Los Angeles Rebellions: Turning Points of Revolution
The Watts Rebellion in 1965 and the Los Angeles Rebellion of 1992 mark major advances in the revolutionary process, with repercussions throughout the United States. Each occurred as one stage of history was ending and a new stage beginning. The uprising and national outcry over the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri signal a new awareness of action against intolerable conditions and an awakening of hope for change as attention worldwide is focused on the escalation of State brutality.
Ice T said in The Ice Opinion, “Rage ignites the fire, but once the flames get going, poverty takes over. The bottom line was people were broke.”
In 1965 and 1992 rage against the oppression and brutality of the police and justice system ignited the fire. The desire for freedom from the misery of poverty brought people into the streets, keeping the rebellion alive for days. While the goals of the people in 1965 and 1992 were much the same, the underlying causes and solutions were different.
In a span of 30 years, fundamental changes had taken place in the economy. The Watts Rebellion took place in the era of industrial capitalism, when Los Angeles was a major manufacturing center, with a half million workers in aerospace, shipyards, canneries, auto, steel, and tire plants. By 1992, almost all of these plants had closed, as robots and computerized production replaced human labor, transforming the economy. These displaced workers became the nucleus of a new class outside of the productive relations of capitalism, which now numbers an estimated 2 million people in the Los Angeles area. This class includes former industrial workers and others, especially the youth, who will never find jobs that provide a living wage.
Watts Rebellion 1965
WW II stimulated an explosion of industrialization in the Los Angeles area – aerospace, steel, auto, tires and shipbuilding – attracting millions of white, Mexican and Black workers. During the 1940’s, LA’s Black population exploded from 75,000 to 218,000. Moving to the “promised land” from the historical and cultural apartheid and struggles of the South, their hopes were shattered as they faced extensive unemployment and poverty. With preferential hiring for white workers, many were unable to find work and those that did were the first fired when the war ended and plants cut back production. In 1967, Robert Conot wrote in his classic work on the Watts Rebellion, Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness, that nonwhite minorities are “wallowing in unemployment as great as or greater than that of the depression.”
With the Watts Rebellion the unemployed urban industrial working class of Los Angeles moved into the leadership of the freedom struggle that began in the South. They fought for an end to police brutality and injustice, and equal access to jobs and public education.
An estimated 35,000 people were active participants during the rebellion and about 72,000 were “close spectators.” Property damage in the 46.5 square mile zone was about $200 million. At least 34 people died, one thousand more were injured and 4000 arrested.
The ruling class understood and feared that Watts was the opening shot of a battle that would continue until one side or the other was decisively defeated. They moved decisively to crush future uprisings, by winning over and co-opting better off Blacks, and by the militarizing of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
Militarization of Police
In 1967, the LAPD reorganized to model itself on the military, particularly the Marine Special Forces, and envisioned an elite group of police officers to respond to “dangerous domestic disturbances.” In 1969, the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team carried out its first raid against a home of a member of the Black Panthers.
Four years later President Nixon introduced the war on drugs, with new, tough law-enforcement measures, including the no-knock raid. Under President Reagan (1981 to 1989), SWAT teams and the war on drugs converged. By the end of the 1980s, joint task forces brought together police officers and soldiers in what rapidly became a national war on the working class.
The militarization of the LAPD became the model for law enforcement throughout the country. The Pentagon has been supplying local law enforcement, including the LAPD, the Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles School Police Department with military weaponry for years. In 2010, the Washington Times report an estimated 50,000 SWAT raids in the U.S. per year.
In 1973, Tom Bradley, with the support of wealthy Westside and Valley political and economic power brokers, became one of the first Black mayors of a major city. The Bradley Coalition carried out a political strategy to isolate and control the volatile Los Angeles working class. During his 20 years as mayor, Los Angeles was transformed, with a section of the Black and Mexican American workers being integrated into the “middle class.”
Opportunities opened up for Blacks and Mexican Americans to enter public employment in city government, the Los Angeles Unified School District, universities and medical institutions. With professional status and higher incomes, these better off Blacks and Mexican Americans moved away from the ghettos and barrios that had been cohesive communities, with services, shops and cultural activities serving the whole community.
This out-migration of “middle class” persons of all colors continues. It is leaving the center core of Los Angeles and its white suburban enclaves in extreme poverty, deprived of basic services, dismal public education, without parks and recreation, poor health services, and virtually no supermarkets, policed by an occupying army of militarized police and sheriffs. These are the communities of the dispossessed.
The older men in these communities, the fathers, grandfathers and some women, the former steelworkers, autoworkers, tire, aerospace and shipyards workers, were discarded and dispossessed, as all major industrial production plants in Los Angeles from the 1970’s to the 1990’s were shut down.
An Uprising Waiting to Happen: 1992
For almost thirty years following 1965 all social motion, all struggles for justice and equality, all attempts to organize for better wages and working conditions were conditioned and contained by the powerful influence of organizations promoting racial and national division, by the growth of “middle class” Blacks and Latinos and their separation from the growing new class of permanently unemployed and underemployed workers, and by the false promises of influential Black and Mexican American politicians and community leaders.
But underneath this political maneuvering by corporate leaders, an economic revolution was transforming Los Angeles. By the 1970’s the electronic revolution began wiping out the unskilled and semi-skilled sector of industrial labor, where Black workers were concentrated. In subsequent decades, the electronic revolution was an unstoppable engine of change, displacing thousands more workers of all colors from industrial production, eliminating jobs in section after section of the economy, and fueling the growth of the new class. By 1992 this new class was an uprising looking for a place to happen. That place was South Central LA.
The LA Rebellion was the opening round of revolution by this new class. Blacks, Mexicans, and Central American immigrants all made their home in the impoverished neighborhoods of South Central, where the rebellion started. While demonstrators marched downtown protesting the not-guilty verdict for the police who beat Rodney King, the people of South Central, men and women, young and old of all nationalities took to the streets in spontaneous outpouring. Like the release of steam from a pressure cooker, people felt free, free from the oppression of the police as an occupying force. As Ice T writes in The Ice Opinion, “It was as if the people had taken the city back. For those few days it belonged to us and it was peaceful.”
Of the 16, 291 arrested, the largest percentage, 36.9% were Latinos; 29.9% were Black and 33.2% were white and others. Latinos, whites, and Blacks, all participating, revealed the essential class nature of the rebellion, creating the possibility of ideological unity along class lines.
From Outrage, to Uprising, to Rebellion, to Revolution
The new class faces greater economic hardship and social and political isolation now than in 1992. According to the Los Angeles 2020 Commission, “28% of working Angelenos earn poverty pay. If you add those out of work, almost 40% of our community lives in what only can be called misery.”
With the goals of 1965 and 1992 still unfulfilled, the people of the LA area are moving on multiple fronts, from Skid Row to Pomona, from hotel workers to teachers. The Occupy motion ignited the nation around the 99% versus the 1%. Half a million people marched on behalf of Mexican American equality and immigration reform on May Day 2006. Teachers are fighting school closings, privatization, and forming organizations spanning the hemisphere.
The battle that began with Watts continues. The forces of the State, protecting private property, continue to wage war on the communities of the dispossessed. Local law enforcement threatens, brutalizes and kills people from the communities that the ruling class identifies as most dangerous to their continued dominance and control. Ezell Ford, an unarmed young man, was the 390th person killed by LA County law enforcement since 2000. Almost one per week, 28% are Black, 51% Latino, and many are white.
Summing up the experience of the Watts Rebellion, Nelson Peery in his autobiography, Black Radical concludes, “…nothing can be done without organization.” Following the Watts Rebellion, revolutionaries with a vision and armed with a strategic outlook and an understanding of organization began the decades long process of building the organization that is needed for our time. The League of Revolutionaries for a New America is the organization our class needs. It is the organization for our time. It is the organization that can bring vision and class consciousness to the new class.
We call on all revolutionaries to join the League as it grows into the organization that can ensure the revolution will achieve the communist reorganization of society necessary to fulfill the goals fought for in 1965, 1992 and today.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011