riots were quenched when then Inspector Daryl Gates decided that the tactics of riot control where not applicable to the mobile hit-and-run rioting the Los Angeles police encountered in Watts. Gates teamed police cars filled with heavily armed officers to intercept the rioters, and then proceeded to process and detain rioters at the scene. This way, officers would not be going back and forth from the riot scene to book the rioters. Once these alternations in police response were implemented, the Watts riot began to subside.
Unfortunately, the police failed to heed that lesson. During the 1992 King riots, the Los Angeles police, for reasons that one can only speculate about, did none of the things they had learned from Watts. Gates, then chief of police, lingered at a dinner and then took a helicopter ride over the city as it burned, while the police response remained without a central command structure or decision making authority.
To be sure, some observers have opined that in the racially tense atmosphere of Los Angeles in 1992, the police did not want cameras instantly televising live coverage of scores of young black males in handcuffs, surrounded by heavily armed police. But it remains the case that by adopting a less assertive approach, the LAPD allowed the riots to escalate to ever greater heights of destruction. When the police backed off, as had police in other cities in the 1960’s, riots grew in intensity, numbers and duration. The flames burned out of control.
If there is one thing we’ve learned about controlling riots it is this: a fast, decisive police response works. Indeed, even the vaunted Kerner Commission said as much; it was just one of those parts of the report that no one was enthusiastic about underscoring. It was much easier and seemingly much more compassionate to point the finger at white racism and the need for social programs.
As we once again face another decennial anniversary of the Watts riot, be prepared to hear the shrill voice of the poverty industry citing Kerner and demanding the infusion of money into the ghettos. As you listen, keep in mind that despite the dire predictions of the Kerner Commission and liberal academics about the future of race relations, since the 1960’s African Americans have achieved more integration, more social mobility, and more political power in a shorter amount of time than any minority group anywhere on the planet. This is a tribute not to the riots and certainly not to ineffectual social programs. It is a tribute to the historic civil rights movement and America’s democratic institutions.
Burned, Baby, Burned
A truth buried in the ruins of Watts
The Negative Impact of the Watts Riots